It's a hard thing, defending a championship. But there are
That's the thought that members of the Detroit Red Wings carry
in their heads this season, and it has helped them pick up where
they left off in June, when they swept the Philadelphia Flyers
in the Stanley Cup finals and brought the city that calls itself
Hockeytown its first title in 42 years. At week's end the Red
Wings were 4-0-1, their best start since 1972-73, had outscored
opponents by an eye-popping aggregate of 21-8 and were atop the
Central Division. This despite the trade of goalie Mike Vernon,
the playoff MVP; the failure to re-sign their best forward,
restricted free agent Sergei Fedorov, who is sitting at home in
Detroit; and the irreplaceable loss of their best defenseman,
Vladimir Konstantinov, a battler whose greatest struggle lies
Yes, there are harder things than defending a championship. That
thought was with the players all summer, thrust upon them six
days after they clinched the Cup, when Konstantinov and team
masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov were critically injured in a
limousine that crashed into a tree in Birmingham, Mich. (The
driver, Richard Gnida, had a long history of traffic violations
and was charged with driving with a suspended license. Gnida
pleaded not guilty, and a preliminary hearing is scheduled for
Oct. 20.) Defenseman Slava Fetisov, also a passenger in the
limo, suffered a bruised lung and lacerations to his right leg
and was released from the hospital three days after the
accident. Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov, however, suffered
massive head injuries and were placed on life support. Their
teammates, on the verge of scattering for the summer,
reassembled at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich., to
wait and pray. Many players spent entire nights there over the
next couple of weeks. "Brain dead, vegetative, all those awful
terms were used," recalls Wings trainer John Wharton. "We knew
right from the start that we were in this for the long haul."
The thought was with the players every time one of them took the
Cup home, as tradition dictates--home to Moscow, home to
Medicine Hat, home to Buffalo. "The reality that every night's
not New Year's Eve hit quickly," says Detroit coach Scotty
Bowman. "It made having the Cup a little bit somber." That most
uplifting of hockey trophies now carried a weight.
The thought was with them during training camp, staring them in
the face every time they looked at Konstantinov's empty dressing
room stall--his equipment still hanging in place, his clean
laundry waiting, his blue parking pass lying unclaimed on the
stool in front of the stall. A smooth gray stone, inscribed with
the word BELIEVE, was in the cubby above, where Konstantinov
kept his personal effects.
The thought was with them last week when, fresh from two road
wins to start the season, they raised the 1996-97 championship
banner before their first home game, against the Dallas Stars.
Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay, living icons from the last Red
Wings Cup winners, came to Joe Louis Arena for the ceremony. But
the loudest ovation on a night of thundering ovations was
directed toward the image flashed on the scoreboard of the
30-year-old Konstantinov. "Vladi! Vladi! Vladi!" the crowd
roared. The wives of both injured men, Irina Konstantinov and
Yelena Mnatsakanov, were introduced with the rest of the team.
Then the Stanley Cup banner was raised. "It was a special
moment, but it was also a sad moment, because we didn't see
Vladimir on the ice or Sergei behind the bench," said center
Igor Larionov, Konstantinov's teammate since the days they
starred with the Soviet Central Red Army team in the 1980s. "But
then it was time to put the emotions away and play hockey."
So far, the Red Wings have been able to do that. The team
dominated Dallas that night, winning 3-1, and two nights later
continued its fine start with a 3-0 blanking of the Tampa Bay
Lightning. That marked the fourth consecutive game that new No.
1 netminder Chris Osgood had not allowed a goal in the first two
periods. On Sunday, however, Osgood and the Wings weren't at
their best in a 4-4 tie against the Calgary Flames.
"We're a different team without Vladi," says the 39-year-old
Fetisov, who has two large purple scars on his right calf from
the accident but is skating with no lingering effects. "He's
been the most dominant defenseman in the league the past few
years, and you aren't going to replace a guy like him. The guys
realize they have to do a bit more. This team is responsible.
The young guys see [captain] Steve Yzerman block a couple of
shots, and now they do it. That's how you build a winning
Fetisov, whose younger brother, Anatoli, was killed in a car
accident in 1985, nearly retired following the June tragedy. "I
wasn't thinking of playing again," he recalls. "I was lucky to
be alive. I didn't even want to go home from the hospital,
because of Vladi and Sergei, and because my wife was also there
with appendicitis. But the doctors said it would be good for the
people in Detroit to know at least one guy is O.K. The team
asked me to drop the puck at an old-timers' charity game that
week at Joe Louis Arena, and when I came out I got a standing
ovation for five minutes. Tears came to my eyes. People here
have been so unbelievable, to my wife, my family, and I started
thinking: How can I pay them back for this? I will play one more
year to show my appreciation."
"He's a dying breed," the notoriously hard-nosed Lindsay says of
Fetisov. "One of the finest men I've ever met. And he's a
The Red Wings appear to have more than their share of warriors,
which helps explain why they've won without Konstantinov, who
led the team in plus-minus statistics each of the last two
years, or the 27-year-old Fedorov, who was Detroit's leading
scorer in last season's playoffs. The Red Wings are unwilling to
pay Fedorov the $6 million per year that he's asking for and
have offered him $5.5 million per annum. Most observers think
the issue will be resolved soon, but in the meantime the Red
Wings have unleashed a balanced attack that is the envy of the
Thirteen players have scored the team's first 21 goals.
Moreover, the defense has been extraordinary. "We know if we
don't play awfully well, we don't have enough horses to win,"
says forward Doug Brown. "We're missing some big pieces of the
puzzle. So far we've been able to turn it into a positive."
"The one hole we can't fill is Konstantinov," says Bowman,
citing the 22 1/2 minutes he averaged per game last season. He
was also the Wings' most aggressive player, totaling some 900
penalty minutes over the last six seasons and earning the
nickname the Vladinator. Opponents hated being on the ice
against him. He also enabled Bowman to put an all-Russian unit
onto the ice: Konstantinov, Fetisov, Fedorov, Larionov and Slava
Kozlov. "We've lost the uniqueness of having five guys who can
play their own system," Bowman says. "They'd get that puck
cycling around, and Vladi would jump into the play and become a
fourth forward. Teams weren't used to defending against it. But
the chemistry of the club remains the same. The guys feel a lot
for each other."
Bowman, who has coached seven Stanley Cup champions, has been
through a situation comparable to the emotional straits in which
the Red Wings' now find themselves. In the fall of 1991 he took
over for Pittsburgh Penguins coach Bob Johnson, who was dying of
brain cancer. That Penguins club was the last team to repeat as
Stanley Cup champions.
The difference is that while Johnson's condition rapidly
worsened--he died in November 1991--there is reason to hope that
Konstantinov's will improve. He still cannot speak, and he needs
assistance to stand, walk, bathe and dress. But he has made
steady, if excruciatingly slow, progress. He can read some and
is starting to write a few words. He laughs readily, and he
recognizes friends and teammates. "He's going to be all right in
every way," says Fetisov with unshakable confidence. "The last
two weeks there's been a big improvement."
Wharton, the team's trainer, has seen the improvement too. The
day the Wings raised the championship banner, Wharton delivered
the Stanley Cup to Beaumont Hospital once again. He'd taken it
there twice before to show to Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov, but
this was the first time since their names had been inscribed on
the Cup. "Vladi's still far from fully alert," Wharton says.
"He's semiconscious a lot; he goes in and out. The nurses were
just waking him up when I got there, but as soon as he saw the
Cup, he smiled and reached out for it with his left hand. They
wheeled him down to therapy with the Cup in his lap, and he was
patting it. I asked him, 'Can you find your name?' He pointed to
it. Then I asked him if he wanted to drink from it again, and he
gave me a thumbs-up. I filled it with 12 ounces of apple juice,
and he drank some. Then he crooked his finger to tell me he
wanted more. He drank it all without spilling. The nurses had
tears in their eyes."
Mnatsakanov, too, drank apple juice from the Cup that morning,
though he had asked Wharton to fill it with vodka. He is
paralyzed below the waist and is not expected to walk again,
according to Dr. Sherry Viola, the rehabilitation therapist at
Beaumont. Mnatsakanov has also lost nearly all use of his left
arm. Both men undergo four hours of rehabilitation daily and are
expected to remain at Beaumont for several more months--though
several times Konstantinov has been spirited away by teammates
and therapists to Fedorov's house, where, with their help, he
swims in the pool. His therapists have noticed that Konstantinov
works harder when teammates are around, so Wharton makes sure
that whenever the team is in Detroit, one of the Wings visits
the hospital every day during Konstantinov's rehab session.
"The uncertainty is what's tough," says Wharton. "We just don't
know what the quality of Vladi's life is going to be. Will he be
a father and husband to his family? Will he be able to take care
of himself? The doctor has said he'll never play hockey again,
but nobody here wants to put a cap on it."
It is not in the nature of a champion to put a cap on anything.
So the Red Wings gather in the training room after games and
practices, nursing strains and bruises, and talk. "The training
room is like a coffee shop for the guys," Wharton says. "No
matter what we're talking about, inevitably the conversation
will turn to Vladi and Sergei. Someone will remember something
funny they said or did, or ask how they are doing. That's been
the best form of therapy for the guys."
There are harder things than defending a championship, and the
Red Wings all know it. They know it without talking about it, or
arming themselves with excuses, or forgetting how a team wins a
Stanley Cup in the first place--all the things that make it so
hard to repeat. "The team got closer, like a family, during the
playoffs," says Fetisov. "Then six days later the tragedy
happened, and we got even closer. This group of guys is not only
a hockey team, it's something special now."