The policy is firm: Only family members may visit patients in
the intensive care unit at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal
Oak, Mich. Yet as Vladimir Konstantinov, a 30-year-old
defenseman for the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings, lay
comatose with a critical head injury last weekend, a monitor
inserted into his skull to track the swelling of his brain and a
ventilator forcing air in and out of his lungs, he was
surrounded by several of his teammates. Who was going to throw
them out? Not trauma surgeon James Robbins. "One thing is
clear," Robbins said on Sunday morning, a day and a half after
an auto accident abruptly quelled the city of Detroit's Cup
revelry. "All of these men are family."
This family, which had assembled in celebration, was united now
in grief. Last Friday, six days after the Wings had completed a
sweep of the Philadelphia Flyers to win their first Stanley Cup
in 42 years, 17 Detroit players got together at Orchards Country
Club. It was to be their final outing before going their
separate ways for the summer. The Cup was there, the mood was
Konstantinov, fellow defenseman Slava Fetisov and Red Wings'
masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov had arranged for a limousine, and
they left the club at 9 p.m., about 90 minutes before the rest
of the team was to depart. Unbeknownst to the three passengers,
their chauffeur, Richard Gnida, had no business piloting a
riding mower, let alone a stretch limo. Gnida had been cited for
11 traffic violations since 1990--the charges included speeding,
driving with a suspended license and driving under the influence
of alcohol--and his license had been revoked in July 1996.
At 9:13, while traveling south on Woodward Avenue in Birmingham,
Mich., the limousine went out of control, veering onto a grassy
median and colliding head-on with a tree. While Gnida reportedly
has told his boss that he swerved to avoid a stalled car,
witnesses said the roadway was clear. Robbins said there was no
indication that the driver had used drugs or alcohol. While
Gnida's driver's-side air bag inflated upon impact, sparing him
from serious injury, his passengers sitting in the back of the
limo were not so fortunate.
Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov had to be pulled from the car. Both
suffered life-threatening head injuries and were admitted to the
hospital unconscious and in critical condition. Fetisov, who had
sustained a bruised lung and chest contusions, immediately
inquired about his friends. "How are my buddies?" he asked. "Are
Fetisov, 39, the finest defenseman Russia has ever produced, was
to be released from the hospital on Monday. For him the accident
no doubt dredged up painful memories of another wreck he
survived. In 1985, while driving on the Leningrad Highway in
north Moscow, Fetisov was in an accident which killed his
younger brother, Anatoli, who was 18.
Another member of the Red Wings' five-man Russian Unit, forward
Slava Kozlov, almost didn't make it to Detroit six years ago
because of a car wreck. Kozlov, then 19, suffered a fractured
skull, a broken cheekbone and busted ribs when the car he was
driving collided with a bus in Moscow. Killed instantly was the
passenger in Kozlov's car, 17-year-old Central Red Army
defenseman Kirile Tarasov.
The most maddening aspect of last week's accident is that the
Red Wings tried to do everything right. Knowing they might have
a beer or two, they lined up limos, yet they still ended up with
two men in comas. Last Friday night neurosurgeons performed an
emergency operation on the 43-year-old Mnatsakanov to relieve
pressure on his brain. Konstantinov, who required the less
serious monitoring procedure, also needed surgery to repair a
severed tendon in his right elbow.
With his friends fighting for their lives, Red Wings captain
Steve Yzerman choked back tears as he told the media, "We ask
everyone's support and prayers for Vlady and our trainer,
Sergei. Do whatever you do in difficult times that helps make
things work out better."
Yzerman's anguish was felt all over Detroit, and not just
because the tragedy cut short a celebration that had been more
than four decades in the making. With his superb skills and
warrior mentality, Konstantinov is an exceptionally popular Red
Wing. He is also an extremely valuable player, of whom Detroit
senior vice president Jimmy Devellano said recently, "I wouldn't
trade him for any other defenseman in the NHL."
So highly did the Red Wings prize Konstantinov, whom they
drafted in 1989, that they used unscrupulous means to pry him
from the Red Army team. In '91, to expedite his discharge from
the Soviet army, the Red Wings reportedly bribed some Moscow
doctors, who said that Konstantinov was suffering from a rare
form of cancer that could best be treated in the U.S.
In five seasons, Konstantinov has become one of the NHL's
premier defensemen. This year he was named one of three
finalists for the Norris Trophy, given annually to the league's
best blueliner. (The winner was to be announced on Thursday in
Toronto, at an awards banquet Vladimir and his wife, Irina, had
planned to attend.) His strong skating and puckhandling tend to
be obscured by the monstrous, open-ice checks with which he
waylays opponents and by his penchant for tactics that opponents
proclaim as dirty.
He leaves the Vladinator shtick at the rink, however. "Away from
hockey he is a kind, gentle man," said Irina in a recent
interview. Their daughter, Anastasia, is eight. "He worships
her," said Irina.
As SI went to press on Monday, the news from Robbins was
encouraging. "There is movement, there have been subtle signs of
facial expression," he said. Although he was not yet speaking,
Konstantinov could also understand and communicate with doctors,
friends and family with movements of his face and extremities.
On Sunday, Robbins reported that other Red Wings had been
bringing in music and that Konstantinov had been responding to
it--in particular to We Are the Champions, the victory anthem by
Queen that boomed from the Joe Louis Arena speakers after
Detroit won the Cup.
Whether the Red Wings can repeat as champions, or whether
Konstantinov again plays at his elite level, were irrelevant
issues at William Beaumont Hospital last weekend. "My concern is
for him to be healthy, to be able to walk and talk," said
Devellano. "Nothing beyond that."