The policy is firm: Only family members may visit patients in the intensive care unit at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich. Yet as Vladimir Konstantinov, a 30-year-old defenseman for the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings, lay comatose with a critical head injury last weekend, a monitor inserted into his skull to track the swelling of his brain and a ventilator forcing air in and out of his lungs, he was surrounded by several ol his teammates. Who was going to throw them out? Not trauma surgeon James Robbins. "One thing is clear." Robbins said on Sunday morning, a day and a half after an auto accident abruptly quelled the city of Detroit's Cup revelry. "All of these men are family."
This family, which had assembled in celebration, was united now in grief. Last Friday, six days after the Wings had completed a sweep of the Philadelphia Flyers to win their first Stanley Cup in 42 years, 17 Detroit players got together at Orchards Country Club. It was to be their final outing before going their separate ways for the summer. The Cup was there, the mood was convivial.
Konstantinov, fellow defenseman Slava Fetisov and Red Wings' masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov had arranged for a limousine, and they left the club at 9 p.m., about 90 minutes before the rest of the team was to depart. Unbeknownst to the three passengers, their chauffeur, Richard Gnida, had no business piloting a riding mower, let alone a stretch limo. Gnida had been cited for 11 traffic violations since 1990—the charges included speeding, driving with a suspended license and driving under the influence of alcohol—and his license had been revoked in July 1996.
At 9:13, while traveling south on Woodward Avenue in Birmingham, Mich., the limousine went out of control, veering onto a grassy median and colliding head-on with a tree. While Gnida reportedly has told his boss that he swerved to avoid a stalled car, witnesses said the roadway was clear. Robbins said there was no indication that the driver had used drugs or alcohol. While Gnida's driver's-side air bag inflated upon impact, sparing him from serious injury, his passengers sitting in the back of the limo were not so fortunate.
Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov had to be pulled from the car. Both suffered life-threatening head injuries and were admitted to the hospital unconscious and in critical condition. Fetisov, who had sustained a bruised lung and chest contusions, immediately inquired about his friends. "How are my buddies?" he asked. "Are they O.K.?"
Fetisov, 39, the finest defenseman Russia has ever produced, was to be released from the hospital on Monday. For him the accident no doubt dredged up painful memories of another wreck he survived. In 1985, while driving on the Leningrad Highway in north Moscow, Fetisov was in an accident which killed his younger brother, Anatoli, who was 18.
Another member of the Red Wings' five-man Russian Unit, forward Slava Kozlov, almost didn't make it to Detroit six years ago because of a car wreck. Kozlov, then 19, suffered a fractured skull, a broken cheekbone and busted ribs when the car he was driving collided with a bus in Moscow. Killed instantly was the passenger in Kozlov's car, 17-year-old Central Red Army defenseman Kirile Tarasov.
The most maddening aspect of last week's accident is that the Red Wings tried to do everything right. Knowing they might have a beer or two, they lined up limos, yet they still ended up with two men in comas. Last Friday night neurosurgeons performed an emergency operation on the 43-year-old Mnatsakanov to relieve pressure on his brain. Konstantinov, who required the less serious monitoring procedure, also needed surgery to repair a severed tendon in his right elbow.
With his friends lighting for their lives, Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman choked back tears as he told the media, "We ask everyone's support and prayers for Vlady and our trainer, Sergei. Do whatever you do in difficult times that helps make things work out better."
Yzerman's anguish was felt all over Detroit, and not just because the tragedy cut short a celebration that had been more than four decades in the making. With his superb skills and warrior mentality, Konstantinov is an exceptionally popular Red Wing. He is also an extremely valuable player, of whom Detroit senior vice president Jimmy Devellano said recently, "I wouldn't trade him for any other defenseman in the NHL."