IT’S A DIRTY JOB, BUT VLADDIE’S GOT TO DO IT

There is a word for what he does, we just don’t know what the word is. Instigator? Annoyance-maker? Stick-poker?

He is technically a defenseman, but he pretty much goes where he has to go, following the other team’s best player and trying to give him fits.

Irritator? Aggravator? Head-gamer?

He has never led the league in scoring, nor in assists, nor in saves, but he is considered at the top of his craft — whatever that craft is.

Provoker? Nerve-jangler? Button-pusher?

He looks mean and he looks old, but he is neither mean nor old. He is a man with a job to do, and as the son of a fisherman from the Russian town of Murmansk, he has the work ethic for getting the job done.

“He’s not a fighter,” says Joe Kocur. “I can say that much. The last thing you would want him to do is get into a fight — and the last thing the other guy wants to do is get into a fight with him.

“His job, I guess, is to get under other people’s skin. To check them, hit them, get them off their game.

“He’s intense. He’s non-stop. If everyone was brought up with his mentality? The world would be at war all the time.”

This is a compliment?

Well. Welcome to the bumpy world of Vladimir Konstantinov — better known as “Vladdie” to fans, or “Vlad the Impaler” to enemies.

He is not a hockey goon — not in the traditional sense. He is not out there to beat people up. He draws not blood, but ire.

There is a word for this. Somewhere . . .

Exasperator? Exacerbator? Elbow-in-the-facer?

A rough-and-tumble sort

“What is your job?” I ask Konstantinov.

He smiles, which on his face means the cheeks move a quarter of an inch. Konstantinov, 30, is handsome enough, but in a rough way, with sharply defined bone angles and skin lines, a strong jaw, straight blondish hair. He looks like the guy who shows up in a pea coat and a black cap and works the docks on the graveyard shift.

“My job,” he says, in his thick accent, “is to have strong game.”

That’s a start.

“Is there a name for what you do?”

Again he smiles. Another quarter-inch cheek move.

“Is not my style to talking,” he says.

OK. Fine. People forget the Russians on the Red Wings, as much as they have become a part of local lore, still have only been in this country maybe six or seven years. They’ve had to learn a new language, a new league, a new style.

Well, for Konstantinov, not all that new a style.

“Were you always this kind of player?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “When I am young I am a defenseman. I play regular defense.”

“When did that change?”

“When I join Red Army,” he says, “I turn.”

That’ll do it.

Temper-tickler? Back-shover? Rage-monger?

“The thing about Vladdie is we all love him,” says Darren McCarty, looking over at his teammate and smiling. “We love him, because so few guys are willing to do what he does, but what he does is his passion.”

“And what is that?”

“Beating on everyone’s face.”

Oh. There’s a phrase I hadn’t considered.

He’ll be back

Tonight, whatever you call whatever Konstantinov does, it will be of critical importance as the Wings take on Philadelphia in the Stanley Cup finals. The Flyers are banking on superior size and strength to win this series, and the Wings are overmatched in that department — with the exception of Vladdie. He gives them edge. He gives them attitude. He will be shadowing Eric Lindros, trying to provoke him, distract him, annoy him anyway he can, with a poke here, a shove there, anything to get him off his game.

“Remember the last time we played?” Kocur says. “Lindros wanted to take Vladdie’s head off!”

This is a good thing. This is what you want. Konstantinov had the best plus-minus rating on the team this season, which means good things happen when he is on the ice, mostly when he makes bad thing happen.

He is Bill Laimbeer on skates. (Wait. Check that. He probably can jump higher than Laimbeer, even with his equipment on.) He is annoyance personified. He is the kind of guy who says “cheating is part of the game” and whom you would hate on another team, but you love on your own.

He is not Claude Lemieux. He has more guts than Claude Lemieux. He is not Bob Probert. He is more stick and less fist than Bob Probert.

He is a man with a mission, one which he seems to understand, even if he can’t always put it into words.

“Do you mind that all the fans outside of Detroit don’t like you?” I ask.

“It’s good they don’t like me,” he says. “They not supposed to like me.”

There’s a video they show at Joe Louis Arena, during Wings games, which inter-cuts scenes from “The Terminator” with shots of Konstantinov crashing into people. There’s a frightened man yelling, “He can’t be stopped! . . . He feels no pain! . . . He feels no remorse!”

And at the end, Vladdie is shown wearing dark sunglasses, with his arms folded. And he says, “Hasta la vista, baby.”

Hmm. A Russian, speaking Spanish, in a mostly Canadian sport, played in America. You know what that means?

It means have fun, Philadelphia. He’s all your problem now.

TALE OF THE TAPE

Konstantinov Lindros 6-0, 195 HT/WT 6-4, 236

30 Age 24

Murmansk, Russia Hometown London, Ontario

Defenseman Position Forward

Red Army Drafted by Quebec Nordiques

Woodwork Hobby Refusing to play for

(especially in front of net) teams that draft him

Forwards Dislikes Defensemen

Playing for U.S team Likes Playing for U.S. team

Russian Five Hangs with Legion of Doom

Vlad the Impaler Nickname Eric the Great

(after original Dracula) (came up with name himself)

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