Had the Red Wings' joy at winning the Stanley Cup last June not been dampened by a near-fatal automobile accident a week later involving two Detroit players and a team masseur, the Wings could answer the usual questions about repeating their feat with a twinkle in their eyes and a lilt in their voices.
Detroit's stunning sweep of the Flyers in the finals marked the end of a 42-year wait for a championship. But the memories of the roof-raising cheers at Joe Louis Arena the night the Cup was won are overshadowed by the fact that defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov and massage therapist Sergei Mnatsakanov remain in a suburban Detroit hospital recovering from injuries sustained in the accident. Both men suffered severe head trauma and were in comas for several weeks. The third team member in the crash, defenseman Slava Fetisov, suffered only minor injuries and was released two days after the accident.
Konstantinov can now sit up, shake hands and understand sounds, but he still has difficulty recognizing people. Some teammates say that he seems to stare right through them. The left side of Mnatsakanov's body remains weak, and he can't open his right eye. Red Wings visit the two often, sometimes en masse. Trainer John Wharton took a ring sizer to the hospital and measured each for a championship ring, and the Cup was brought in for both to see.
Despite the absence of Konstantinov, who provided high intensity and bone-rattling hits, the Wings feel good about their chances of successfully defending their title. The back line will be led by 27-year-old Nicklas Lidstrom, whose all-around skill makes him a Norris Trophy candidate. Goalie Mike Vernon, the playoff MVP, was traded to the Sharks, but 24-year-old Chris Osgood has proved that he's worthy of the No. 1 job.
On offense the Wings have four topflight lines and game-breaking individual talent that pulls out matches that Detroit has no business winning. Coach Scotty Bowman, who returns in hopes of getting his eighth Stanley Cup, says he will allow Sergei Fedorov, an unsigned, restricted free agent who missed training camp, to be restored as a top-line center after playing part of last season on defense and part as a checking forward. Says Bowman, "There aren't many guys in this league whom you would pay to go see. He's one of them."
To some, Konstantinov was too. As he heals, so will the Wings.