Tragic anniversary: Vladimir Konstantinov stepped into a rented limousine 15 years ago

Eric Adelson
Yahoo Sports

Fifteen years ago, a young Detroit Red Wings defenseman was putting up numbers that won him statistical comparisons to Wayne Gretzky.

It wasn't Nicklas Lidstrom.

View gallery

.

Vladimir Konstantinov celebrates after winning the Stanley Cup in 1997. (Getty)

In 1997, Vladimir Konstantinov finished second in Norris Trophy voting with a plus-38 rating. A year before, he finished plus-60, a preposterous stat that hadn't been topped since Gretzky was a plus-70 nearly a decade earlier. The future of the Detroit blue line rested not so much on Lidstrom's relatively narrow shoulders, but on the wicked elbows of Konstantinov.

The recent retirement of Lidstrom – Konstantinov's last active teammate – warrants a mention of No. 16, which is a number that has not been worn by a Red Wings player since a limousine accident took the career and nearly the life of "Vlad The Impaler" 15 years ago Wednesday. It is easy to look back at the appropriately labeled "perfect" career of Lidstrom, but it's hard not to wonder how perfect Konstantinov's career would have been had he never got into that car after a post-Stanley Cup party.

"His beautiful life and his beautiful career are not the same," said his wife, Irina, reached by phone Tuesday. "Everything else fades compared to that."

For those who never watched him play, Konstantinov was a rare blend of skill and toughness. He was the Russian who wouldn't back down from anyone; in fact, he was the Russian who regularly threatened. He punished people, but not in a way that undermined his team. He could enforce with his body, his stickhandling, and his mind. Sports Illustrated's Michael Farber called him "the nastiest blueliner in the NHL."

While Lidstrom has been a given on the Detroit defense for all these years, the Wings have strived for the better part of a generation to find a replacement for Konstantinov, who survived for weeks in a coma after the 1997 accident but never regained full mobility or mental faculties. There was Jiri Fischer, who met a tragic but safe end to his career when doctors discovered a heart ailment. There was Chris Chelios, a two-way terror in his heyday but who arrived in Detroit as a (somewhat) mellowed 36-year-old. There's Niklas Kronwall today, a dangerous bodychecker and capable point-producer. All have been vital as Red Wings, but none had quite the spark of Konstantinov.

Konstantinov still lives in Michigan. He requires around-the-clock care. But over time, he's picked up new activities, such as painting. He recently auctioned off some of his artwork for charity.

"He's never going to have a full recovery," said Irina. "But he is in a good place. He's not depressed. He's not unhappy. And yet he's not a fully functioning member of society where he can make his own decisions. Sometimes we have him travel, but never to a really crowded place."

Konstantinov does have some recollection of his playing career. He remembers most of his teammates, including Lidstrom. "He was one of Vlady's favorite players," Irina said. "He thought they were similar. He really loved him so much."

Then she paused. "You know," she laughed, "he never said Lidstrom was any better than him."

What would have happened if Konstantinov remained healthy? It's crazy to think about, but Lidstrom might have been even better. He certainly would have felt less pressure, both to carry the team and to ward off assailants. He and Konstantinov were ideal complements: thunder and lightning, the sweet Swede and the rumbling Russian. Konstantinov would not have lasted in the modern NHL as long as Lidstrom did, and he wasn't as obscenely talented as Lidstrom was, but No. 5 was less than "perfect" only in the sense that he didn't physically rattle forwards. (Mentally? Completely different story.) The Red Wings, for all their Stanley Cups in the Lidstrom era, haven't been a rugged team. They still aren't. And in more than one playoff push over the years, including their most recent this spring, they've been out-toughed – especially on the blue line.

View gallery

.

It was an emotionally charged moment when "Vlady" joined the Wings on the ice after their '98 Cup win. (Getty)

So although you can make the case that Lidstrom was forced into improving because of Konstantinov's absence, it's hard to say the Red Wings lived up to their full potential without Vlady.

And yet the team drew great inspiration from him for years. One of the greatest moments in Detroit sports history came when the Wings won the Cup in their first year without Konstantinov in 1998, and captain Steve Yzerman handed the trophy to his wheelchair-bound former teammate.

There have been other good moments since, as hard as life has been. Konstantinov still goes to games from time to time. His daughter, Anastasia, graduated from the University of Rhode Island last year. Irina lives in Florida now, working as a realtor. She sees Vlady "as often as possible." Fifteen years later, she wants her husband to keep growing, keep trying new things. She even mentioned bowling as something her husband is interested in.

"He wants to be invited places where the participation would not exceed his ability," she said. "We've kept it so private and for a long time we didn't want anyone to be sad for him. He's not a vegetable. He can be places. He won't remember all the people he meets but he enjoys the time he has. We would be thrilled if people would call in and say, 'Hey, we'd like to have him and accommodate his visit.' We're running out of ideas sometimes."

Fifteen years later, Vladimir Konstantinov's story is both inspiring and terribly sad. But the fact that Lidstrom lived up to his full potential is in some ways a tribute to his comrade. Lidstrom's long career, while a poignant reminder of Konstantinov's ability, has strengthened his teammate's legacy. They were drafted together in 1989, they came in together in 1991, they won a Stanley Cup together in 1997, and they will forever be remembered together as two of the best defensemen Detroit will ever see.

Other popular content on Yahoo! Sports:
Adrian Wojnarowski: Kevin Durant upstages LeBron James in Game 1 of NBA Finals
Michael Vick hints at Super Bowl berth for the Eagles
Bryce Harper's 'That's a clown question, bro' retort goes viral

  • Pineda says he'll learn from ejection for pine tar

    Pineda says he'll learn from ejection for pine tar

    The pine tar glistened on Michael Pineda's neck, improving his grip and inviting trouble. The Yankees' right-hander spoke quietly after being ejected in the second inning of the Red Sox' 5-1 win over New York on Wednesday night. And less than two … More »

    AP - Sports - 20 minutes ago
  • Michael Phelps launches comeback in 100 butterfly

    Michael Phelps launches comeback in 100 butterfly

    Returning to swimming after a 20-month retirement, Michael Phelps is easing back into the sport he once dominated by racing one of his best events. The 18-time Olympic gold medalist will swim the 100-meter butterfly at the Arena Grand Prix on … More »

    AP - Sports - 21 minutes ago
  • Quiros, Dyson share lead at China Open

    Quiros, Dyson share lead at China Open

    Alvaro Quiros and Simon Dyson each shot a 5-under 67 to share the lead after the first round of the China Open on Thursday. The pair were a stroke ahead of a group of six golfers that included defending champion Brett Rumford of Australia and … More »

    AP - Sports - 27 minutes ago
  • Radwanska eases into Stuttgart quarterfinals

    Radwanska eases into Stuttgart quarterfinals

    STUTTGART, Germany (AP) -- Top seed Agnieszka Radwanska defeated Italy's Roberta Vinci 6-3, 6-2 to book her quarterfinal place at the Porsche Grand Prix on Thursday. … More »

    AP - Sports - 27 minutes ago
  • Everest climbing season in disarray after deaths

    Nepal's attempts to salvage the Mount Everest climbing season fell flat Thursday as major expedition companies canceled their climbs and many Sherpas quit the mountain after an avalanche killed 16 of their fellow guides last week. While the season … More »

    AP - Sports - 37 minutes ago
  • Comcast's Fandango ticket service buys MovieClips

    (Reuters) - Fandango, a movie ticketing service owned by cable company Comcast Corp, is buying MovieClips from Zefr Inc to boost its film-related content. MovieClips, launched in 2009, licenses movie scenes from various studios, puts them up on … More »

    Reuters - 59 minutes ago
  • F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone rejects bribery charges, says he was blackmailed as trial opens

    F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone rejects bribery charges, says he was blackmailed as trial opens

    MUNICH - Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone rejected accusations of bribery as he went on trial Thursday in a case that could threaten his grip on the sport, telling a Munich court that he was blackmailed by a German banker who received a disputed … More »

    The Canadian Press - 1 hour 20 minutes ago
  • No rest for weary Atletico as Valencia trip looms

    No rest for weary Atletico as Valencia trip looms

    By Tim Hanlon BARCELONA, April 24 (Reuters) - Atletico Madrid must put their Champions League ambitions to one side when they look to maintain their surprise La Liga title surge in a tough trip to Valencia on Sunday. They are on the verge of … More »

    Reuters - 1 hour 24 minutes ago
  • Dyson enjoys happy return to China, shares lead with Quiros

    (Reuters) - Englishman Simon Dyson, who was handed a suspended two-month ban for cheating in December, fired a five-under-par 67 to grab a share of the first round lead at the European Tour's China Open on Thursday. The Englishman fired six birdies … More »

    Reuters - 1 hour 32 minutes ago
  • Formula One boss denies bribery at German trial

    Formula One boss denies bribery at German trial

    By Keith Weir MUNICH Germany (Reuters) - Formula One chief executive Bernie Ecclestone denied bribery allegations on Thursday when he went on trial in Germany in a case that threatens to break the Briton's decades-long dominance of the motor sport. … More »

    Reuters - 1 hour 33 minutes ago
  • Ajax extend ban on fans travelling to Feyenoord games

    REUTERS - Ajax Amsterdam have extended the ban on their fans attending away league games against arch-rivals Feyenoord in Rotterdam following the riotous behaviour of supporters in Sunday's Dutch Cup final. It ends hopes that a five-year suspension … More »

    Reuters - 1 hour 34 minutes ago
  • Teen Chinese golfer getting used to attention

    One year after his stunning debut at the Masters, Chinese 15-year-old golfer Guan Tianlang is growing accustomed to being in the spotlight. The teenager's star has risen quickly in China since his breakthrough at Augusta National, where at the age … More »

    AP - Sports - 1 hour 36 minutes ago
  • Bolton Wanderers to rename the Reebok stadium

    (Reuters) - Bolton Wanderers will change the name of their Reebok stadium to the Macron from July as part of a new deal between the Championship club and an Italian sportswear manufacturer. It will be the first change of name for the second tier … More »

    Reuters - 1 hour 43 minutes ago
  • Protesters rally against FIFA president Blatter

    A handful of protesters holding banners and placards demonstrated peacefully Thursday at an event with FIFA president Sepp Blatter to highlight the plight of migrant workers building stadiums in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup. Blatter was a guest at … More »

    AP - Sports - 1 hour 45 minutes ago
  • Golf-Dyson enjoys happy return to China, shares lead with Quiros

    Englishman Simon Dyson, who was handed a suspended two-month ban for cheating in December, fired a five-under-par 67 to grab a share of the first round lead at the European Tour's China Open on Thursday. The Englishman fired six birdies and a lone … More »

    Reuters - 1 hour 57 minutes ago
  • Postgame: Dirk Nowitzki

    Postgame: Dirk Nowitzki

    Dirk Nowitzki addresses the media following the Game 2 win over the Spurs. … More »

    NBA.com - 2 hours 2 minutes ago
  • F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone rejects bribery charges

    F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone rejects bribery charges

    Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone rejected accusations of bribery as he went on trial Thursday in a case that could threaten his grip on the sport, telling a Munich court that he was blackmailed by a German banker who received a disputed $44 … More »

    AP - Sports - 2 minutes 56 seconds ago
  • Hanyu determined to build on success of Sochi

    Hanyu determined to build on success of Sochi

    Yuzuru Hanyu has barely had time to dwell on the Olympic and world titles he won in the first quarter of 2014, yet he's already thinking about how to improve for next season. Hanyu became the first Japanese man to claim Olympic gold in figure … More »

    AP - Sports - 2 hours 20 minutes ago
  • More teams withdraw, Nepal's Everest season in jeopardy

    By Gopal Sharma KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Several foreign climbing expeditions have called off attempts to scale Everest following an avalanche that killed at least 13 local guides, meaning Nepal faces an entire season without a single ascent of the … More »

    Reuters - 2 hours 23 minutes ago
  • No clubs facing FFP European expulsion - Platini

    No clubs facing FFP European expulsion - Platini

    No clubs can expect to be expelled from European competition next season for breaking financial fair play rules, UEFA president Michel Platini said in an interview on Thursday. UEFA's Financial Fair Play (FFP) policy, designed to stop clubs … More »

    Reuters - 2 hours 27 minutes ago
  • No clubs facing European expulsion - Platini

    No clubs facing European expulsion - Platini

    No clubs will be kicked out of European competition next season for breaking financial fair play rules, UEFA president Michel Platini said in an interview on Thursday. UEFA's financial fair play (FFP) policy, designed to stop clubs spending more … More »

    Reuters - 3 hours ago
  • Fast-breaking Real home in on elusive 10th European crown

    Fast-breaking Real home in on elusive 10th European crown

    By Tim Hanlon BARCELONA (Reuters) - Real Madrid took a step closer to an elusive 10th European Cup with a 1-0 home win over Bayern Munich on Wednesday and the Spanish side will hope to finish off the job in Germany having shown how effective they … More »

    Reuters - 3 hours ago
  • Schalke aiming to seal Champions League spot

    By Karolos Grohmann REUTERS - Schalke 04's season could have a happy ending at home to Borussia Moenchengladbach on Sunday when they hope to claim a Champions League spot after a rollercoaster campaign punctuated by injury problems. Schalke, who … More »

    Reuters - 4 hours ago
  • Sturridge hopeful of returning against Chelsea

    Sturridge hopeful of returning against Chelsea

    REUTERS - Liverpool striker Daniel Sturridge is optimistic of returning from injury for the key clash against former team mates and title rivals Chelsea at Anfield on Sunday in a boost for the Premier League leaders. "Hopefully this weekend I'll be … More »

    Reuters - 4 hours ago
  • Confident Bayern promise home improvements against Real

    Confident Bayern promise home improvements against Real

    Holders Bayern Munich promised a sharp improvement when they host Real Madrid in the second leg of their Champions League semi-final after failing to convert the lion's share of possession into goals in a 1-0 defeat in Spain on Wednesday. Bayern … More »

    Reuters - 4 hours ago
  • Be optimistic about Brazil, says Blatter

    Be optimistic about Brazil, says Blatter

    By Stefanie McIntyre HONG KONG (Reuters) - FIFA president Sepp Blatter has encouraged fans to be optimistic that the World Cup in Brazil will be a success, amid growing concerns over security and public unrest as workers scramble to finish stadiums … More »

    Reuters - 4 hours ago
  • Announcer relishes role as voice of Kentucky Derby

    Announcer relishes role as voice of Kentucky Derby

    From his perch with a panoramic view of the world's most famous racetrack, the new voice of Churchill Downs will sit out one of the most anticipated moments of the tradition-soaked Kentucky Derby. Larry Collmus will try to tune out ''My Old … More »

    AP - Sports - 5 hours ago
  • Confident Bayern promise home improvements against Real Madrid

    Confident Bayern promise home improvements against Real Madrid

    By Karolos Grohmann REUTERS - Holders Bayern Munich promised a sharp improvement when they host Real Madrid in the second leg of their Champions League semi-final after failing to convert the lion's share of possession into goals in a 1-0 defeat in … More »

    Reuters - 5 hours ago
  • Wednesday's Sports In Brief

    BOSTON (AP) -- Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda was ejected for using pine tar less than two weeks after appearing to get away with using a foreign substance in another game against Boston, and the Red Sox beat New York 5-1 on Wednesday night. … More »

    AP - Sports - 5 hours ago
  • Flyers lack punch at home on power play

    Flyers lack punch at home on power play

    Back on their home ice, the Philadelphia Flyers fizzled on the power play. The Flyers ranked 25th in the NHL in power-play efficiency at home during the regular season, scoring on 15.1 percent of their chances. In Tuesday's 4-1 loss to the New … More »

    AP - Sports - 6 hours ago
  • Detroit Lions welcome new faces

    Detroit Lions welcome new faces

    Their new coach has been to Super Bowls and the Detroit Lions how have two new players who have championship rings. Free-agent acquisitions Golden Tate and James Ihedigbo - who played on the winning side of the last two Super Bowls - finished their … More »

    AP - Sports - 6 hours ago
  • Iowa's offense looking to match strong defense

    Iowa's offense looking to match strong defense

    Iowa's defense was back among the nation's elite last season. The Hawkeyes' offense failed to follow suit. Getting both units to play at an equally high level will likely be crucial to Iowa's hopes of competing for a Big Ten West title. The … More »

    AP - Sports - 6 hours ago
  • Mike Trout robs Bryce Harper with impressive diving catch

    Mike Trout robs Bryce Harper with impressive diving catch

    One phenom robs another. … More »

    Big League Stew - 6 hours ago
  • Puck Daddy Power Rankings: Repeat offenders, Lady Byng and overtime thrillers

    Puck Daddy Power Rankings: Repeat offenders, Lady Byng and overtime thrillers

    [Author's note: Power rankings are usually three things: Bad, wrong, and boring. You typically know just as well as the authors which teams won what games against who and what it all means, so our moving the Red Wings up four spots or whatever … More »

    Puck Daddy - 6 hours ago
  • Stars even with Ducks after 4-2 win in Game 4

    Stars even with Ducks after 4-2 win in Game 4

    The young Dallas Stars keep overcoming early 2-0 deficits. With their latest comeback in Game 4, they are now even with the top-seeded Anaheim Ducks. Down in the series after losing the first two games in Anaheim, the Stars trailed by two goals in … More »

    AP - Sports - 6 hours ago
  • Jets returning to SUNY Cortland for training camp

    The New York Jets are holding training camp at SUNY Cortland again this summer, returning to central New York for the fifth time in the last six years. The team trains on the school's campus, located about three hours from the Jets' facility in … More »

    AP - Sports - 6 hours ago
  • Road teams off to flying start in NBA playoffs

    Road teams off to flying start in NBA playoffs

    Here's the list of teams that had home-court advantage entering the opening round of these NBA playoffs: Indiana, Miami, Toronto, Chicago, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Houston and the Los Angeles Clippers. Here's the list of teams that still held … More »

    AP - Sports - 6 hours ago
  • Your Top Plays for Today

    Your Top Plays for Today

    Your Top Plays for Today: AP's Sports Guide … More »

    AP - Sports - 6 hours ago
  • The Grand Slam: Mariners snap eight-game losing skid on Kyle Seager’s walk-off homer

    The Grand Slam: Mariners snap eight-game losing skid on Kyle Seager’s walk-off homer

    Kyle Seager and the Mariners bust their slumps in Seattle. … More »

    Big League Stew - 6 hours ago
  • As pitching injuries pile up, Cole Hamels' return gives Phillies shot in the arm

    As pitching injuries pile up, Cole Hamels' return gives Phillies shot in the arm

    With pitchers succumbing one by one to major arm injuries, Philadelphia is thankful Cole Hamels appears healed. … More »

    Yahoo Sports - 6 hours ago