The Red Wings appear to have more than their share of warriors, which helps explain why they've won without Konstantinov, who led the team in plus-minus statistics each of the last two years, or the 27-year-old Fedorov, who was Detroit's leading scorer in last season's playoffs. The Red Wings are unwilling to pay Fedorov the $6 million per year that he's asking for and have offered him $5.5 million per annum. Most observers think the issue will be resolved soon, but in the meantime the Red Wings have unleashed a balanced attack that is the envy of the league.
Thirteen players have scored the team's first 21 goals. Moreover, the defense has been extraordinary. "We know if we don't play awfully well, we don't have enough horses to win," says forward Doug Brown. "We're missing some big pieces of the puzzle. So far we've been able to turn it into a positive."
"The one hole we can't fill is Konstantinov," says Bowman, citing the 22½ minutes he averaged per game last season. He was also the Wings' most aggressive player, totaling some 900 penalty minutes over the last six seasons and earning the nickname the Vladinator. Opponents hated being on the ice against him. He also enabled Bowman to put an all-Russian unit onto the ice: Konstantinov, Fetisov, Fedorov, Larionov and Slava Kozlov. "We've lost the uniqueness of having five guys who can play their own system," Bowman says. "They'd get that puck cycling around, and Vladi would jump into the play and become a fourth forward. Teams weren't used to defending against it. But the chemistry of the club remains the same. The guys feel a lot for each other."
Bowman, who has coached seven Stanley Cup champions, has been through a situation comparable to the emotional straits in which the Red Wings' now find themselves. In the fall of 1991 he took over for Pittsburgh Penguins coach Bob Johnson, who was dying of brain cancer. That Penguins club was the last team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.
The difference is that while Johnson's condition rapidly worsened—he died in November 1991—there is reason to hope that Konstantinov's will improve. He still cannot speak, and he needs assistance to stand, walk, bathe and dress. But he has made steady, if excruciatingly slow, progress. He can read some and is starting to write a few words. He laughs readily, and he recognizes friends and teammates. "He's going to be all right in every way," says Fetisov with unshakable confidence. "The last two weeks there's been a big improvement."
Wharton, the team's trainer, has seen the improvement too. The day the Wings raised the championship banner, Wharton delivered the Stanley Cup to Beaumont Hospital once again. He'd taken it there twice before to show to Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov, but this was the first time since their names had been inscribed on the Cup. "Vladi's still far from fully alert," Wharton says. "He's semiconscious a lot; he goes in and out. The nurses were just waking him up when I got there, but as soon as he saw the Cup, he smiled and reached out for it with his left hand. They wheeled him down to therapy with the Cup in his lap, and he was patting it. I asked him, 'Can you find your name?' He pointed to it. Then I asked him if he wanted to drink from it again, and he gave me a thumbs-up. I filled it with 12 ounces of apple juice, and he drank some. Then he crooked his finger to tell me he wanted more. He drank it all without spilling. The nurses had tears in their eyes."
Mnatsakanov, too, drank apple juice from the Cup that morning, though he had asked Wharton to fill it with vodka. He is paralyzed below the waist and is not expected to walk again, according to Dr. Sherry Viola, the rehabilitation therapist at Beaumont. Mnatsakanov has also lost nearly all use of his left arm. Both men undergo four hours of rehabilitation daily and are expected to remain at Beaumont for several more months—though several times Konstantinov has been spirited away by teammates and therapists to Fedorov's house, where, with their help, he swims in the pool. His therapists have noticed that Konstantinov works harder when teammates are around, so Wharton makes sure that whenever the team is in Detroit, one of the Wings visits the hospital every day during Konstantinov's rehab session.
"The uncertainty is what's tough," says Wharton. "We just don't know what the quality of Vladi's life is going to be. Will he be a father and husband to his family? Will he be able to take care of himself? The doctor has said he'll never play hockey again, but nobody here wants to put a cap on it."
It is not in the nature of a champion to put a cap on anything. So the Red Wings gather in the training room after games and practices, nursing strains and bruises, and talk. "The training room is like a coffee shop for the guys," Wharton says. "No matter what we're talking about, inevitably the conversation will turn to Vladi and Sergei. Someone will remember something funny they said or did, or ask how they are doing. That's been the best form of therapy for the guys."
There are harder things than defending a championship, and the Red Wings all know it. They know it without talking about it, or arming themselves with excuses, or forgetting how a team wins a Stanley Cup in the first place—all the things that make it so hard to repeat. "The team got closer, like a family, during the playoffs," says Fetisov. "Then six days later the tragedy happened, and we got even closer. This group of guys is not only a hockey team, it's something special now."