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'We can tell that he is very happy'

Smiles all around as Konstantinov, wife visit Wings at The Joe

Posted: Saturday May 30, 1998 07:07 PM

  Konstantinov made his first trip to Joe Louis Arena since visiting the team during a practice early in the season (AP)

DETROIT (AP) -- The smile was warm enough to melt the ice at Joe Louis Arena. Not to mention a few thousand hearts.

Detroit defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov paid a visit to the Red Wings on Saturday. Clearly, he was glad he was back. So were the Red Wings.

"Anytime you see him, you can't help but smile," Detroit forward Kirk Maltby said. "We just want him to know we're thinking about him all the time. You know he's happy to be back in the locker room."

Still, this wasn't the "Vladinator" that Red Wings fans have come to know and love. Konstantinov, 31, is still recovering from last summer's limousine crash that left him with debilitating head injuries.

"He is very excited to be here," Konstantinov's wife, Irina said. "We can tell that he is very happy. But he's not a different person from the day before the injury and the day after the injury. He's absolutely himself."

Konstantinov, who is expected to attend Sunday's playoff game between the Red Wings and Dallas Stars, returned Friday from Florida where he spent six months at a rehabilitation center. He arrived in the arena in a black Mercedes-Benz. Arena security clearly had been preparing for him.

The car, flanked by guards, entered through a huge delivery door at the end of the building and drove through the cavernous concourse under the stands, delivering him right to the Red Wings clubhouse.

"We just want to see him as a buddy," forward Brendan Shanahan said. "We're not turning this into a rah-rah thing to go out on the ice."

Later, accompanied by his wife and Red Wings trainer John Wharton, Konstantinov met with reporters for about 10 minutes.

Konstantinov, dressed in a white "Hockeytown" sweatshirt and black warmup pants, was wheeled into the interview room by Wharton. With the help of an arena guard, Wharton lifted Konstantinov and the wheelchair onto a small stage where coaches normally conduct postgame news conferences during the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Irina Konstantinov handled communications for her husband. When his focus is keen, Konstantinov can speak three-word sentences.

"He does have an association of speech, but he is not talkative," she said. "He cannot say words to you right now."

The Red Wings hadn't seen Konstantinov since their February road trip to Florida. Before Saturday, he had visited Joe Louis Arena only once since the accident -- for a practice early in the season, before going to Florida.

The crash occurred June 13, six days after the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup.

"He does remember everything in the past, except probably around the time when the accident happened," Irina Konstantinov said. "He does remember the Stanley Cup, but not all the details of every day of the celebration. Which is very sad, because I would rather see him remembering every moment of it, because it was such a wonderful time.

"Other than that, he just has trouble with short-term memory. Probably a few days after this, he won't remember that he was here. But doctors say that may change in time."

At home, she said, they watch hockey together on television.

"We did talk about the playoffs and we do talk about the team winning," she said. "It's hard for him to talk hypothetically, because he can't remember who the teams were two weeks ago.

"But he can remember some things. He can remember by the end of the day what the score was, and who won, which he couldn't have done two months ago. So we're very happy about that."

The couples' 9-year-old daughter, Anastasia, has adjusted to her father's condition, Irina Konstantinov said. The child plays game with her father which help him in his rehabilitation effort.

"She not just playing with him, but doing skill-type things like tic-tac-toe, which does require some amount of thinking from the injured person," Irina Konstantinov said. "Or they go outside.

"As a matter of fact, they do play hockey, right there in the driveway. And he's really good, with his left arm."

And, as if to prove it, Konstantinov lifted his left arm and gave a small wave to the reporters.

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