Fifteen years ago, a young Detroit Red Wings defenseman was putting up numbers that won him statistical comparisons to Wayne Gretzky.
It wasn't Nicklas Lidstrom.
In 1997, Vladimir Konstantinov finished second in Norris Trophy voting with a plus-38 rating. A year before, he finished plus-60, a preposterous stat that hadn't been topped since Gretzky was a plus-70 nearly a decade earlier. The future of the Detroit blue line rested not so much on Lidstrom's relatively narrow shoulders, but on the wicked elbows of Konstantinov.
The recent retirement of Lidstrom – Konstantinov's last active teammate – warrants a mention of No. 16, which is a number that has not been worn by a Red Wings player since a limousine accident took the career and nearly the life of "Vlad The Impaler" 15 years ago Wednesday. It is easy to look back at the appropriately labeled "perfect" career of Lidstrom, but it's hard not to wonder how perfect Konstantinov's career would have been had he never got into that car after a post-Stanley Cup party.
"His beautiful life and his beautiful career are not the same," said his wife, Irina, reached by phone Tuesday. "Everything else fades compared to that."
For those who never watched him play, Konstantinov was a rare blend of skill and toughness. He was the Russian who wouldn't back down from anyone; in fact, he was the Russian who regularly threatened. He punished people, but not in a way that undermined his team. He could enforce with his body, his stickhandling, and his mind. Sports Illustrated's Michael Farber called him "the nastiest blueliner in the NHL."
While Lidstrom has been a given on the Detroit defense for all these years, the Wings have strived for the better part of a generation to find a replacement for Konstantinov, who survived for weeks in a coma after the 1997 accident but never regained full mobility or mental faculties. There was Jiri Fischer, who met a tragic but safe end to his career when doctors discovered a heart ailment. There was Chris Chelios, a two-way terror in his heyday but who arrived in Detroit as a (somewhat) mellowed 36-year-old. There's Niklas Kronwall today, a dangerous bodychecker and capable point-producer. All have been vital as Red Wings, but none had quite the spark of Konstantinov.
He recently auctioned off some of his artwork for charity.
"He's never going to have a full recovery," said Irina. "But he is in a good place. He's not depressed. He's not unhappy. And yet he's not a fully functioning member of society where he can make his own decisions. Sometimes we have him travel, but never to a really crowded place."
Konstantinov does have some recollection of his playing career. He remembers most of his teammates, including Lidstrom. "He was one of Vlady's favorite players," Irina said. "He thought they were similar. He really loved him so much."
Then she paused. "You know," she laughed, "he never said Lidstrom was any better than him."
What would have happened if Konstantinov remained healthy? It's crazy to think about, but Lidstrom might have been even better. He certainly would have felt less pressure, both to carry the team and to ward off assailants. He and Konstantinov were ideal complements: thunder and lightning, the sweet Swede and the rumbling Russian. Konstantinov would not have lasted in the modern NHL as long as Lidstrom did, and he wasn't as obscenely talented as Lidstrom was, but No. 5 was less than "perfect" only in the sense that he didn't physically rattle forwards. (Mentally? Completely different story.) The Red Wings, for all their Stanley Cups in the Lidstrom era, haven't been a rugged team. They still aren't. And in more than one playoff push over the years, including their most recent this spring, they've been out-toughed – especially on the blue line.
So although you can make the case that Lidstrom was forced into improving because of Konstantinov's absence, it's hard to say the Red Wings lived up to their full potential without Vlady.
And yet the team drew great inspiration from him for years. One of the greatest moments in Detroit sports history came when the Wings won the Cup in their first year without Konstantinov in 1998, and captain Steve Yzerman handed the trophy to his wheelchair-bound former teammate.
There have been other good moments since, as hard as life has been. Konstantinov still goes to games from time to time. His daughter, Anastasia, graduated from the University of Rhode Island last year. Irina lives in Florida now, working as a realtor. She sees Vlady "as often as possible." Fifteen years later, she wants her husband to keep growing, keep trying new things. She even mentioned bowling as something her husband is interested in.
"He wants to be invited places where the participation would not exceed his ability," she said. "We've kept it so private and for a long time we didn't want anyone to be sad for him. He's not a vegetable. He can be places. He won't remember all the people he meets but he enjoys the time he has. We would be thrilled if people would call in and say, 'Hey, we'd like to have him and accommodate his visit.' We're running out of ideas sometimes."
Fifteen years later, Vladimir Konstantinov's story is both inspiring and terribly sad. But the fact that Lidstrom lived up to his full potential is in some ways a tribute to his comrade. Lidstrom's long career, while a poignant reminder of Konstantinov's ability, has strengthened his teammate's legacy. They were drafted together in 1989, they came in together in 1991, they won a Stanley Cup together in 1997, and they will forever be remembered together as two of the best defensemen Detroit will ever see.
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