By the time he joined the NHL's Detroit Red Wings in 1991, Vladimir Konstantinov was already a standout defenseman with the Central Red Army team in Moscow and a captain of the Soviet national team. Known for that hitting ability and solid defensive play, he helped the Wings end a 42-year drought to win the Stanley Cup in 1997. Tragedy struck shortly after that victory, however, ending his playing career and almost costing him his life.
Konstantinov was born in 1967 in Murmansk, a town above the Arctic Circle that receives only two hours of sunlight a day in winter. He dedicated himself to hockey in order to work his way out of there and by the age of 17 he was able to move to Moscow, joining the Red Army team.
Within a couple of years Konstantinov grew interested in applying his talents to the North American game and so he made the necessary arrangements with Detroit, the team that had drafted him 221st overall in 1989. In 1991 Konstantinov made the move to Detroit, and he made an immediate impact. An aggressive, crafty player who relished the physical nature of the North American game, he was selected to the league's All-Rookie Team in 1992. Over the next few years he became one of the better defenders in the league.
He became known for his hard hits, both on open ice and along the boards, and his liberal use of his stick earned him some nasty nicknames, including "Vladimir the Terrible," "Bad Vlad" and "Vlad the Impaler." He was an expert at forcing opponents to take penalties, hitting them legally or otherwise, and then waiting for the referee to catch his adversary in the act of retaliating.
In 1996, Konstantinov's defensive toughness earned him a plus/minus rating of plus-60 ? tops in the NHL ? and he was selected to the Second All-Star Team that year. In 1996-97 Konstantinov had an outstanding season. He was nominated for the Norris Trophy as the league's best defenseman, and the Wings team he toiled for was one of the best in the NHL. The team had not won the Stanley Cup since 1955, but with Konstantinov, Fetisov, Sergei Fedorov and Igor Larionov leading the way, the Red Wings easily dispatched the favored Philadelphia Flyers in the 1997 finals to win the Stanley Cup.
On Friday, June 13, 1997, six days after their sweep of the Flyers, the Red Wings held a golf tournament and dinner for 17 players and staff. After the dinner, Konstantinov, Fetisov and Sergei Mnatsakanov, a masseur with the team, headed home in a limousine. The driver, Richard Gnida, who had had his license revoked prior to the incident, fell asleep at the wheel. The three men in the back screamed for him to wake up but he had already lost control of the vehicle. The car crossed three lanes of traffic, jumped a curb and struck a tree. Although Gnida was wearing a seatbelt, the three passengers were not. Fetisov suffered chest and lung injuries but was not at serious risk. Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov, however, were badly hurt with serious head injuries. Both men were hooked up to ventilators and both lapsed into comas.
Konstantinov's teammates gathered around his hospital bed, talking to him and playing songs such as Queen's "We Are The Champions", music he had been listening to in the days prior to the accident. Larionov spoke to Konstantinov daily in Russian.
It would be five weeks before Konstantinov came out of the coma, a week after Mnatsakanov regained consciousness. Konstantinov recovered slowly, at first barely aware of what was going on around him. Teammates brought him the Stanley Cup, which brought a glimmer of recognition. Over the next year he had to relearn basic skills such as recognizing friends and family, eating for himself and operating a wheelchair. His heroic fight to recover inspired his teammates. When the Wings won their second consecutive Stanley Cup in 1997-98, Konstantinov was present at the Joe Louis Arena, in a wheelchair, and captain Steve Yzerman presented him with the Cup to the cheers of the crowd.