When the Wings won one for Vladdy

Captain Steve Yzerman hands the trophy to teammate Vladimir Konstantinov after the Wings won the Stanley Cup in 1998.

Captain Steve Yzerman hands the trophy to teammate Vladimir Konstantinov after the Wings won the Stanley Cup in 1998.

The limousine looked like a crushed soda can, wrapped around the tree bark. Suddenly, a wild celebration across metropolitan Detroit was subdued by a black cloud of sadness and anxiety.

How could this be? Six days prior, Vladimir Konstantinov hoisted the Stanley Cup as the Detroit Red Wings broke a 42-year drought with a sweep of the Philadelphia Flyers. The city tasted Cup-winning ecstasy. A million fans packed Woodward Ave. for a championship parade.

Ironically, that same “avenue” which featured sky-high emotions brought about rock-bottom devastation when Konstantinov – the toughest defenseman in the NHL – was relegated to a brain injury along with team masseuse Sergei Mnatsakanov.

“Everyone was on such a high and feeling so good about themselves, and then all this happens,” Nicklas Lidstrom said about the shortened 1997 Cup celebration. “It felt like you just wanted to give that Cup back and have Vladdy and Sergei come back.”

How could this happen to a man known as “The Vladinator”? He was 30 years old, a devastating hitter in his prime, a Norris Trophy finalist. The highlight check of his career came in Game 3 of the ’97 Finals, when a patented forearm blast rocked Philadelphia’s Dale Hawerchuk to the ice. On the same shift, Brendan Shanahan banked a puck off Ron Hextall for a 5-1 lead in the late stages of the second period, and Joe Louis Arena went bonkers, smelling a Cup within reach.

“Vladimir Konstantinov put an exclamation point on this game,” ESPN’s Bill Clement said.

Nine days later, Vladdy’s career was tragically finished.

It happened on June 13, 1997, the night of a team outing at the Orchards Golf Club. Konstantinov, Mnatsakanov, and Slava Fetisov wisely rented a limousine, knowing they would be drinking, which makes the following details even more sad and ironic.

As they traveled from Washington Township along Woodward Ave., toward Chris Osgood’s house, limo driver Richard Gnida blacked out behind the wheel, crossed three lanes, barreled over the median curb and crashed into a tree.

Gnida, who had two drunk driving convictions and a suspended license, caused an accident that put Konstantinov into a coma and left Mnatsakanov paralyzed from the waist-down.

“We expected each morning to wake up, and you were going to read in the paper that they were released from the hospital, and everything was going to be normal,” Steve Yzerman said. “Day after day, it kept going, and you realized that: Things aren’t going to get to normal for, maybe forever, or for a long time.”

Thus, a theme was born: Believe.

Believe Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov could find strength amid the circumstances. Believe they could recover. Believe this nightmare had a special ending.

The Wings kept their fallen friends on their minds throughout the 1997-98 season in a heart-warming quest to win back-to-back Cups. It was a relentless dedication through the postseason that featured six-game victories over Phoenix and St. Louis.

Then, in the Western Conference Finals against Dallas, Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov made an emotional appearance during Game 4 at Joe Louis Arena. They were presented on the jumbotron as the crowd rose for a standing ovation. Konstantinov smiled and waved, Mnatsakonov cried and shook a pom-pom, and both teams smacked their sticks as they watched the gentlemen in Mike Ilitch’s luxury suite.

“We believe in their strength and recovery!” legendary PA announcer Budd Lynch said to the crowd. “We know that all of you believe, too!”

The emotional scene was a glimpse of what was yet to come. The Wings won the opening three games of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Washington Capitals, including a dramatic Game 2 overtime victory.

Then, with 15 minutes left in the Cup-clinching game at Washington, there was Konstantinov, rising to a raucous ovation by the MCI Center crowd as the Wings bench rose in tribute.

“We were screaming and yelling,” Brendan Shanahan told Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press. “Scotty Bowman tried to calm us down because we still had a period of hockey to play. But there was no way. No way we were going to lose then. I looked down the bench and there wasn’t a dry eye on the team.”

Eventually the clock wound to zero, the Wings bench emptied and the celebration began.

Konstantinov was wheeled to the ice surface to meet Fetisov, his dear friend who escaped the tragic limousine accident with minor injuries. And now, here was Konstantinov, wearing his #16 jersey and a permanent grin. He flashed two fingers to signal back-to-back titles and got a hug from Fetisov, a 40-year old who ended his legendary career on this night, with this soothing scene.

If the tears weren’t flowing at that moment, they certainly did when Yzerman placed the Cup into Konstantinov’s lap, then joined Fetisov and wheeled “Vladdy” around the ice surface for a memory Detroit will never forget.
Believe? They believed, alright.

“It was a special moment, something you don’t really see,” Yzerman said. “It’s almost like a movie script, really.”

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About Bruce Mason

Bruce Mason's work has appeared on blogs such as allpuck.com and obnoxiousfan.com. A Detroit native, he worked part-time at the Detroit News in 2006-07, freelanced for Crain's Detroit Business, and is now a five-time award winning writer at a daily paper in Idaho.