It's a hard thing, defending a championship. But there are harder things.
That's the thought that members of the Detroit Red Wings carry in their heads this season, and it has helped them pick up where they left off in June, when they swept the Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup finals and brought the city that calls itself Hockeytown its first title in 42 years. At week's end the Red Wings were 4-0-1, their best start since 1972-73, had outscored opponents by an eye-popping aggregate of 21-8 and were atop the Central Division. This despite the trade of goalie Mike Vernon, the playoff MVP; the failure to re-sign their best forward, restricted free agent Sergei Fedorov, who is sitting at home in Detroit; and the irreplaceable loss of their best defenseman, Vladimir Konstantinov, a battler whose greatest struggle lies ahead.
Yes, there are harder things than defending a championship. That thought was with the players all summer, thrust upon them six days after they clinched the Cup, when Konstantinov and team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov were critically injured in a limousine that crashed into a tree in Birmingham, Mich. (The driver, Richard Gnida, had a long history of traffic violations and was charged with driving with a suspended license. Gnida pleaded not guilty, and a preliminary hearing is scheduled for Oct. 20.) Defenseman Slava Fetisov, also a passenger in the limo, suffered a bruised lung and lacerations to his right leg and was released from the hospital three days after the accident. Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov, however, suffered massive head injuries and were placed on life support. Their teammates, on the verge of scattering for the summer, reassembled at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich., to wait and pray. Many players spent entire nights there over the next couple of weeks. "Brain dead, vegetative, all those awful terms were used," recalls Wings trainer John Wharton. "We knew right from the start that we were in this for the long haul."
The thought was with the players every time one of them took the Cup home, as tradition dictates—home to Moscow, home to Medicine Hat, home to Buffalo. "The reality that every night's not New Year's Eve hit quickly," says Detroit coach Scotty Bowman. "It made having the Cup a little bit somber." That most uplifting of hockey trophies now carried a weight.
The thought was with them during training camp, staring them in the face every time they looked at Konstantinov's empty dressing room stall—his equipment still hanging in place, his clean laundry waiting, his blue parking pass lying unclaimed on the stool in front of the stall. A smooth gray stone, inscribed with the word BELIEVE, was in the cubby above, where Konstantinov kept his personal effects.
The thought was with them last week when, fresh from two road wins to start the season, they raised the 1996—97 championship banner before their first home game, against the Dallas Stars. Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay, living icons from the last Red Wings Cup winners, came to Joe Louis Arena for the ceremony. But the loudest ovation on a night of thundering ovations was directed toward the image flashed on the scoreboard of the 30-year-old Konstantinov. "Vladi! Vladi! Vladi!" the crowd roared. The wives of both injured men, Irina Konstantinov and Yelena Mnatsakanov, were introduced with the rest of the team. Then the Stanley Cup banner was raised. "It was a special moment, but it was also a sad moment, because we didn't see Vladimir on the ice or Sergei behind the bench," said center Igor Larionov, Konstantinov's teammate since the days they starred with the Soviet Central Red Army team in the 1980s. "But then it was time to put the emotions away and play hockey."
So far, the Red Wings have been able to do that. The team dominated Dallas that night, winning 3-1, and two nights later continued its fine start with a 3-0 blanking of the Tampa Bay Lightning. That marked the fourth consecutive game that new No. 1 netminder Chris Osgood had not allowed a goal in the first two periods. On Sunday, however, Osgood and the Wings weren't at their best in a 4-4 tie against the Calgary Flames.
"We're a different team without Vladi," says the 39-year-old Fetisov, who has two large purple scars on his right calf from the accident but is skating with no lingering effects. "He's been the most dominant defenseman in the league the past few years, and you aren't going to replace a guy like him. The guys realize they have to do a bit more. This team is responsible. The young guys see [captain] Steve Yzerman block a couple of shots, and now they do it. That's how you build a winning tradition."
Fetisov, whose younger brother, Anatoli, was killed in a car accident in 1985, nearly retired following the June tragedy. "I wasn't thinking of playing again," he recalls. "I was lucky to be alive. I didn't even want to go home from the hospital, because of Vladi and Sergei, and because my wife was also there with appendicitis. But the doctors said it would be good for the people in Detroit to know at least one guy is O.K. The team asked me to drop the puck at an old-timers' charity game that week at Joe Louis Arena, and when I came out I got a standing ovation for five minutes. Tears came to my eyes. People here have been so unbelievable, to my wife, my family, and I started thinking: How can I pay them back for this? I will play one more year to show my appreciation."
"He's a dying breed," the notoriously hard-nosed Lindsay says of Fetisov. "One of the finest men I've ever met. And he's a warrior."