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Injured Konstantinov Not in Red Wings’ Locker Room, but He’s Never Far From Their Thoughts

TIMES STAFF WRITER

His equipment has been laid out neatly in his locker, the skates hanging on hooks, the shin pads propped up on a shelf and his gloves placed palms up. Stacks of hockey cards, bound by rubber bands, await his signature.

At any moment, it seems, Vladimir Konstantinov will walk into the Detroit Red Wing locker room, jam his feet in those skates, slide his fingers into the gloves, grab a stick and prepare for another rugged game.

That won’t happen any time soon. Probably never.

Nor will massage therapist Sergei Mnatsakanov stand beside a training table to loosen the knots in players’ tired muscles.

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Caught up in the grind of the season and the routines of their lives, the Red Wings rarely discuss the limousine crash that left Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov with extensive brain damage last June 13, six days after the club’s first Stanley Cup championship since 1955. The locker speaks for them. It symbolizes the gaping hole in their hearts, but it also crystallizes their hope that despite grim diagnoses and daunting odds, their missing colleagues will return and everything will be as it was before.

On the surface, the pair’s absence isn’t obvious. The Red Wings are giving up a few more shots a game than last season, and there are some new faces on the penalty-killing unit and a new, temporary masseur in the training room. Their 6-1-2 record is among the NHL’s best, even though they are also without unsigned free-agent center Sergei Fedorov.

To think the two men aren’t deeply missed, however, would be wrong. The Red Wings, who will be in Anaheim tonight to face the Mighty Ducks and at the Forum on Thursday to play the Kings, haven’t forgotten. They can’t forget, because that would be like forgetting part of themselves.

For associate coach Dave Lewis, the wound reopens every time a crucial situation arises on the ice and he instinctively thinks to tap Konstantinov on the shoulder, only to realize Konstantinov isn’t there. “That’s where I notice it, penalty killing and four on four,” said Lewis, who supervises Detroit’s defensemen. "[Slava Fetisov], Vladdie, Igor [Larionov] and [Slava Kozlov] had a certain magic, and we’re aware of that.”

Fetisov, who was also a passenger in the limousine and suffered relatively minor injuries, marvels at his own luck and mourns his friends’ misfortune each time he sees Konstantinov’s locker. His eyes, like those of every player, are often drawn to that terrible empty space.

“It’s pretty much difficult,” Fetisov said. “He’s not here with us and it’s like guys have had fun since we won the Cup, but we can’t really have fun. We have big hope he may come back. The locker reminds everybody on game days they have to step up and do something extra.”

The day after Kozlov ended a contract dispute and rejoined the team, he placed in the palm of Konstantinov’s gloves the lucky rock a fan had sent him last May for his birthday. On the rock is written the word Believe, and that has become the Red Wings’ mantra. Each player has on his uniform a patch with the word written in English and Russian and the two injured men’s initials, and the motto is not taken lightly.

The Red Wings believe Konstantinov, who can’t talk or care for himself, and Mnatsakanov, who can’t walk or use his left arm, will recover. They believe that if they keep the men’s spirit with them, the two aren’t fighting alone.

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“It’s like we lost a brother, and there’s nothing much you can do but play for him,” winger Darren McCarty said. “You can say because we have the patch or whatever that we haven’t forgotten them, but they’re included in everything we do. We’re doing a baseball pool for the World Series and we included them. Why not? They’d be in it if they were here.”

Said forward Kris Draper: “There’s probably not a guy in this room that doesn’t look at Vladdie’s locker stall before he goes out there for a game or for practice. It’s sad, but he’s with us.”

What caused driver Richard Gnida to veer across several lanes of traffic and slam into a tree remains a mystery. Drug and alcohol tests were negative and he has pleaded guilty only to driving with a suspended license.

As soon as they learned of the accident, the close-knit Red Wings--who earlier that day had gathered for a golf outing before parting for the summer--met again at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich.

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“Everybody was so high on winning the Cup. It was like a dream, and it turns out to be a nightmare,” said winger Tomas Sandstrom, who left Detroit to sign with the Ducks as a free agent Aug. 1. “When it first happened, when we were there and [Konstantinov] was in a deep coma, the doctors said they’d seen people who were worse who walked out of the hospital. So it’s hard to say. But you hear he’s not doing that well.”

Both suffered brain injuries. Mnatsakanov, who also suffered a spinal injury, emerged from his coma first. He initially spoke only in his native Russian but now communicates in English well enough to have asked John Wharton, the Red Wing trainer, to let him sip vodka out of the Stanley Cup when Wharton brought the Cup to Beaumont’s Rehabilitation Institute to show them their newly inscribed names.

Konstantinov, whose brain damage is more widespread, still has difficulty communicating and moving. To encourage him--and themselves--his teammates look at how far he has come, not how much further he must go.

“It’s devastating to see Vladdie like that, but every day you see he can do a little more,” Draper said. “The biggest change was when I left to go to Toronto for the summer, he was in a coma, and when I came back, he was out of the coma. The last time I went, he was sitting in a wheelchair and feeding himself jello. He was playing catch with a ball too. He has a little basket he plays with.

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“He’s lost a lot of weight, but he still has a great grip. He works with balls, squeezing balls all the time, and when he shakes your hand he can really grip.”

Only last week, Konstantinov got up out of his wheelchair with assistance and moved his legs, a development Wharton found encouraging.

“We all know we’re all in it for the long haul. It’s going to take years,” Wharton said. “It’s important to be realistic. In the big scheme of things, they’re not doing really well, but we continue to see progress and it appears to me the progress seems to be picking up in pace. . . .

“Vladdie feeds himself. He’s laughing. He’s starting to initiate a lot more of his movements and he’ll lean forward and reach out more readily to shake hands. He’s getting things immediately. For a while, we didn’t know if he was getting things when someone would say something to him. Now, he’s able to comprehend what’s going on.”

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Players and club officials, including owners Mike and Marian Ilitch, visit often and lend support during the men’s daily sessions of physical, occupational and speech therapy. “The nurses and therapists have told us they work harder when teammates are there,” Wharton said.

Before the accident, Fetisov had considered retiring. Buoyed by a remarkable outpouring of sympathy from fans and determined to be close to his injured friends, he decided to stay in Detroit another season.

“When I was laying down in the hospital, I didn’t think to come back. But people were so warm, so kind, so helpful to us and our families, our neighbors and friends and even strangers,” Fetisov said. “We got great support. We had a charity game a week since the accident happened and people gave me a standing ovation [during a pregame ceremony]. I decided to try to do my best to play for these people. I feel I have to try for one more year to help the young defensemen.”

Those youngsters are doing well. Aaron Ward is usually paired with veteran Bob Rouse and Jamie Pushor is partnered with Fetisov, so each has an on-ice mentor. In addition, Swedish defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom has taken his already fine game to a higher level and is filling Konstantinov’s role of playing against opponents’ top lines.

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“We’re never going to get used to playing without Vladdie. He was the MVP of this hockey club,” Draper said. “There’s not one guy that’s going to replace Vladdie. It’s going to have to be 20 guys replacing Vladdie.”

Although the Red Wings are off to a strong start, Sandstrom says Konstantinov’s loss might hurt them later. “They still have a good team, but he’s one of the top three defensemen in the league, a guy who plays 30 minutes a game and kills penalties,” Sandstrom said. “They’ve got some good guys coming up and maybe this will be a big chance for them, but it’s almost impossible to replace a guy like him.”

No argument from the Red Wings there. “We can’t replace him,” Coach Scotty Bowman said. “Our team is only as good as the next guy. We’ve lost three of the guys who were our top six last year [with Fedorov unsigned and Mike Vernon traded to San Jose]. It’s a big challenge for our players.”

The biggest challenge is being faced by Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov. But if they haven’t given up, how can their teammates?

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“We’ve seen Vladdie get hit and come back up. If any other guy was in this situation, I don’t know what might happen, but he definitely is the most mentally tough guy around,” Draper said. “If anyone is going to walk in and put that gear on, it’s him.”


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