Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Ten years later...

June 7, 1997 is one of those special nights that the people of Detroit won't ever forget. After 4+ decades of frustration, the Red Wings finally reached the pinnacle, beating the Philadelphia Flyers 2-1 in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals, finished a four-game sweep and winning the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1955.

That night, I was spending the night at my grandmother's house, as I did frequently during my youth. As the game ticked away, it became obvious the Wings would win. Philadelphia scored in the final seconds, but it wasn't enough. I watched, sitting on the arm of the couch about 3 feet from the small television, and was nearly reduced to tears of joy as my hockey team finally reached their ultimate goal. For the first time in my life, I watched a team of mine win a championship (obviously I was far too young to remember the Pistons winning in 1989 and 1990 and Michigan winning in 1989).

The celebration was short lived, however. What was supposed to be a summer of joy and relaxation for the Red Wings turned into a summer of nightmares and hospital visits.

On the evening of June 13th, Wings defensemen Vladimir Konstantinov and Viacheslav Fetisov, along with team masseuse Sergei Mnatsakanov hired a limo to drive them home from a party. The driver of the limo, however, was driving with a suspended license...because of drunk driving. He lost control of the vehicle, and crashed into a tree on Woodward Avenue.

Fetisov suffered very minor injuries and was out of the hospital in a few days. Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov, however, were not as lucky. Both spent an extensive time in a coma, and although after a while it was apparent that they would live, their careers were over, and their lives were forever changed.

For the Red Wings and their fans, it felt as if fate had dealt them the cruelest of blows. Only six days after winning the championship they had waited 42 years for, all the happiness, all the joy, and all of the celebration had been silenced.

The Red Wings' resolve was tested, and the next season was dedicated to their fallen comrades. Their donned special patches on their jerseys, with the word "Believe" inscribed on them in both English and Russian.

In Game 4 of the 1998 Western Conference Finals against Dallas, with the Red Wings up 2 games to one, the game was interrupted a few minutes into the 2nd period, as the Wings received some unexpected inspiration. Up in the press box were Vladdie and Sergei, still disabled, but cheering nonetheless. Joe Louis Arena was energized, and the Stars were doomed. The Wings beat the Stars in six games, and swept Washington in the Finals to win their 2nd consecutive Stanley Cup.

After Game 4 ended in Washington, the Stanley Cup was brought onto the ice. This time however, it was only the second most-welcome guest on the ice. Wheeled onto the ice with assistance was Vladdie, joining his teammates in the celebration. Almost immediately after receiving the Cup, captain Steve Yzerman set the trophy in Vladdie's lap; they had won it for him, and he was not going to be denied the chance to touch it once more.

There wasn't a dry eye in the building. The Washington fans, who had hoped to see their Capitals avoid elimination, could not hold back their tears; not because their team's season was over, but because of what they saw on the ice. It was for that same reason all the Detroit fans watching on TV wept openly.

What happened on the ice transcended sports. This was not a championship celebration. It was a celebration of the human spirit; a celebration of all the good qualities human beings can possess when facing adversity; a celebration of a group of men setting aside ego and personal goals, and focusing on a single goal.

It's been ten years since that fateful night that changed everything for Vladdie and the Wings. Vladdie's recovery has been tedious, but progressive. He is now a staple at Wings' home games. He was a guest at Steve Yzerman's jersey retirement earlier this year, no longer restricted to a wheelchair, but still requiring the use of a walker - a constant reminder of the past, and a constant reminder of the healing that continues.

To conclude, I am reminded of the message written in the Wings' locker room before Game 4 of the '98 Finals - a simple, inspirational message that reminded them that there are bigger things in life:

"Faith is to believe in what you do not yet see. The reward for that faith is to see what you believe."

1 comment:

Matt said...

Thanks for the reminder of the memories, Kudron.