Monday, May 26, 2008

Human tragedy overshadows Detroit's quest

THERE ARE two photographs which have haunted me the last few days. And both show just how quickly a life can change.
The first one was of a gregarious Vladimir Konstantinov holding the Stanley Cup high over his head immediately after his Detroit Red Wings claimed hockey's holy grail in 1997. His mouth was obviously forming a whoop of exhilaration.
From that night of pure joy was another of a big man with a receding hairline, walking, well not exactly walking, but trudging up the handicap walkway to a federal building in Detroit, his hands gripping a walker.
It was still Konstantinov, however, more than a decade had passed from that night to his descent into pure hell; one filled with pain and confusion.
Of course, I had remembered Konstantinov as the Detroit rearguard, who seemed to be in control at all times while delivering out vicious hits. In fact, I've viewed his clean, but devastating hit on a pesky Claude Lemieux at least a half dozen times on the Net.
While his team, the Red Wings, have already sent the Pittsburgh Penguins reeling 4-0 in the first game of the Stanley Cup Saturday night, the image of Konstantinov painfully pushing a walker is something hard to erase from one's mind.
However, for Konstantinov and, actually, for the the entire Detroit origanization, their world as they had known it came crashing down on June 13, 1997.
It had only been six days since the Wings had claimed its first NHL championship since 1955 and some had gathered at the Orchards Golf Club in northern Macomb County before scattering to places all around the world.
Then fate drove a terrible blow into the heart of everything hockey.
In a white stretch limo were Konstantinov, Slava Fetisov and the Wings' massage therapist Sergei Mnatsakanov while Richard Gnida, who had less than a spotless driving record, was at the wheel.
On the return from the golf outing, Gnida apparently fell asleep and the limo crossed three lanes and eventually smashed into a tree. It was a crash heard around the hockey world for it nearly ended Konstantinov's life; put Mnatsakanov in a wheelchair while Fetisov had to spend time in hospital. Gnida had only minor injuries.
For a decade that crash has weighed on the NHL. It was one of those rare what-might-have-been moments.
After all, Konstantinov had been one of the brightest lights in the Detroit future, but then he was in a coma. The Detroit fans couldn't believe that their Vladinator was erased from their future.
There was a very long time when Konstantinov's life was at stake and the same applied to Mnatsakanov's as well for their head injuruies from the crash were extremely severe.
Then began the lengthy healing process, followed by a series of lawsuits against the car manufacturer and the limo services. On Friday, after nearly 11 years, they, seemingly, were about to end, one day before the start of the 2008 Stanley Cup quest for Vladdie's beloved Red Wings.
While he's attended some Detroit games and functions in the past few years, the past weeks has been bogged down in a lawsuit against the Ohio car dealership, which had supplied the limo that crashed in 1997.
It was an explosive 15 days, filled with dramatic testimony, particularly, from always feisty former Detroit star and Hockey Hall of Famer Ted Lindsay, who unleashed venom toward limo driver Gnida.
And during Lindsay's diatribe, he also lauded Konstantinov. "He was the greatest machine in the world ... Today, I see this vegetable and to me it just kind of makes me sick (compared) to what was the greatest hockey player in the world. It's a shame," he was quoted as saying in the Detroit News.
Although Lindsay, now 82, and 41-year-old Konstantinov played in different eras, they have become good friends, particularly, as both have worked out together at the Detroit training facility.
However, when the trial ended last Friday, the federal jury ruled 6-1 in favour of the car dealership and rejected a $290-million damages claim, according to wire reports.


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