VICTORY FOR VLADDIEWHILE FANS’ LOVE ECHOES, SO DOES THE MYSTERY CALLED FATESTANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS: RED WINGS 3, STARS 2

He sat up high in the owner’s box, wearing a warm-up suit, a cap and a smile that could not help itself. Vladimir Konstantinov, the fallen soldier. He could no longer do his old job, which was skating and hitting and shooting on a professional hockey team. He could no longer walk on his own or even remember many of the best moments of his life. Last year at this time, he was on the ice, one of the best in the NHL. Now, he needed help doing the simplest of things — eating, bathing, being understood. Still, as the cheering began, he smiled and raised his hand.

Next to him sat Sergei Mnatsakanov, in a brown sport coat, a dark shirt and a wheelchair. He, too, can no longer walk, can no longer ply his old trade, which, as a masseur, had been tending to the Stanley Cup champions. A year ago, he did that proudly, strongly. Now, he needed someone to wheel him to the elevator. Still, as the cheering started, and fans rose to their feet, he raised a white pom-pom and shook it vigorously.

“PLEASE WELCOME BACK . . .” the PA announcer at Joe Louis Arena said, but that was all you heard, because everyone knew the rest, and as their faces appeared on the big screen, the cheers, the screams, the roars of hope could not be contained, they drowned out your thoughts, they shook the rafters and swallowed the air and threatened to burst the glass of the suite to which they were directed.

It was a love scream, the affection of an entire city directed at two wounded men. And all the while, down on the ice, through a fate that hung as thick as the moisture in the summer air, Slava Fetisov listened and absorbed. Then he looked down and skated a small circle, as if he somehow could go back around to a time before it all happened.

“If not for an inch,” he would later say, his voice a near whisper, “maybe it is me up there in that box, and not on the ice.”

How does fate make such weighty decisions? All three men — Konstantinov, Mnatsakanov and Fetisov — were in that limousine last June 13, all three of them had been laughing and enjoying memories of the golf outing earlier in the day, all three of them were reportedly aware that something was suddenly wrong with the driver, that the car was drifting, that they were heading for trouble, even before the vehicle smashed into a tree on Woodward Avenue and the world went black.

But two of them awoke in a whole new place, a place of wheelchairs and doctors and charts and rehab. And one of them was now back at work.

All the Red Wings on Sunday felt a lump in their throats when Vladdie and Sergei returned.

Only one man felt that way because he never left.

Why Slava still suffers

“Every day since the accident, I ask myself this question, ‘Why me?’ ” Fetisov had said, the day before Konstantinov, 31, returned to Detroit for the first time since leaving for rehab in south Florida last year. “I wake up in the night sometimes, I see the pictures in my head, but I cannot find an answer. Why this happen to Vladimir and Sergei and did not happen to me, too?”

Fetisov, a grizzled-looking veteran defenseman, shook his head. He sustained injuries in that accident, but none that wouldn’t heal. He was released from the hospital, even as Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov remained immobile, their doctors wondering whether they’d ever walk or talk again.

Tragedies always will claim victims. But they won’t let go of survivors, either. So as the months passed, Fetisov kept seeing the accident, again and again, at night, or in a car, or whenever he gazed upon Konstantinov’s locker in the Wings’ dressing room. He is 40 years old, the oldest player in the NHL, born when Eisenhower was still president and Russia, his homeland, was the evil empire behind the Iron Curtain. He has lived through communism, detente, glasnost, democracy, a handful of Olympics, a dozen world championships, two sports systems, two languages, two cultures.

You would think Slava Fetisov had seen enough to prepare him for anything.

And then the accident. And then the recovery. And then the months of inner torture. And then this. Saturday. At practice. Konstantinov is wheeled into the Wings’ locker room.

And their eyes meet.

“Vladdie …where have you been so long?” Fetisov says.

“Slava,” Konstantinov answers slowly.

And the flood of emotions starts all over again.

Ask yourself how you’d feel if you emerged from a crash miraculously intact, but the person alongside you was changed forever. What’s the right emotion? Gratitude? Guilt? Now add the fact that Konstantinov was not just a teammate to Fetisov, he was virtually a younger brother. Fetisov’s real younger brother
— who, back in Russia, had been best buddies with Konstantinov — died in a car crash when he was 17. It was only natural that Slava and Vladdie gravitate to each other to fill their aching voids.

“This is why this accident hurt Slava so much,” his wife, Lada, was saying in the arena tunnel Sunday. “First, it was his brother dying, and he is surviving. Then it is Vladdie getting hurt, and he is surviving. Always, he is surviving, surviving.”

She sighed sadly.

“He ask himself, ‘Why?’ “

Why do I survive? What an unbearable question.

Victory isn’t the only thing

After a few minutes, the thunderous cheering from the fans, the Wings and even the Dallas Stars players gradually subsided. Play continued. And a few hours later, as the game went deep into the third period, Konstantinov and his wife, Irina, who lovingly tends to him now, were ushered downstairs for an easier exit. They had heard the cheers, they had been reminded of their public affection. Now it was time to go. Never mind that this game was tied and fans were hanging on every shot. This wasn’t really about the game, anyhow.

So Konstantinov was wheeled through the basement level and as some people saw him, they stopped and clapped. As he passed the players’ wives lounge, Lada Fetisov and several others burst out to greet him.

“You know who I am,” Lada said first, in Russian, making sure.

“Yes …Lada,” Konstantinov said.

“We are so happy to see you. Tomorrow, I’m coming to your house and bringing the food I used to make you. You remember?”

Konstantinov beamed like a child. Then Fetisov’s young daughter, Anastasia, who was licking an ice-cream cone, bounced over to Konstantinov and offered him some. He took a lick. Someone gave him a pink rose, and he held it.

Suddenly, there was a roar from inside the arena. The Red Wings had scored, grabbing a 3-2 lead.

“You see, Vladdie?” Lada said. “They are winning for you! They are winning for you!”

And Konstantinov, sitting in that hallway, ice cream on his lips, unable to even see the play on television, beamed even more broadly.

Sometimes, you don’t have to be on the ice to be part of the action.

And sometimes you don’t need to show wounds to be part of the hurt. So even as the Wings won the game, Slava Fetisov came off the ice with a mixture of emotions. And as Konstantinov was wheeled to a waiting Mercedes limo, where a man took his rose, placed it on the car roof, then helped lift him out of his wheelchair, Fetisov went to the trainer’s room and iced his sore body.

And as the limo pulled away from the parking lot, Fetisov emerged from the shower. Around him were the sounds of victory. He wore no such look.

“How often did you look up at them?” he was asked.

“Many times,” he said, softly. “I see them waving to crowd.”

“And what were you thinking?”

“What am I thinking? I am thinking how lucky I am to be here…. I am thinking how good is to see them in person…. I am thinking this could be me up there, watching the other guys play . . .”

He inhaled.

“I am thinking how I have to help them for the rest of my life.”

Just then, his young daughter raced into the locker room with two of her friends. She jumped into his arms and kissed him, then rubbed the stitches of a large scar around his eye.

“My Daddy got hurt,” she said.

“No,” he told her, smiling sadly, “it’s just makeup.”

And holding her hand, he went out the door, with Sunday’s mental snapshots to both inspire and haunt him. Three men in a tragedy. Two now wave from wheelchairs. One circles on the ice below. Anyone who thinks they can explain fate is out of his mind.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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