Rick Stewart / Allsport
by Michael Farber
In May 2008 Hockey Hall of Famer and Red Wings great Ted Lindsay took the stand in U.S. District Court in the case of Konstantinov et al v. Findlay Ford Lincoln Mercury et al. Terrible Ted, then 82, a blunt talker whose worn mug is the face of Old-Time Hockey, put his right hand on a Bible and swore to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. This was Lindsay’s truth: Eleven years earlier, Vladimir Konstantinov was “the greatest hockey player in the world” and perhaps on his way to being the best defenseman of all time. Lindsay’s assessment of Konstantinov—the Vladinator, Vlad the Impaler, a shot-in-the-dark 11th-round draft pick in 1989 who became an essential part of the Red Wings’ Stanley Cup teams in the ’90s—might have been overly generous, but Lindsay has never been hauled back into court on a perjury charge.
Ten months later, on an unseasonably warm March day, “the greatest hockey player in the world” lurches into the living room of his town house in suburban Detroit, grasping a walker. He has returned from a visit to his doctor and is accompanied by one of the nurses who provide round-the-clock assistance. He plops into a chair at a table off the kitchen to play a card game, Uno, with a Russian-speaking nurse. Irina Konstantinov says her husband really likes Uno.
“The left frontal lobe,” she starts. “It handles executive functioning, where a person analyzes their own behavior, determines whether it’s right and appropriate. That he doesn’t have. Destroyed. He can’t process idealistic feelings about life, like love of country or happiness that his child is graduating. Everything for him is matter of fact.”
These are the facts: At around 9 p.m. on June 13, 1997, on the way home from a final Red Wings party to celebrate Detroit’s first Stanley Cup in 42 years, a limousine transporting Konstantinov, defenseman Viacheslav Fetisov and team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov veered across several lanes, jumped a curb and slammed into a tree. The driver, Richard Gnida, whose license had been suspended for drunken driving, had fallen asleep at the wheel. The passengers were not wearing seat belts. Konstantinov suffered life-threatening head injuries in the crash; Mnatsakanov was paralyzed from the waist down; and Fetisov had a bruised lung and chest contusions. (During the civil suit against the car dealership that sold the limo to Gnida’s employer, Konstantinov’s trial lawyer argued that the dealership was negligent because the seat belts were inaccessible. After 90 minutes of deliberation, an eight-member jury ruled in favor of the dealership.) Konstantinov received a share of a $2 million judgment from the limo owner’s insurance carrier, which under Michigan no-fault law is also paying his medical, rehab, and residential care expenses.
At 42 Konstantinov is a contented man, Irina says, though a broken one. He has no memories of the crash but certainly remembers who he is. Or was. A framed tribute to Konstantinov from the NHL Players Association hangs in the living room. Thumbing through a picture book from Fetisov’s 50th birthday celebration, which he and Irina attended in Moscow last year, Konstantinov recognizes many of the faces. He reads the sports section of The Oakland (Mich.) Press every morning. He undergoes regular physical and massage therapy. He is, in fact, in better condition than most people who have suffered catastrophic brain trauma.
Konstantinov occasionally attends Red Wings games at Joe Louis Arena, sitting at an empty stall in the dressing room and moving to the bench to watch the warmup. The players say he never initiates conversation but always responds with a few words. “Whether they played with him or not, guys come over and shake his hand,” says center Kris Draper, who played four seasons with Konstantinov. “Talk a bit. Make sure he’s doing O.K. It’s tough. Vladi was a guy who loved wearing Versace. So you see him and ask if his blazer’s Versace. He’ll say, ‘No. Hugo Boss.’ You just talk to him.”
Konstantinov had become a Red Wing through a tortuous route. Detroit’s European scout, Christer Rockstrom, had seen him playing in Russia with the Red Army team, and he was impressed by his toughness during a famous brawl between Canada and the Soviet Union at the 1987 world junior championship in Piestany, Czechoslovakia. Late in the 1989 draft, says Neil Smith, then the Wings’ chief scout, “we’d literally run out of names. After the 10th round, I said to Christer, ‘Who you got now?’ He says, ‘Remember the captain from the fighting team in Piestany? We should take him because he’s really, really tough.’ ”
It took another two years for Konstantinov to make it to Detroit. During the 1991 world championships in Finland, a team of Red Wings officials arranged for Konstantinov’s defection, greasing the skids with bribe money that then Detroit executive vice president Jim Lites says totaled more than $50,000. Cooperative doctors announced that the 5′ 11″, 176-pound never-sick-a-day-in-his-life Konstantinov had an inoperable sarcoma and hospitalized him for a month. The Red Army discharged its “critically ill” captain, and 48 hours later, as tanks cruised Red Square during the 1991 coup attempt, Konstantinov was out of the country, jetting from Budapest to Detroit on Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch’s plane. Irina and two-year-old Anastasia, clutching the beloved pink rhino her father had brought home from a hockey trip because he mistook it for a teddy bear, followed a few days later. “He was always so honest,” Irina says now, glancing at her husband as he flips through the Fetisov birthday book. “It was excruciating for him to forsake his country. I told him, either we stay and wait years and hope, or we go without permission. He thought about it and said, ‘O.K., I go.’ ”
Konstantinov played six seasons in Detroit. In 1995–96 he compiled a +60 rating, the highest since Wayne Gretzky’s +70 nine years earlier. The following year he would finish second to the Rangers’ Brian Leetch for the Norris Trophy. He was 30, entering his hockey prime. “Vladi was a step ahead of me,” says fellow ’89 draft pick Nicklas Lidstrom. “He was playing the game real hard. Whether he was playing against [enforcer] Stu Grimson or going up against Gretzky or [Mario] Lemieux, he would play the same way. He was never afraid of laying a hit on a tough guy. He was an excellent skater, strong on his feet. [He was] fearless on the ice.”
A staple on the Detroit scoreboard in the mid-1990s was a video compilation of the Vladinator’s greatest hits, a bit that ended with a close-up of Konstantinov, in sunglasses, imitating Schwarzenegger. “Hasta la vista, baby,” Konstantinov would enunciate. The crowd would always go crazy. Now there is a new catchphrase. The sentiment is hardly original, but these are the words on the sign, handcrafted by one of the nurses who plays endless hands of Uno with Konstantinov, that rests on the coffee table:
Yesterday is history
Tomorrow is a mystery
Today is a gift.