by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

And still, the sun shone brightly. How could this be? Shouldn’t there have been clouds and rain? How could hockey fans reconcile an absolutely perfect weather Father’s Day with the image of Vladimir Konstantinov lying motionless in a hospital bed, breathing through a respirator, a brain monitor in his head?

Real life doesn’t play favorites. So while the sun shone Sunday afternoon, Red Wings players who would have otherwise been out golfing, partying, taking the Stanley Cup home to friends and family, instead were in a sterile room, visiting their fallen teammate, playing him music — “We are the Champions”
— hoping something would shake him from his injured sleep.

Meanwhile, Detroit sports fans spent the day in conflicting emotions, laughing at barbecues and playing with their children, then suddenly getting serious, dropping their voices and saying, “Any news on Vladdie? Is he going to be all right?”

The truth is no one knows whether he’s going to be all right. That limo accident that threw Konstantinov into a coma Friday night was serious business — not serious sports business, serious life-and-death business. Konstantinov ceased to be a hockey player the moment he was admitted to Beaumont Hospital. He is not a hockey player right now. He is a man clinging to survival.

The same goes for the Wings’ masseur, Sergei Mnatsakanov, who is not as familiar to sports fans and so was wrongly left out of many posters and get-well wishes and news reports. Lying there with a closed head injury, he counts the same as Konstantinov. And they both count the same as the other patients in that intensive care unit who are not famous athletes and don’t get the candlelight vigils and the outpouring of prayers that the blond man in the nearby bed does.

Real life. A row of hospital rooms. Every one counts the same.

Vladdie’s softer side

This was such a terrible, heartbreaking thing that happened to Konstantinov, Mnatsakanov, Slava Fetisov and the limo driver, Richard Gnida, Friday night. It is especially hard to imagine the popular Konstantinov — who took and gave so much physical punishment in his job — laid low by such an accident.

Last Tuesday, I finally got him to sit down and do a radio interview on WJR. He had been hesitant because of his English, but he was funny and relaxed, and winning the championship seemed to boost his confidence. He marveled at the fans who had come to cheer at the Wings’ parade. And when I asked whether he planned to take the Cup home for his two days with it over the summer, he winked and said, “Yes, home to West Bloomfield.”

“Not Russia?” I joked.

“Too far,” he said, laughing. “By time I get there, I have to come back.”

That was just six days ago. And today we’re not talking about Russia, or even West Bloomfield; today we would be happy if he were able to just sit up and smile. In such a short time, all your dials can be so altered, all your expectations so adjusted. “Unfair,” I hear people say. “They just won the Cup. This is so unfair.”

To which I must politely respond: What’s fair got to do with it?

It wasn’t fair when the Lions’ Eric Andolsek was killed when a truck driver plowed into him as he mowed his lawn. It wasn’t fair when two Cleveland Indians pitchers were killed when their boat crashed a dock during a family outing in spring training. It wasn’t fair when the Evansville basketball team was wiped out in a plane crash, or when Roberto Clemente went down trying to bring aid to earthquake victims.

Things like this are never about fair.

They are about life, real life, in which accidents happen. There has been a tremendous outpouring of emotion for the injured Wings, and some misdirected emotion as well. People who called the limo service and threatened to kill the owner aren’t serving Konstantinov, Fetisov or anything but their own misguided anger.

We always search for blame. Someone has to be at fault. Right now, however, this isn’t about fault.

It’s about hope.

The human condition

And in dealing with hope, there is little anyone — myself included — can say to make things better. Prayer helps. So does perspective.

So remember this. The respirator that is helping Konstantinov breathe right now was hooked to someone else before him. The bed he occupies was once occupied by someone else as well. Those patients were all loved by someone. They were all the most important person in someone’s life — just as Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov are to their loved ones. And they all fought a lonely battle to live. It made no difference if they were famous. These things happen. They just happen.

Real life doesn’t offer explanations. And so we wait, we check the newspapers and the radio and we try to go on with our lives. You wonder how we can absorb such disparate signals, how such a wonderful weekend can coexist with such a tragic weekend.

The answer, I believe, beats deep inside every one of us. The human heart is boundless, it makes room for all things, it puts a sunny day next to a critically injured athlete and prays the good will rub off on the bad. We pray along with it.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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