By: Ted Kulfan, The Detroit News
Detroit — The years really have flown, like a blur, and sometimes when you pause for a moment and reflect, it’s difficult to believe.
Twenty years. Really?
“We’re getting older,” said Chris Osgood, former goaltender and current television analyst. “The years are flying by.”
The date was June 13, 1997, the ugly date when former Red Wings defensemen Vladimir Konstantinov and Slava Fetisov, along with team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov were involved in a serious limousine crash which left Fetisov with a bruised lung and chest contusions, Mnatsakanov paralyzed from the waist down, and Konstantinov with head injuries which have impacted his life.
Just six days after the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup, their first in 42 years, and had the entire city of Detroit rejoicing.
The mood was so lively. And then, in an instant, as news of the accident spread, and the severity of it became known, suddenly the mood became much darker.
“Just terrible, so sad,” said Jimmy Devellano, then Red Wings’ general manager (current senior vice-president/alternate governor), who had drafted and brought Konstantinov to North America. “We were just talking about it the other day, actually, the impact (on the families involved, the organization). Everything can change, in such an instant.”
For Konstantinov, specifically, the ugly turn of events tragically turned his life upside down.
A potential Norris Trophy-winning player, Konstantinov was a star player at age 30 who could have extended and strengthened the Red Wings’ then-dynasty, and enjoyed a potential Hall of Fame career.
But, instead, Konstantinov today needs a walker to get around. He’s never regained full mobility or mental faculties. He needs 24-hour care.
What his life is now, wasn’t Konstantinov’s life back then, or could have been.
“To this day, you just can’t believe it happened,” former teammate Kris Draper said. “Just an unbelievable tragedy.”
Red Wings fans, and most Detroit sports fans, know the particulars well by now.
Most of that Red Wings’ Cup-winning team — most estimates put it at 17 players — gathered for a golf outing at Orchards Golf Club in Washington Township, one last time to be together and celebrate the unforgettable season.
“We were a very close team,” Osgood said. “It was an opportunity, one last time before the summer, to hang out and play some golf and have a good time with each other.”
Talk to anyone involved, and one thing is always stressed.
Plenty of transportation was ordered and on hand to make sure anyone who needed it later in the day would have it.
“We were responsible,” Osgood said.
At approximately 9 p.m., a limousine with Konstantinov, Fetisov and Mnatsakanov veered across three lanes while traveling on Woodward in Birmingham, jumped a curb and slammed into a tree.
Richard Gnida, the driver, fell asleep at the wheel. The Red Wings’ personnel in the car were not wearing seat belts.
Gnida was operating the vehicle with a driver’s license that had been revoked in July 1996. Gnida had 11 traffic violations since 1990, including speeding, driving with a suspended license, and driving under the influence.
Gnida was sentenced to nine months in jail and ordered to perform 200 hours of community service at a facility for patients with head injuries. The jail term was followed by 15 months of probation.
Players were supposed to meet at Osgood’s house at the end of the day, and break up from there. Instead, while at a restaurant after leaving the golf course, they got word from captain Steve Yzerman, who received the first phone call.
“Stevie got the call, and you could tell it wasn’t good,” Osgood said. “You just know. He and some of the veterans went to the hospital. We kind of stayed behind.
“It just got real quiet.”
Using the inspiration from the plight of Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov, the Red Wings won the 1998 Stanley Cup in an heart-warming, season-long run.
“No one really talked about it, but it was understood,” Osgood said. “Guys knew it. We had to win it for Vlade.”
Obviously, the Red Wings continued to mix and match, patch and fill holes, and would continue to make the playoffs (25 consecutive seasons before missing in April), and won Stanley Cups in 2002 and 2008.
But not having Konstantinov in the lineup, the impact it had on the organization going forward can’t be overstated.
“I’ll say this to you, and I’m not going to sit here and tell you something like had we had Vladi we would have won another two or three Stanley Cup, for sure,” Devellano said. “But I will tell you this: I feel confident in saying we would have won one more Stanley Cup there, somewhere, with him in the lineup, and the core of players we had around him.
“You think of Vladi, what happened to Jiri Fischer (heart ailment) in his prime, those are outstanding hockey players. To be able to do what we did, it was quite something.”
Konstantinov was coming off a season in which he was a finalist for the Norris Trophy, and was being discussed in terms of the best overall defenseman in the NHL, rivaling teammate Nicklas Lidstrom.
During the 1995-96 season Konstantinov had a ridiculous plus-60 plus-minus rating — the highest since Wayne Gretzky’s plus-70 nine years earlier.
The on-ice ability, highlighted by his snarly, edgy physical style and great offensive instincts, were complemented by his off-ice variables.
“The thing that struck me about him when he played with the Wings, (was) the leadership and the competitiveness,” said Paul Woods, the Red Wings’ radio analyst. “Vladimir Konstantinov played the game so hard, so competitively, he was an incredible teammate.
“A lot of people talk about his hits and the physical play, but his offensive game was superb. The passing, the Russian, puck-possession style, He was an all-around player.”
Having the defensive pairing of Konstantinov and Lidstrom, both entering the prime of their careers, in the pre-salary cap NHL era, would have been an incredible nucleus to build around.
“To have two guys like that,” Devellano said, wistfully. “One so calm and collected (Lidstrom), one with so much grit and talent (Konstantinov). What a pair of defensemen they could have been.”
Konstantinov, now 50, lives with fulltime caretakers in Ann Arbor (“wonderful, heaven-sent people who have helped Vladi immeasurably,” Devellano said). His wife, Irina, who didn’t respond to voice messages and emails for this story, lives in Florida while a young adult daughter lives in New Jersey.
Konstantinov occasionally attends Red Wings games — maybe not as often as before — visits with former teammates, spends time in the locker room, will watch the Red Wings warm up. He’ll sit in the owners’ box, many times with Devellano.
“To at least see him move around in a walker, not be confined to a wheel chair, to at least see him walk with a walker, that makes me feel a bit better,” Devellano said. “That gives him some quality of life. To have seen him in a wheelchair all these years, it would have been devastating.”
The present-day Red Wings know the story, the history, and always extend a handshake, a smile, the respect of one generation of hockey player to another.
“You talk about the history of the Red Wings, and all the great players who’ve been around,” Osgood said, “he’s one of them.”