The Malik Report
by George Malik on 06/13/12 at 11:30 AM ET
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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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.