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The Malik Report

Irina Konstantinov talks about her husband, as a Red Wings defenseman and the man he is today

As MLive’s Ansar Khan noted this morning, tonight marks the fifteenth anniversary of the limo crash which left Red Wings masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov paralyzed below the waist and partially paralyzed on the left side of his body, and, of course, Vladimir Konstantinov cognitively impaired all of seven days after the Red Wings celebrated their 1997 Stanley Cup championship.

While Khan’s article focused on the recollections of Konstantinov’s teammates, Yahoo Sports’ Eric Adelson spoke to Vladimir’s wife, Irina, about a player who was, at the time of the accident, a 30-year-old defenseman who was the viciously physical but no less-skilled foil to Nicklas Lidstrom:

“His beautiful life and his beautiful career are not the same,” said his wife, Irina, reached by phone Tuesday. “Everything else fades compared to that.”

For those who never watched him play, Konstantinov was a rare blend of skill and toughness. He was the Russian who wouldn’t back down from anyone; in fact, he was the Russian who regularly threatened. He punished people, but not in a way that undermined his team. He could enforce with his body, his stickhandling, and his mind. Sports Illustrated’s Michael Farber called him “the nastiest blueliner in the NHL.”

While Lidstrom has been a given on the Detroit defense for all these years, the Wings have strived for the better part of a generation to find a replacement for Konstantinov, who survived for weeks in a coma after the 1997 accident but never regained full mobility or mental faculties. There was Jiri Fischer, who met a tragic but safe end to his career when doctors discovered a heart ailment. There was Chris Chelios, a two-way terror in his heyday but who arrived in Detroit as a (somewhat) mellowed 36-year-old. There’s Niklas Kronwall today, a dangerous bodychecker and capable point-producer. All have been vital as Red Wings, but none had quite the spark of Konstantinov.

Konstantinov still lives in Michigan. He requires around-the-clock care. But over time, he’s picked up new activities, such as painting. He recently auctioned off some of his artwork for charity.

“He’s never going to have a full recovery,” said Irina. “But he is in a good place. He’s not depressed. He’s not unhappy. And yet he’s not a fully functioning member of society where he can make his own decisions. Sometimes we have him travel, but never to a really crowded place.”

Konstantinov does have some recollection of his playing career. He remembers most of his teammates, including Lidstrom. “He was one of Vlady’s favorite players,” Irina said. “He thought they were similar. He really loved him so much.”

Then she paused. “You know,” she laughed, “he never said Lidstrom was any better than him.”

Adelson’s story continues with more observations about Konstantinov from Irina (technically speaking, I believe she’s technically divorced from Vladdie, which is understandable—she has every right to live her life, too—but she’s still his legal guardian), including the following:

There have been other good moments since, as hard as life has been. Konstantinov still goes to games from time to time. His daughter, Anastasia, graduated from the University of Rhode Island last year. Irina lives in Florida now, working as a realtor. She sees Vlady “as often as possible.” Fifteen years later, she wants her husband to keep growing, keep trying new things. She even mentioned bowling as something her husband is interested in.

“He wants to be invited places where the participation would not exceed his ability,” she said. “We’ve kept it so private and for a long time we didn’t want anyone to be sad for him. He’s not a vegetable. He can be places. He won’t remember all the people he meets but he enjoys the time he has. We would be thrilled if people would call in and say, ‘Hey, we’d like to have him and accommodate his visit.’ We’re running out of ideas sometimes.”

He’s not a vegetable at all. He’s still a remarkable man and a remarkable human being, and while I fully believe—very realistically speaking—that we’d be talking about the Red Wings winning five or six Stanley Cups over the past fifteen years and Norris Trophies for Konstantinov as well as Lidstrom, I hope you are as proud of the man that Vladdie is right now as I am proud of the hockey player and person he was prior to the accident.

He is still with us, and he is still in there, and I don’t get religion-y very often, but I would strongly suggest that the fact that he’s still “here” is a blessing.

Update: Via RedWingsFeed, and Greg Eno on Facebook, former Red Wings trainer John Wharton penned the following on his Facebook page, accompanying a picture of him hugging Vladimir Konstantinov and Slava Fetisov:

To Vladimir Konstantinov. This picture is but a small glimpse of how much I loved you. And how much I always will.

But What’s in a picture?

Like beauty, what is in a picture, is in the eye of the beholder. I happen to think this is one of the most beautiful pictures I have ever seen. It’s rather simple really. Just three grown men hugging on the ice shortly after winning the Stanley Cup in 1997. Happens all the time. But if it is true that every picture tells a story, this picture, on this day, could tell hundreds of them.

In this picture I had found my Russian teammates and good friends Slava Fetisov and Vladimir Konstantinov. And they had found me. We had just won the 1st Stanley Cup in 42 years with the Detroit Red Wings. I had a special bond with these two players as well as the other 3 Russians on our team. That was in large part, due to the fact I had spent the previous summer as the Head Athletic Trainer for Team Russia in the inaugural World Cup of Hockey. Being the 1st American trainer in Russian hockey history was not as easy as it sounds. Fetisov and Igor Larionov asked me to go, knowing the medical attention they would get in their motherland would be far below NHL standards. I said yes and got permission from the team.

Well, the Russian Ice Hockey Federation had a MAJOR problem with this, and the players would not budge. I have a Russian newspaper that Igor gave to me with the headline (translated) “Players Threaten to Boycott World Cup if American Physiotherapist is Denied”. The federation relented and I had an amazing 8 weeks in Moscow, Europe and then the tournament in Canada. I have written chapters about those 2 months of my life alone. More importantly, it galvanized the bond I had with the Russian players and Vladdy in particular. They had my back, I would have theirs. Vladdy was not on the roster, as he had torn his Achilles tendon in mid-June. But he would be ever present as we rehabbed his injury, and rooted on his countreymen. We would become even faster friends.

But What’s in a Picture?

In this picture, you can’t see the emotion in my face. But if you look closely, you can see the emotion in my hands. That may sound silly to most, but not to me, having spent most of my life communicating, working, healing, giving and feeling emotion, with my hands.

Vladdy was the toughest player I ever worked with. While he would always play through everything, anytime he got injured, even a cracked fingernail, he would want me to look at it, touch it and tell him what I thought. No matter what I ever said, his answer was always the same: “Okay, I go back and play now. Sank you Johnny”. “But Vladdy, I think you broke your ribs”…”Zis kill me?”...”Well no, but….” “Okay, I go play now, sank you. Sank you Johnny”. And back in the game he went.

But What’s in a Picture?

In this picture you will, unfortunately, see a glimpse of the last few moments of Vladdy on the ice at Joe Louis Arena, or any arena for that matter. What you won’t see is the knowledge in our faces that he had just played his final game. Because that knowledge obviously, wasn’t there. There was no way of knowing that 6 days from this moment, Vladimir Konstantinov would be laying in the Beaumont Hospital ICU fighting for and clinging to his very life.

The most valiant of hockey warriors tragically, needlessly and horrifyingly had suffered Brainstem torsion, and injury, of the worst variety. His life would never be the same. Many people would be tempted to say “his life, AND OURS, would never be the same”. For me, this type of thinking diminishes just how deeply his life was affected. This type of thinking is selfish. This type of thinking didn’t see Vladdy in the days, weeks, months and years ahead. The battles he waged, the hurdles he got over, while for the most part…most of our lives, did in fact remain the same.

But What’s in a Picture?

I live two blocks south of Beaumont Hospital now. I can’t even walk the dogs without seeing it. In a way, I hate that place. I hated going there every day for 6 months before or after practice. I hated being there and more often than not, sitting, staring, wondering, praying. Praying for a miracle that I knew would never come. I prayed that I could see Vladdy at practice again or play a game, just one more time.

In another way, I love that place because the doctors, nurses and staff there saved his life. I loved how thoughtful and caring they were, always having the time for questions or just to listen to me vent. I love how much I learned from them, from Vladdy, about life. While he was reduced to half the man he used to be, his heart remains the same. He is a talented artist now. He is an inspiration.

We had tried together.
We had lost together.
We had laughed together.
We had cried together.
We had trained together.
We had talked together. As best we could.
Finally, we had won together.

But What’s in a Picture?

Shortly after his tragic accident, I was contacted by the photographer who took this picture, Julian Gonzalez of the Detroit Free Press. He told me he had captured a shot of Vladdy and I that night that moved him. He asked me if I wanted it. Of course I did. When I met him, he handed me the envelope and said “are you sure you want this”? Of course I did.

I am not a man who is afraid to cry. I cried openly the night this picture was taken, in happiness. I cried openly the night of Vladdy’s accident and many times since, in sadness. And when I opened this envelope to see this picture, I cried openly in both happiness and sadness, again. And again…. And again.

For in this picture you CAN see the very first thing that I saw. My left hand cradled firmly at the base of his sweaty head. In the exact same spot I have cradled it so many times since. In the exact same spot…as his Brainstem.

But What’s in a Picture?

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Comments

Avatar

This article by John is just hard to read. Nothing is more beautiful on earth than men’s true friendship.

And the code for posting this comment is “32woman”. Are you kidding me?

Posted by Alex on 06/13/12 at 08:25 PM ET

Avatar

Fetisov? Looks like Fedorov to me .... Very strange.

Posted by Malik_is_alive from Mitten on 06/13/12 at 09:04 PM ET

scotts0's avatar

Fetisov? Looks like Fedorov to me .... Very strange.

Posted by Malik_is_alive from Mitten on 06/13/12 at 08:04 PM ET

“sov” and #2.  Definitely FetiSOV.

Posted by scotts0 from New York on 06/13/12 at 09:36 PM ET

SYF's avatar

And now, I’m all kerflempt.

Such beautiful prose by Wharton.  In Vladdie’s words, “Sank you, Johnny.”

Posted by SYF from The Revenge of Johnny E on 06/14/12 at 01:03 AM ET

Vladimir16's avatar

Beautiful…..

Posted by Vladimir16 from Grand River Valley on 06/14/12 at 10:06 AM ET

WingsFaninCO's avatar

Wow.

Posted by WingsFaninCO on 06/14/12 at 11:33 AM ET

WingsFanInBeanLand's avatar

What a warrior.  What a human being.

Posted by WingsFanInBeanLand from where free agents no longer dare. on 06/14/12 at 11:45 AM ET

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About The Malik Report

The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.