THE BOND BETWEEN PLAYER AND TRAINER

They haven’t spoken in months. Not the way most of us speak, anyhow. John Wharton never really knew what to say when he walked into the hospital room. He would take a deep breath, then grab Vladimir Konstantinov’s hand and muster the meager optimism left in his heart.

“How ya doin’, George?” he would blurt, using the funny nickname the team had for Vladdie — George, for Curious George of the children’s books.

At first there was nothing.

“How ya, doin’, George?” he would ask.

No sound. No movement. Weeks passed. The hand began to squeeze back.

“How ya, doin’, George?”

More weeks passed. One day, Vladdie’s eyes flickered open. No real focus. But open. Wharton got an idea.

“I have something for you, George.”

The Stanley Cup was carried in, the one the Red Wings and Konstantinov had captured. It was the first time, the nurses said, that the light behind Vladdie’s eyes clicked on.

“This is why you gotta keep fighting, George,” Wharton whispered. “That’s why your name is on this cup. Don’t stop.”

It has been five months since the limo crash that tore the heart out of this sports town, when the driver fell asleep at the wheel and wrapped his limo around a tree on Woodward Avenue, forever changing the lives of Konstantinov and team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov, both of whom suffered serious head injuries.

People have gone on with their lives. There are no more vigils outside the hospital. The Wings are into a new season. And today, Konstantinov will be flown to a rehabilitation center in Florida. It’s better for him there, his wife says. Outdoor weather. Fewer curiosity seekers.

It’s a positive step. A good thing. But one man — who should be relieved that his burden is being lightened — is going to miss Vladdie terribly.

Sometimes the worst brings out our best.

The good and the bad

There is no real reason that Wharton, 33, should have tumbled so deeply into this tragedy. Sure, he’s the team trainer, and so, by nature, he gets involved when players are hurt. But he has a family, too. A wife and two small children. He has his job, which is time-consuming. He has plenty of good excuses for fading out of the picture.

Instead, this tragedy has brought out a side of Wharton that even he didn’t know he had. At first, he was like all the guys on the Wings, sleeping in the waiting room, asking a million questions. But as the others slid back into their lives, Wharton kept coming. He came all summer. All fall. He came early, around breakfast, and once the season started, he came in between morning skates and evening games.

It was Wharton’s idea to bring the cup. And it was Wharton’s idea, last week, to bring Sergei and Vladdie down to practice.

“I had joked with Vladdie, saying, ‘It’s getting tough to keep coming here, why don’t you come down to visit us?’ And he lifted his head almost immediately and shook it. I knew he wanted to go.”

Four days later, he was there, at Joe Louis Arena. He was wheeled into the locker room and seated in front of his locker, which has remained untouched.

The players came by and joked and patted his shoulder. It was tough. There were tears. Seeing Konstantinov there reminded Wharton of how many times the player had come to him with injuries — “from a hangnail to a broken leg.”

Now the trainer wished he could hear Vladdie complain about anything.

The fight isn’t over

No life is independent. We all affect someone. Five years ago, Wharton took Konstantinov to his first U.S. rock concert, Guns N’ Roses, where they stayed backstage eating chocolate-covered strawberries and drinking champagne until 7 a.m.

“It was as fun a night as I’ve ever had in my life,” Wharton says.

And maybe something was born that night that has been transformed into something else. The friendship has been one-sided lately — Konstantinov needing, Wharton giving — but yet, it has grown stronger. So much so, that the plane that takes Vladdie away today is almost too painful for Wharton to imagine.

“There’s going to be a big hole for me Monday when I go to the hospital and he’s not there,” he admits.

Isn’t it funny? So many of us try to avoid burdens. But when life grabs you and throws you into someone else’s, you find a reservoir of heart you didn’t know you had.

Wharton plans to visit Konstantinov in Florida during the Olympic break. Maybe he’ll say, “How ya doin’, George?” And maybe Vladdie will answer, “Better.”

After all, this is hockey. Don’t you believe in miracles?

Mitch Albom will sign “Tuesdays With Morrie,” 7-8 p.m. Tuesday in main lobby of Henry Ford Village, Dearborn; noon-2 p.m. Wednesday, Jewish Community Center, West Bloomfield; and 7-8 p.m. Wednesday, Borders, Farmington Hills.

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