Tuesday, June 12, 2012

15 Years Later: What Could Have Been, and What Really Matters

The scene inside Joe Louis Arena's Olympia Club was an emotional one. Employees were dressed in red #16 sweaters, a reminder of the number that will soon hang from the rafters with other Red Wings legends. Vladimir Konstantinov is retiring from the game of hockey after one final Stanley Cup championship, his fourth, at the age of 41. The last of the Russian Five is gone, and one of Detroit's most dominant eras may be coming to a close. He leaves the game having cemented his legacy as one half of the greatest defense pairing of all time, the man who traded the majority of the last decade's Norris Trophies with defense partner Nicklas Lidstrom like they were starting a D-to-D breakout.

It's hard to imagine, and yet it's not much of a stretch. Konstantinov was just hitting his stride during the 1996-97 season, and in many ways was overshadowing teammate, living legend, and future Hockey Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom. "If you asked 100 people back then to name our best defenseman, it would be about even," Red Wings GM Ken Holland told ESPN The Magazine in 2008. "But a few more might have said Konstantinov."

Konstantinov was coming off a season in which he was a Norris trophy finalist and finished runner-up to Brian Leetch. His combination of skill and grit was a perfect fit for a city well known for embracing blue collar players.

"Sometimes, we sit around and reflect internally," Holland told the Free Press in 2007. "Where would we be if we'd had a healthy Konstantinov?"


On the evening of June 13, 1997, a white limousine carrying three members of the Detroit Red Wings organization streaked through the dusk and collided with a tree at 50 miles per hour. The driver, Richard Gnida, was driving with a suspended license and had previously been twice convicted of driving under the influence. He claims to have blacked out during the incident. Gnida never heard the passengers banging on the partition to try and get his attention.

Konstantinov and team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov both sustained closed head injuries. Defenseman Slava Fetisov walked away with relatively minor injuries and rejoined the Red Wings the following season.

Mnatsakanov is mentioned less frequently than Konstantinov, but his story is just as tragic. He shares many similarities with Konstantinov. Both had defected from Russia, and both were living their dream; to be in the National Hockey League. The two had just ascended to the pinnacle of their profession when, six days later, their lives changed forever.

The limousine accident is the tarnish on the silver chalice for Detroit. It's impossible to think about the 1997 championship without thinking about the accident. The two are inextricably linked.

Who knows what could have happened if the accident never occurred? Does Konstantinov go on to reach the sustained level of brilliance so many think he could? Does Mnatsakanov become a

Could-haves and should-haves are intriguing thoughts, but dangerous as well. One thing, however, is certain. The Red Wings repeated as Stanley Cup champions in 1998, driven by tragedy, motivated by the loss of a teammate and a member of the organization.

Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov's impact extends beyond the hockey world. They reminded the world at large of the fragility of life, that no matter how high a pedestal you're put on you can always be taken back down. Most importantly, the two men showed us the power of collective belief in overcoming daunting circumstances. Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov both sustained life-threatening injuries. Today, Konstantinov is able to use his walker and Mnatsakanov his wheelchair to attend games at Joe Louis Arena. They will forever symbolize not just what it means to be a Detroit Red Wing, but what it means to be a courageous human being.

The patch that adorned Detroit's jerseys throughout the 1997-98 season summed it up in two languages and one word: believe.

Like it? Hate it? Let me know (and follow me) on Twitter @TOGBlog1 or by email at theoctopigarden@gmail.com


  1. could-haves and should-haves???

    1. Good point. Luckily I got it right in the post title