DETROIT -- Detroit Red Wings executive vice president Jim Lites is waiting until Christmas to go shopping for his team.
That's when he hopes to meet with Soviet officials about acquiring defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov, who could do for the Red Wings' defense what Sergei Fedorov has done for the offense.
Konstantinov, 22, is captain of the Red Army team. Detroit
drafted him in the 11th round of the 1989 draft. He's a fast, experienced puck carrier who can make tape-to-tape passes to get the puck out of his end and quarterback the power play.
The Red Wings hope he's available.
"We're going to try to find out when they're in town," Lites said. "We hope to begin discussions with them then."
Red Army begins a tour of several NHL cities on Dec. 26 against the Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena.
The Soviets, in dire need of cash because of a crumbling economy, are getting anywhere from $200,000 to $350,000 per player in a series of recent deals with other NHL clubs. The Red Wings, who orchestrated Petr Klima's defection from Czechoslovakia in 1985 and helped Fedorov leave his Soviet National teammates just before the Goodwill Games in July, do not know what to expect in above-board negotiations with the Soviets.
"I have no idea," Lites said. "We've never done it this way."
* The Toronto Maple Leafs acquired a captain for a colonel in a two-for-one deal Monday. They sent defenseman Brian "Colonel" Curran and hard-nosed forward Lou Franceschetti to Buffalo for Sabres captain Mike Foligno, a former Red Wing.
Foligno has been on the trading block for some time. What effect his departure has on the underachieving Sabres remains to be seen.
The Sabres have lost five straight. Game 3 of that stretch was an 8-3 pounding in Detroit, after which coach Rick Dudley conceded his team "lacks confidence. It lacks direction. This is the first time in my life I've had a team that doesn't seem to want to play for me. I've been coaching nine years, and I've never seen anything like this."
Speculation in Buffalo is that Dudley will be lucky to make it a few weeks into the New Year unless his team which some suggested would be a Stanley Cup contender begins winning.
Heightening the tension is an apparent feud between Dudley and GM Gerry Meehan, who has been criticizing the offense for not scoring off "nice, creative plays." It was Meehan, of course, who traded one of the most creative players in the NHL, defenseman Phil Housley, to Winnipeg for overrated center Dale Hawerchuk, who has done little to spice up the offense.
Dudley is on the last year of his contract. Meehan signed an off-season deal believed to pay him $400,000 for four years. Any doubts about who will win this battle?
* In Toronto, meanwhile, rumors abound of trades involving defensemen Al Iafrate and Tom Kurvers. And doubtless there will be another wave when right wing Gary Leeman returns in a few weeks from a shoulder injury.
One rumor has Iafrate going to Buffalo for center Christian Ruuttu. Kurvers, playing sparingly since the Leafs acquired Dave Ellett from Winnipeg and Michel Petit from Quebec, is rumored headed to Hartford for Dean Evason and Scott Young.
* Another Adams Division club with internal problems is Hartford, where coach Rick Ley has stripped Ron Francis of the captain's "C."
Ley, critical of the team leadership since he took the job last season, will have three players wearing the "A" as alternate captains. For now, they are Pat Verbeek, Evason and former Wings defenseman Randy Ladouceur. Players were somewhat divided about the move. Said defenseman Ulf Samuelsson: "He [Ley] can take the 'C' away, but he can't take away the fact that Ron is still our leader. Without his leadership, we're going to be a worse team."
* Todd Hartje knows what it's like for a player such as Fedorov to live in a new land where the language and customs are foreign.
Hartje was born and raised in Minnesota, but he's pursuing a hockey career on an exchange program with the Soviet Union. Hartje, a Winnipeg Jets draftee, has been playing with Sokol Kiev. He is believed to be the first North American to play in the Soviet Elite League.
"It's probably the most beneficial thing I could have done for my hockey career," Hartje told the Canadian Press. "The skill level is unmatched in any league in the world. Playing every day in that system at that high a pace can only improve my skating and puck-control abilities."
Said Jets general manager Mike Smith, who helped arrange the exchange: "To show up in the middle of the Soviet Union on July 1, without speaking a word of Russian, takes a very strong person. Those kinds of people will always be successful."
Hartje said the language problem wasn't as big a barrier as he expected.
"I didn't understand, but I watched and copied," he said. "I got a couple of books to help me out. Now I can carry on conversations, and I can understand what the coaches tell me if they speak slowly."
He's keeping a journal and hopes to write a book.
"I'm getting a million things out of this," he said. "I'm experiencing a new culture and meeting new people."