It was 22 years ago when the Red Wings ended their 42 year Stanley Cup drought. Sweeping the Philadelphia Flyers it looked to be the beginning of a Red Wings Dynasty. A week later one of their best defensemen, Vladimir Konstantinov's career ended abruptly due to a terrible limousine accident.
Like all Red Wings fans, I was in shock. I couldn't believe this happened. The selfish Red Wings fan part of me wondered, who's going to replace #16 on defense? "Vladdy" was 30 years old and just entering his prime. His best years may have still been ahead of him. At the time, Vladdy was the Red Wings #1 defenseman.
Nick Lidstrom would go on to be, well, the legendary Nick Lidstrom. One of the best defenseman of all time. But it was Konstantinov who drove that 1997 Red Wings Cup Winning team. Now he was gone. The Red Wings dedicated the next season to their fallen comrade. He was missed both on the ice and in the dressing room.
Drafted 221st overall in 1989 when it was hard to get players out of Russia, Vladdy was a leader. Skilled. Tough as nails. I recall hearing the story of Vladdy telling his injured Russian teammate Sergei Fedorov to "get his a$$ back out there. You're giving Russians a bad name" during the intermission of a game versus Colorado in the Western Conference Final the series before.
Vladdy was a part of that infamous Brawl at the 1987 World Junior Championship versus Canada when both teams were kicked out of the tournament. He was basically smuggled into Detroit by Mike Ilitch. The Red Wings knew he was good but had no idea he was even better than they thought. There wasn't anything Vladdy couldn't do on the ice.
He did everything well. He could skate, pass, shoot and even had great hands. He could dish out devastating, bone crunching hits. Play shutdown defense. Play a key cog in the Russian 5. He couldn't be intimidated. Vladdy was one of my favourite Red Wings. With Vladdy and Lidstrom anchoring the Red Wings blue line, I wondered how many Cups could the Red Wings win? It was not to be of course.
The Red Wings did go on to win 3 more Cups but I still believe they would've won more with #16 in the lineup. Red Wings fans like me who were there in the 90s remember how great of a player Vladdy really was. But most other fans don't remember him. It's a shame. It's not anyone's fault. That's just the way it is in sports.
I truly believe Vladimir Konstantinov would've been a sure fire Hall of famer had he been able to play his full career. He really was that good. 22 years later and I still miss watching #16 playing for the Red Wings. It saddens me when I think of what happened to him. His career taken away from him through no fault of his own. I still tear up when I watch my old VHS tape of the Red Wings winning the Stanley Cup the next year against the Capitals.
Stevie Y handing the Cup first to Vladdy sitting in his wheel chair as the "I believe I can fly" song played in the background. It was truly a special moment in Red Wings history. It was also one of my favourite moments as a Red Wings fan. It's happy and sad.
If you watch a Red Wings home game now, you'll see an older Vladdy Konstantinov sitting up in the owners box. I'd like for you to remember that this man was once a great hockey player who gave his heart and soul to the Detroit Red Wings. He'll always be loved by Red Wings fans for the tremendous player he was and for the great person he is. I miss you Vladdy. #16 for the Red Wings.