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Remembering the Vladinator

Special thanks to Joe Pelletier's prompting, which arrived in my inbox as follows:

"We are heading into Hall of Fame weekend, a weekend where we honour
past greats. Greatest Hockey is challenging hockey
bloggers everywhere to honour your own past great.

What I want to do is get as many hockey bloggers as possible to post
an article, a memory, interactive content of some sort, something or
anything that honours a favorite retired hockey player."

Thus challenged, I'd like to take this opportunity to reflect on one of my favorite retired players, one who was forced into retirement just as his career was reaching a peak; Vladimir Konstantinov.
Believe Patch for Vladimir Konstantinov and Sergei Mnatsakanov

For most hockey fans, their impression of Konstantinov was shaped by the tragic accident that left him and team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov disabled. During the Detroit Red Wings' championship run in 1997, Konstantinov gained the notoriety that comes with being a prominent member of a Cup-winning team, but the widely anticipated matchup against Philadelphia's "Legion of Doom" (Eric Lindros, John LeClair, and Mikael Renberg) didn't come to pass, as Scotty Bowman instead chose to lull the Legion of Doom to sleep by putting out the blueline combo of Nick Lidstrom and Larry Murphy against them, playing a puck possession game that avoided intense physical confrontation.

What the broader hockey fanbase missed, as a result, was to see how Konstantinov battled night after night against elite opposition to scratch and claw for any victory he could. He was the consummate pest, with the uncanny knack to drive opponents to distraction, yet remain focused himself on what it takes to win a hockey game.

That attitude first became apparent to NHL eyes during the infamous brawl at the 1987 World Junior Championships between the Canadian and Soviet teams. As then-Red Wing scout Neil Smith noted, Konstantinov was "the only one of the Russians who fought back."

My favorite example came in a home-and-home series during the mid-1990's against the Toronto Maple Leafs, when Konstantinov and Leafs captain Wendel Clark went after each other constantly. At one point, just outside the Detroit zone, Clark lost his composure and started popping Vladdy upside the head, and was about to drop the gloves and throw some punches. Instead, the puck came bouncing out towards center ice and Konstantinov spotted it - he immediately disengaged from Clark, broke into the Toronto end using that unique, loping skating stride of his, and scored on a nice backhanded shot.

Besides being a textbook example of the elusive "grit" that NHL general managers crave for their lineup, Konstantinov boasted a high level of skill as well, having developed originally in the Soviet system as a center. As part of the dominating Russian Five, he scored 14 goals and led the NHL in the 1995-6 season with a +60 rating, which remains the best performance in that regard since Wayne Gretzky in 1986-7.

That championship season in 1997 was only Vlad's sixth in the NHL, and he was clearly entering his prime as a world-class defender and intimidator. His open-ice hits brought fans to their feet, and his selfless attitude made him a favorite among his teammates. Because of that tragic accident, we'll never know how far his career might have gone; he was only 30 years old at the time, and clearly had many years of NHL hockey left in him.

So while we celebrate the outstanding careers of this year's Hockey Hall of Fame inductees, we should also reflect on what might have been for the Vladinator.

And having been challenged by Joe, I'd like to call out a few other bloggers as well. PB, Earl, and Christie, you're it!