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The Malik Report

The accident which nearly claimed Vladimir Konstantinov’s life was a hockey tragedy, too

As the 15th anniversary of the Red Wings’ 1997 Stanley Cup win gives way to the Free Press positing a Mitch Albom story recalling the tenth anniversary of the Cup the Wings won in 2002, MLive’s Ansar Khan reminds us that, fifteen years ago today, a tragic event occurred that the franchise has never really recovered from.

On a muggy June night, Igor Larionov, Slava Fetisov, Vladimir Konstantinov and team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov had done the right thing in choosing to take a limousine ride home from a golf outing, but their driver fell asleep at the wheel and collided with a tree. The crash paralyzed Mnatsakanov below his waist and left him partially paralyzed on the left side of his body, and it left Konstantinov permanently cognitively impaired.

The tragedy helped propel the Wings to the last successful defense of a Stanley Cup championship of the “modern era,” but the magnitude of personal tragedy cannot be understated, and from a hockey perspective…

The Wings tried their best to replace Konstantinov in 1999, adding 38-year-old Chris Chelios to the equation, and Chelios definitely played a large role in the Wings’ 2002 Cup win, but Konstantinov was well on his way to becoming the kind of player Chelios was in the late 80’s and early 90’s. He and Nicklas Lidstrom were poised to be the twin towers of the Red Wings’ defense for a decade or more, with the 30-year-old Konstantinov blooming into a player as vicious and dirty as Lidstrom was elegantly clean while almost matching Lidstrom’s ability to see the ice, create offense and dominate defensively. Instead, as Scotty Bowman told Khan, Wings fans still wonder whether the player who’d captured their hearts as a blue-collar player and Datsyukian-ly charming, dry-witted and incredibly smart man could have led the team to another Cup or two:

“He was so much different than all the others,’’ former Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman said. “So tough, liked to hit guys.’‘

That mentality endeared him to Red Wings fans. He was tagged with nicknames such as “The Vladinator’’ and “Vlad the Impaler.’‘

“I never seen anybody so tough and competitive,’’ ex-teammate Larry Murphy said. “Every shift he put everything out there. You match that with talent – not an end-to-end rushing defenseman, but he played the game so well. When he hit a guy it was with every ounce of his body, and they felt it.’‘

Even teammates weren’t safe from his take-no-prisoners approach.

“In practice he would hit you,’’ Draper said. “He only knew one way. If your head was down he would hit you and tell you to keep your head up. He was one of the fiercest competitors I ever seen. He didn’t care how big you were, or if you were a superstar, if you weren’t on his team you were fair game.’‘

Konstantinov, at age 30, was in the prime of his career in 1996-97, his best season. He collected a career-high 38 points and finished second to Brian Leetch of the New York Rangers in voting for the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman.

“He got robbed of a great career,’’ Draper said. “Who knows how good he could have been. … That’s another tragedy in itself.’‘

I strongly recommend that you read the rest of Khan’s comprehensive recollection of the accident, and as we all know, the Wings and the greater community have taken good care of Mnatsakanov and Konstantinov, with Vladdie having overcome an injury which twisted and tore many of the physical connections between his brain and spine, and he’s an artist, he can walk with some assistance and remains “there,” but on a day when we tend to remember the staggering magnitude of personal tragedy, I also want you to remember that Vladdie was nothing less than a remarkable player, too, and that we were robbed of some beautiful hockey by a stupid and needless tragedy.

That might sound like an ass-backwards way of remembering what happened, but I don’t just have a Konstantinov jersey because I admire Vladdie for the amazing human being he was and is today, and many of you might not remember what a fantastic player he was—and he was amazing:

This video is by far the best of the bunch:

The level of personal tragedy in the ways Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov’s lives have been personally changed is…staggering…But Konstantinov was the kind of defenseman who could issue hits that make “Kronwalling” look half-hearted, get in a fight, go to the penalty box and come out and score a breakaway goal. He was truly a superstar in the making, and I just wish that those of you who are too young to remember him play could have seen him dominate games thanks to his skill as much as his grit.

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Comments

hockeychic's avatar

Thank you, George.  We were robbed in so many days.

I still remember that day…I had a dream that Darren McCarty had died and I woke up out of it to the phone ringing and it was my (at the time) mother-in-law calling to tell me of the accident.  She knew how much I loved the Wings and knew how important it was to me that she called me at 6:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning.

That accident really diminished the joy of winning the Cup as we didn’t know for days if they would live.

Then, I will never forget in 1998, when they brought Vladdie into the ice in his chair.

Posted by hockeychic from Denver, CO on 06/13/12 at 12:06 PM ET

hockeychic's avatar

that should read “onto” the ice.

Posted by hockeychic from Denver, CO on 06/13/12 at 12:13 PM ET

Ajax19's avatar

Great post.  Loved those videos.

Posted by Ajax19 on 06/13/12 at 12:27 PM ET

Chris in Hockey Hell's avatar

Not fair. Not fair at all. I would have gladly given up the 1998 Cup win for that accident to have never happened. We would have won the Cup again at some point. Not fair.

Posted by Chris in Hockey Hell from Ann Arbor, MI but LIVING in Columbia, TN on 06/13/12 at 12:28 PM ET

Vladimir16's avatar

…But Konstantinov was the kind of defenseman who could issue hits that make “Kronwalling” look half-hearted, get in a fight, go to the penalty box and come out and score a breakaway goal. He was truly a superstar in the making, and I just wish that those of you who are too young to remember him play could have seen him dominate games thanks to his skill as much as his grit.

My favorite Red Wing of all time. Just reading this makes me sad as hell….

Posted by Vladimir16 from Grand River Valley on 06/13/12 at 12:58 PM ET

CaptainDennisPolonich's avatar

That first video with the hip check, did anyone notice what was missing?

If that happened in today’s NHL, every Dive skater would have piled on Vladdy. It saddens me that players today get upset by clean hits.

Posted by CaptainDennisPolonich from The Land of Fake Boobs and Real Nuts on 06/13/12 at 01:22 PM ET

Primis's avatar

I’ve said it before, but it makes what the Wings have done all the more remarkable with this run that they did it while losing a truly Norris-caliber d-man, and then years later losing another solid d-man that was just really coming in to his own.  But they’ve still kept on.  If you’re a fan of a team other than the Red Wings I want you to imagine your #1 d-man just suddenly being gone, with no warning.  How would that go for your team?  It wouldn’t, your team would fall apart.

Vladdie was something we’ve still never seen again in the NHL (and may not).  He was a combination.  He really did intimidate opponents in a way a clown like Phaneuf can only dream of, because he not only could hit and mix it up, but he could also plain shut your game down AND still score a variety of ways (breakaways, he had a booming slapshot that often had eyes, and great touch around the net).  And he had one of the great nicknames that hockey players and lines never get anymore (“Vlad the Impaler”).

I think the Wings have forever been trying to find another d-man like Vladdie but there just isn’t another…

Posted by Primis on 06/13/12 at 02:48 PM ET

SYF's avatar

Not fair. Not fair at all. I would have gladly given up the 1998 Cup win for that accident to have never happened. We would have won the Cup again at some point. Not fair.

Posted by Chris in Hockey Hell from Ann Arbor, MI but LIVING in Columbia, TN on 06/13/12 at 11:28 AM ET

+16.

Holy hipchecks…  First, Lids retires and Stuart is traded.  And now a retrospective on Vladdie?

Posted by SYF from Alana Blanchard's Bikinis and Surfboards on 06/13/12 at 03:22 PM ET

Avatar

Sad day.  And I totally agree with Captain.  After the check on lemieux, he would have been jumped or had to drop the gloves with someone in today’s nhl.

Posted by Greg on 06/13/12 at 04:01 PM ET

Avatar

He was born and grew up in a place north of the polar circle where you have a day for half a year and then a night for another half of a year. They do not come any tougher than Vladdie.

15 years ago when the news of the accident spread around I was in shock but did not shed a tear. I am two years his senior but still was young and naive enough at the time to think that he would probably miss a year, maybe two, but eventually would come back.

Not until he was wheeled out onto the ice for the 1998 Stanley Cup ceremony and skated around with the Cup on his lap did i realized that he would never come back and it was at that moment that all the emotions and tears came out. I am very proud of my countryman and of the way people of Detroit made him one of their own.

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

Avatar

If a new rink goes up in Detroit without a corporate sponsor, it should be named after that man.

Posted by Joe on 06/13/12 at 07:16 PM ET

Vladimir16's avatar

Like Gordie Howe, Konstantinov was a player that could have played in any era. He had skill, grit, toughness, durability and was never, ever intimidated. I can’t help to wonder how our team would have been with Vladdy and Lidstrom anchoring the blue line for 20 yrs. Me thinks there would have been 2-4 more Cups in that span.

For some reason those videos played on my work puter this morning and it makes me wanna cry. I remember watching the ‘98 Cup celebration with a bunch of buddies and it got real quiet and there was a tear or two shed when they wheeled Vladdy out on the ice. I still would love 1 minute alone with that limo driver. 1 minute….

Posted by Vladimir16 from Grand River Valley on 06/14/12 at 09:23 AM ET

cigar_nurse's avatar

Man is dusty in here or what ? My eyes are watering away.

What a tragic loss it was when that happened.  The Ilitch’s with all their class got limos for the one last day for the players to get together before going their separate ways for the summer and it happened.

I wonder what that piece of shit Gnida is doin now.  What a waste of foreskin.

The one imiage I have of Vladdie is him getting hit by Lindros in the regulat season and the back of his head hitting the ice so hard that he had a pressure cut caused by his helmet that went from side to side of his head. He needed several stiches after the game of course and never missed a shift.  Always dished out moire than he took and never never whined to the refs when othe players got the best of him.

He would have been one hell of a d-man coach, What a waste..

Posted by cigar_nurse from Greenville South Cakalakee on 06/14/12 at 12:13 PM ET

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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.