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Inspiring moment

Konstantinov makes it an extra special celebration for Wings

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Posted: Wednesday June 17, 1998 08:34 PM

  Konstantinov (center) shared in the glory and happiness of the Red Wings' postgame celebration (AP)

DETROIT (CNN/SI) -- Some stories do have happy endings.

Despite suffering career-ending injuries in a limousine accident just six days after the Detroit Red Wings won their first Stanley Cup since 1955 last year, Vladimir Konstantinov could smile again as the team defended its title.

Sitting in a wheelchair with the Stanley Cup propped on his lap and engulfed by tearful teammates, the disabled defenseman symbolized the arduous struggle of the Detroit Red Wings, now champions for the second straight year.

"That was one of the greatest moments I've ever had as an athlete," Detroit's Brendan Shanahan said after Konstantinov was brought down to the ice to share the triumph. "Not too often does a moment in hockey transcend sports, but that was one of them. That's a greater victory than winning the Stanley Cup."

Ron Wilson, the coach of the losing Washington Capitals, was equally moved.

"There's no speech you can come up with or story you can tell that equates anywhere near what that team has gone through," he said.

In winning their second straight title, the Red Wings brought some constancy to a season marked by an unprecedented break for the Olympics.

They dedicated their season to an injured teammate and, in a sense, wore their hearts on their sleeves -- a patch containing the initials of Konstantinov and Sergei Mnatsakanov, the team masseur. The two were hurt in the limo wreck after last season's title.

Also on the patch was the word "believe," in English and Russian. And the Red Wings did just that.

"It was very emotional," Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman said following the 4-1 victory Tuesday night in Washington that completed a four-game sweep of the Capitals. "It was really gratifying for us to win."

When the Red Wings swept the Philadelphia Flyers in the finals last year, they were on a mission to end a 42-year title drought. This time, they were on a different mission: win one for the fallen team members.

But not even the Red Wings were certain they could do it. After all, no team had repeated since Pittsburgh in 1991-92 and 11 teams had reached the finals in the previous six years.

"There's a lot of teams that were pretty close," Detroit coach Scotty Bowman said.

When the season began the Red Wings had lost one of their top defenseman in Konstantinov. They had traded Conn Smythe-winning goaltender Mike Vernon. Superstar free agent Sergei Fedorov was waging an agonizing contract battle.

Around the league, balance was the byword. By the end of the season, the league had produced 165 ties, matching a record set in 1980-81.

"You've got a lot of teams that are equal, a lot of teams fighting for playoff spots," Chicago Blackhawks coach Craig Hartsburg said halfway through the season. "And when you get that, you're going to have a lot of tight games."

Teams had become more defensive, leading to less scoring. And the goaltending had never been better.

"Hockey is now about protecting your own net, playing well defensively," said Vancouver's Pavel Bure, whose 60-goal seasons were now behind him. "It's a hooking, grabbing style of hockey."

This kind of play continued before and after the Olympics, the first time the NHL had sent its players to the showcase event.

The league might have regretted it, after some angry players from the underachieving U.S. team trashed their room at Nagano, Japan. Canada, another early favorite, was also knocked out as the Czech Republic swept to the gold medal behind goalie Dominik Hasek.

Following the Olympics, the NHL tried to do something about the lack of scoring. Referees cracked down on obstruction penalties, presumably opening the ice for skill players.

The defenses still predominated, however, particularly in the playoffs when upsets filled the first round. The New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh Penguins, the 1-2-3 teams in the Eastern Conference, made early exits. That opened the door for the fourth-seeded Capitals to advance to the finals.

Along the way, they eliminated the Sabres and Hasek, who was most everyone's choice to win the most valuable player award after a 13-shutout season.

Things went closer to form in the West as Detroit emerged after downing the Phoenix Coyotes, St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars, which finished with the best record during the regular season. Fedorov, back with the Red Wings after signing a substantial contract, looked as if he hadn't been away.

Bowman thought his team had a good chance to win the Cup after the Red Wings eliminated the Blues.

"When we played St. Louis, a lot of people tried to say that might be the Stanley Cup final," he said. "They just swept [Los Angeles]. We had trouble with them during the season. When we got them in the playoffs, we seemed to reach our goals."

Then came the finals and the ninth NHL championship in team history.

The Red Wings made sure Konstantinov would share the glory. And Yzerman made sure he would hold the Cup first. He put it in Konstantinov's lap, the same Cup that the rugged defenseman had lifted over his head the year before.

"That's outstanding what they did," Wilson said. "It's absolutely outstanding."


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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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