In the spring of 1997 — a quarter-century ago — the Detroit Red Wings embarked on their quest to end a 42-year Stanley Cup drought.
The Free Press has commemorated that historic quest with a new book: “Stanleytown 25 Years Later: The Inside Story of How the Stanley Cup Returned to the Motor City After 41 Frustrating Seasons.”
Day 59: June 13, 1997
The backstory: At 9:13 p.m. on a Friday the 13th, the Birmingham police received a report of a one-vehicle accident on Woodward Avenue about 400 yards south of Big Beaver. Throughout the afternoon and into the evening, most of the Red Wings were enjoying one last bash before scattering to their off-season locales. Their agenda called for sticks with little balls at the Orchards Golf Club in Washington Township, more camaraderie in the clubhouse and limousine rides home to be on the safe side. The guest of honor, naturally, was the Stanley Cup. Before the clock struck midnight, though, one of the greatest week’s in Michigan sports history suddenly turned into one of the most tragic.
Back to reality: That first night — in an ordeal that lasted months and whose reverberations continue to this day — the details were sketchy and rumors were rampant. The givens: Russian defensemen Vladimir Konstantinov, 30, and Slava Fetisov, 39, and team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov, 43, were seriously injured in a limo accident in Birmingham while returning from the golf outing. Their white stretch limousine careered off southbound Woodward into the grassy median of the divided road and hit at tree, crumpling the front end. The trio and the driver were rushed to William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak. Owner Mike Ilitch, who heard about a crash involving his team on television, arrived at the hospital about 10:45 p.m., dressed in a Wings windbreaker. “I’m concerned,” he said. “I’ve got to make sure my boys are taken care of.” Trainer John Wharton ran into the hospital around 11:30 p.m., followed by captain Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan. Other players followed. Konstantinov, Fetisov and Mnatsakanov had left the Orchards about 90 minute before the rest of team, which was to regroup at Chris Osgood’s home in Birmingham. When Yzerman’s cell phone rang with news on the accident, he gathered the team and delivered the grim details. “It was the worst feeling ever,” swingman Mathieu Dandenault said.
A reason to believe: Over the weekend, Konstantinov’s and Mnatsakanov’s lives were in the balance, listed in critical condition with massive head injuries. Fetisov was in fair condition with a chest injury and a bruised lung. The limo driver, Richard Gnida, also was in fair condition. Helene St. James of the Free Press provided the rest of the story on the limousine accident and its aftermath in her 2020 book, “The Big 50: Detroit Red Wings,” which also appeared in “Stanleytown 25 Years Later.”
He forced himself out of his hospital bed, ignoring the pain in his ribs, and limped into the next room. It was the middle of the night, and the only people around were staff.
In the other room, Slava Fetisov found Vladimir Konstantinov, his body covered in tubes and bandages, attached to monitors and IVs and a ventilator. Fetisov had been through this before. Twelve years earlier, in June 1985, Fetisov had been involved in a car accident that killed his brother, Anatoly. Fetisov couldn’t face another loss.
“A nurse told me that after I was gone, Slava came to Vladdie’s room,” Irina Konstantinov, Vladimir’s wife, said in a 1998 interview. “He could barely walk. He kind of crawled into the room, and he was sitting there in the dark next to Vladdie and he was crying and telling Vladdie, ‘Don’t you leave me.’” …
On Friday, June 13, players and team personnel enjoyed an outing with the Cup at the Orchards Golf Club in northern Macomb County. Rides had been arranged so that no one would have to worry how many times they had sipped from the Cup.
The stretch limousine was traveling south on Woodward Avenue in Birmingham when it veered across three lanes and crashed into a maple tree. Fetisov was hurled forward but his trajectory was halted by the mini fridge. He suffered a chest injury and a bruised lung and was released from the hospital after five days.
Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov were tossed into the minibar, shards of glass embedding in their heads. Konstantinov suffered what doctors called “scrambled brain,” a condition that can shear neurons and cause swelling. Mnatsakanov was thrown so violently that he suffered a fractured skull and broken spine. Brain matter leaked out of fissures. Both were comatose.
Irina Konstantinov found out about the accident from Fetisov’s wife, Lada. Elena Mnatsakanov, Sergei’s wife, was returning from walking the family dog when she saw a strange car in their driveway. A team official was waiting for her.
Back at the golf club, cell phones started ringing.
“To this day I remember that night,” Kirk Maltby said in 2019. “We had no idea how bad it was at first. We thought, ‘OK, they’re at the hospital, they’re getting treatment.’ We thought it was broken bones, something like that. Like, they could rehab and that would be that.”
Some players headed to William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, where the men had been rushed by ambulance. Others gathered at Chris Osgood’s home in Birmingham.
“We just waited, which was the hardest part,” Maltby said. “We didn’t know it was going to be near as bad as it was. When we finally got word that in particular Vladdie was fighting for his life, it was a very nervous quiet. No one wanted to talk.”
Over the coming days, fans set up vigils in front of the hospital. Reporters had cameras trained to catch visiting team personnel. Hospital staff had players and coaching staff enter through side entrances to minimize disruptions. The Stanley Cup was brought by stretcher beneath a sheet in an effort to bring cheer. …
The accident left Mnatsakanov paralyzed in both legs and his left arm. He hadn’t suffered the extensive brain damage that impaired Konstantinov, and he remembered what life had been like before the accident. When Mnatsakanov and Konstantinov attended a playoff game in 1998, watching from the Ilitch family’s suite, Konstantinov gave cheering fans a thumbs-up. Mnatsakanov waved a pom-pom with his only fully functioning arm, sobbing uncontrollably.
Gnida was released from the hospital June 15. Birmingham police initially said blood drawn from Gnida the night of the accident showed no evidence of drugs, but later amended that to say tests did show Gnida had traces of marijuana in his system. Police found a partially smoked marijuana cigarette under the driver’s seat.
Authorities theorized Gnida fell asleep at the wheel, causing the stretch limo to drift, jump the six-inch curb and hit the tree. That’s what Fetisov told friends: That he had shouted and pounded to get Gnida’s attention after noticing Gnida appeared unresponsive. Gnida told police he “blanked out.” Years later, he admitted he fell asleep.
After a 15-week investigation, Oakland County prosecutor David Gorcyca said officials couldn’t tell what effect, if any, the marijuana had on Gnida’s driving. There was no evidence, Gorcyca decided, that Gnida was under the influence when the accident happened. However, the investigating officer, Dave Schultz, in “Broken Wings,” a book written with Free Press columnist Charlie Vincent, said he had experts who thought Gnida had smoked pot three to six hours before the crash.
In October 1997, Gnida admitted he knew his driver’s license was suspended when he made the decision to chauffeur the limousine. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor second offense of driving on a suspended license. In November, Gnida was sentenced to nine months in jail and 200 hours of community service. Outrage over the law that mandated such a light sentence prompted lawmakers to pass bills that would make it a felony to cause serious injury or death while driving on a suspended or revoked license. …
Konstantinov was 30 years old at the time of his accident, in the prime of his career. He had led the NHL with a plus-60 rating in 1996. He was a finalist for the Norris Trophy for the first time in 1997. He had a big, beautiful home in Orchard Lake Village, a swanky suburb northwest of Detroit. The best years of his life beckoned.
JEFF SEIDEL IN 2019: Vladimir Konstantinov and his untold battle after fateful limo crash
Few players endeared themselves so quickly to Wings fans — and drew the enmity of every other team’s fan base — as Konstantinov, a stoic defenseman from the far northwest of Russia. He started playing for the Wings in 1991 and earned the nicknames the Vladinator and Vlad the Impaler for his open-ice hits and unforgiving play. He skated with intensity and irritation every shift, even as he logged heavy minutes against key opposing players. …
After the limo accident, Konstantinov was in a coma for two months at Beaumont Hospital. He was removed from a ventilator in late June, after undergoing a tracheostomy to ensure he was receiving enough oxygen. Doctors did not declare him fully conscious until mid-August.
Konstantinov should have been gearing up for training camp. Instead, he spent four hours a day working on balance and coordination.
He was released from the hospital in November so that he could continue rehabilitation in Florida, where the warmer climate would allow him to spend time outdoors. In January 1998, he joined his teammates for their visit to the White House.
“You are showing every day that you have the heart of a champion,” President Bill Clinton told him.
The family returned to Michigan in the spring and settled into a routine. Konstantinov spent eight hours a day undergoing physical, speech and occupational therapy. His brain was severely traumatized, but hard work? That was in Konstantinov’s DNA. …
Konstantinov’s presence during the 1997-98 season was everywhere his teammates were. They wore a patch on their sweaters with his and Mnatsakanov’s initials. Konstantinov’s gear hung in his locker, where Slava Kozlov had placed a smooth stone with the word “believe” written on it. An unknown woman had sent it Kozlov early in the 1997 playoffs, and he immediately went on a scoring binge. When the Wings won the Cup again in June 1998, teammates wheeled Konstantinov onto the ice at Washington’s MCI Center, put a championship hat on his head and gave him an unlit cigar. Yzerman placed the Cup in Konstantinov’s lap. Then they took him for a victory lap.
A decade later, Konstantinov still required 24-hour assistance from a team of caregivers. Irina and their daughter, Anastasia, lived in Florida but visited regularly at the West Bloomfield condo Konstantinov called home.
The wives of Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov filed a $290 million suit against Findlay Ford Lincoln Mercury, an Ohio car dealership, in 2004, alleging the limousine’s seat belts were inaccessible because they had been tucked under the seats. None of the passengers had been wearing one. The dealership had sold the Lincoln Town Car to Gambino’s, which was defunct by then.
The trial began in 2008. Witnesses included Wings legend Ted Lindsay, who, in vintage Lindsay form (he was 82 at the time) suggested Gnida deserved a bullet for his actions. “People like that should be shot,” Lindsay said. Yzerman testified that Konstantinov “could have played right up to now.” A federal jury rejected the suit, saying evidence did not prove the dealership was to blame. …
The maple tree in Birmingham became a landmark in the days after the accident. Fans erected shrines made of jerseys, candles, flowers and other mementos. Police removed the tributes after several accidents stemming from drivers stopping or slowing down to see the display.
A storm in early July 1997 caused substantial damage and prompted the city to cut the tree down, leaving a knobby stump in the grassy median. Eventually, that stump was removed, too.
The timeline: Key dates in the Wings’ battles with their injuries from their June 13, 1997, limousine accident:
• June 18: Fetisov was released from the hospital.
• June 19: Mnatsakanov had surgery to stabilize his spinal cord. He was still in a coma, and doctors were unsure whether he was paralyzed.
• June 24: Konstantinov showed more consistent responses to his family and made purposeful movements.
• June 29: Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov were upgraded from critical to serious condition. Konstantinov had been removed from a ventilator a day earlier.
• July 7: Mnatsakanov regained consciousness and was able to write his name in Russian.
• July 23: Konstantinov was out of his coma but not fully awake. He was upgraded to fair condition.
• Aug. 21: Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov were upgraded to good condition, and doctors said Konstantinov was fully conscious, though not able to speak or write. Mnatsakanov spoke sentences in Russian and English.
• Oct. 9: The Stanley Cup was taken to the hospital for a visit with Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov, hours before the Wings’ home opener and banner-raising ceremony. Mnatsakanov wanted to fill it with vodka; Konstantinov was able to find his name etched on the Cup.
• Nov. 1: Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov, in wheelchairs, visited practice at Joe Louis Arena and shared tears and laughs with teammates. “We want them to feel like they can come down here anytime they want,” Wharton said, “and just be part of this team the way they always were and the way they always will be.”
• Nov. 6: Doctors said Konstantinov had begun speaking — the names of his wife, Irina, and his daughter, Anastasia, and some Russian words.
• Nov. 9: Konstantinov left Beaumont to continue his rehabilitation in Florida during the winter months. The day before, he and Mnatsakanov received their Stanley Cup rings in a ceremony with the rest of the team.
• Dec. 2: Doctors said Mnatsakanov, paralyzed in both legs and his left arm, would be discharged to continue rehabilitation at his Grosse Pointe Woods home.
The letter: The Wings’ accident elicited an outpouring of support for Konstantinov, Mnatsakanov and Fetisov from around the world. “It is so touching, so emotional,” Fetisov said. “Every letter the people send me is from the heart. Especially from the kids; you can tell from their handwriting they are 6, 7, 8 years old. They send stuffed animals, usually bears, but sometimes other animals. Every letter is very special to me.” During the next season, Fetisov asked the Free Press to help him respond by publishing a letter to fans:
This summer, my family, friends and I went through a very tragic experience.
It helped us recover faster knowing there were people like you out there praying for a speedy recovery. My family and I would personally like to thank you from the bottom of our hearts for all your warm wishes and get-well cards.
It meant so much to my wife, Ladlena, my daughter, Anastasia, and myself that you were praying for us. We could not believe all the boxes and boxes of warm get-well cards, pictures, children’s drawings, stuffed animals, guardian angel pins and so many other special things we received and are still receiving. It puts tears to our eyes when we read these touching letters. We never knew so many people really cared.
We received get-well wishes not only from Michigan, but from all over the United States, Russia, Canada and Europe. It is so nice to know that there are such loving and caring people in the world.
I am sorry it took so long to thank everyone. I had hoped to answer each letter individually, but because of the overwhelming amount of mail I received, it is not humanly possible to do so. But I want each and every one of you to know how much it meant to my family and me. It was so thoughtful and a very special thing for you to do.
In Russia, we have a belief that when people think positive thoughts about someone, their vibes and prayers are sent to that person and help heal. I know if it wasn’t for all the support and love of my family, friends and fans, I would not be where I am today.
My great friends Vladimir and Sergei love all the mail they have received. Please continue to write to them and pray for them because this really helps them with their healing process.
Your friend, Slava Fetisov
Paying the price: First, Anaheim fired coach Ron Wilson after the Mighty Ducks were swept by the Wings in the Western Conference semifinals. Now, Philadelphia fired coach Terry Murray after the Flyers were swept by the Wings in the Stanley Cup Final. In Anaheim, management thought Wilson drew too much attention to himself. In Philadelphia, general manager Bob Clarke cited a rift between Murray and his players that was irreparable. Murray took plenty of heat from hockey pundits (and his players) for his decisions during the finals, from switching goalies from Ron Hextall to Garth Snow to Hextall; for his obsession to match lines with Wings coach Scotty Bowman; and for not giving sufficient ice time to his lethal Legion of Doom line featuring Eric Lindros. But Murray took his most heat from his players for saying the Flyers were “in a choking situation” after losing Game 3, 6-1. Clarke said he did not consult with players before his decision. “If you get beat four straight, the other team is better,” Clarke said. “The problems we have didn’t just surface. They’ve been here for the past couple of years.” Murray’s contract expired after the playoffs, but when the Flyers beat the Rangers in five games in the Eastern Conference finals, Clarke announced that Murray would be back next season “if he wants to be.” Murray immediately said he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. After the firing, Clarke declined to address the obviously frosty relationship between Murray and Lindros. But owner Ed Snider told the Philadelphia Inquirer: “I would agree they did not have a good relationship.”
Off the ice: “OUR CUPS” blared the big headline atop the front of Sports section of the Free Press. “OUR PRAYERS” read a headline nearly as big in the middle of the page. On Monday the 16th, the Free Press dealt with the diametric emotions of the days following the limo accident. The reason for “OUR CUPS” was that the Detroit Vipers had just won the Turner Cup as champions of the International Hockey League. In fact, on the left side of the headline was a photo of the Stanley Cup and on the right side of headline was a photo of the Turner Cup. “Detroit waited 42 years to capture a cup,” St. James wrote. “Eight days later, it captured its second.” The Vipers beat the Long Beach Ice Dogs, 2-0, in Game 6 before a rowdy crowd of 15,035 at the Palace of Auburn Hills. In the beginning, there was a moment of silence for fans to pray for Konstantinov, Mnatsakanov and Fetisov before the national anthem. In the end, Vipers captain Stan Drulia lifted the Turner Cup high above his head and skated it around the ice. The reason for “OUR PRAYERS” was because of two columns, one by Vincent and one by Keith Gave. From Brooklyn, Michigan, Vincent wrote: “Where Vladimir Konstantinov lies today — in a room cold with fear — Ernie Irvan lay less than three years ago.” In August 1994, Irvan drove his NASCAR racer into a concrete wall at Michigan International Speedway at 180 miles an hour or so. He did not break a thing, but the inside of his skull was a mess. “My brain stopped faster than it can stop,” he once told Vincent. Konstantinov’s brain also suffered from rapid deceleration. Irvan wasn’t expected to survive, let alone race again. But on this Father’s Day, back at MIS, he won the Miller 400 Winston Cup race. His recovery, more than his victory, “offers hope to everybody in the world,” Irvan said. “It’s going to be really tough for the hockey player to come back, but if it’s in God’s mind, he will.” Gave wrote about Konstantinov, a man he knew well. A U.S. spy-turned-newsman, Gave had traveled to Russia a few years earlier to unravel the elaborate ruse — that Konstantinov had terminal cancer — the Wings helped orchestrate, with piles of bribe money, to spirit him from the Red Army to the Red Wings. Gave wrote: “He’s the one guy we never worried about. No matter what happened, no matter how hard he was hit and how bad his fall, Vladimir Konstantinov always, always got up to hit somebody a little harder. Suddenly, with our summer of joy turned into a vigil, he’s the one we worry about most. The Vladinator, Vald the Impaler, Vladimir the Terrible, Grandpa, Curious George — the guy who certainly leads the NHL in nicknames, all of them fitting and worthy — lay in a coma in a Royal Oak hospital, his Red Wings teammates and all of us devastated by the crash that ruined a wonderful celebration. And now rather than talk about the good times we all had only a week ago … we whisper about a tragedy that has cast a pall over our city. And we embrace the slightest bit of information, regardless of its accuracy, that suggests that Vladdie and team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov are getting better. So it was Sunday, when doctors talked of Konstantinov, still comatose but responding to the voices of his family and team members. How it heartened us to learn they were playing his new favorite song — Queen’s ‘We Are the Champions’ — over at his bedside. We never worried about the Vladinator. Now we worry to death. … Now, more than ever, we should embrace a hockey marketing slogan and turn it into a prayer. “Get Up!!” Get up, Vladdie. You always do. Please, God. You too, Sergei, the masseur with the easy, friendly smile and healing hands. Get up. Then we’ll get on with enjoying the most wonderful summer of our lives. But only then.”
Famous last words: Mitch Albom tried to make sense out of the limo accident, the pain and the suffering:
In dealing with hope, there is little anyone — myself included — can say to make things better. Prayer helps. So does perspective.
So remember this. The respirator that is helping Konstantinov breathe right now was hooked to someone else before him. The bed he occupies was once occupied by someone else as well. Those patients were all loved by someone. They were all the most important person in someone’s life — just as Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov are to their loved ones. And they all fought a lonely battle to live. It made no difference if they were famous. These things happen. They just happen.
Real life doesn’t offer explanations. And so we wait, we check the newspapers and the radio and we try to go on with our lives. You wonder how we can absorb such disparate signals, how such a wonderful weekend can coexist with such a tragic weekend.
The answer, I believe, beats deep inside every one of us. The human heart is boundless, it makes room for all things, it puts a sunny day next to a critically injured athlete and prays the good will rub off on the bad. We pray along with it.
Relive the glory: The Free Press has crafted a 208-page, full-color, hardcover collector’s book with fresh insights and dynamic storytelling about the 1996-97 Wings. It’s called “Stanleytown 25 Years Later: The Inside Story on How the Stanley Cup Returned to the Motor City after 41 Frustrating Seasons.” It’s only $29.95 and it’s available at RedWings.PictorialBook.com. (It’ll make a great Father’s Day gift for the Wings fanatic in your life!)
More to read: Another new Wings book arrived in April from Keith Gave, a longtime hockey writer for the Free Press in the 1980s and 1990s: “Vlad The Impaler: More Epic Tales from Detroit’s ’97 Stanley Cup Conquest.” It is available through Amazon and other booksellers and a portion of the proceeds is earmarked for the Vladimir Konstantinov Special Needs Trust. (Plenty of Gave’s prose also appears in “Stanleytown 25 Years Later.”)
Even more to read: Red Wings beat reporter Helene St. James, who helped cover the 1997 Stanley Cup run, recently wrote “The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Detroit Red Wings.” Featuring numerous tales about the key figures from 1997, “The Big 50” is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. (Plenty of St. James’ prose also appears in “Stanleytown 25 Years Later.”)
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