VLADDIE’S BABY STEPS START A SUMMER OF CELEBRATION

One by one, the straps that held him in his chair were undone, with a ripping sound of freedom. Then, with helpers lifting under his arms, he stood up. And slowly, carefully, he began to walk across the stage. Small steps. Halting steps.

But his steps.

“VLAD-DIE! VLAD-DIE! VLAD-DIE!”

Behind him, a group of tough, muscular, partially toothless hockey players began to wipe away the moisture in their eyes.

“VLAD-DIE! VLAD-DIE! VLAD-DIE!”

In front of him, more than a million people raised their hands and roared, lumps in their throats, goose bumps on their skin.

“VLAD-DIE! VLAD-DIE! VLAD-DIE! . . .”

First you rise, then you walk. The baby steps of Vladimir Konstantinov were the kind of thing that normally symbolizes the beginning of life. Now they stood for the end of an odyssey, one that began with a celebration last June and ended Thursday — just over one year later — with another celebration, this one a bit larger, a bit wiser, and, we all pray, a lot longer-lasting.

First you rise, then you walk.

“I don’t think anyone here is tired of winning a Stanley Cup, are they?” joked Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman — as a crowd estimated at 1.2 million roared its answer. Tired? Who could be tired? More than anything, the Wings had been waiting to get back to this moment just to do it again. And this time do it right.

“VLAD-DIE! VLAD-DIE! VLAD-DIE! …”

Six days, then tragedy

You know that old sports expression, “Act like you’ve been there before”? That was never the issue for this hockey team. They have been here before. They have been on the ice when the horn sounded and the championship was won. They have been in the locker room when the champagne popped and the soaking began. They have been down Woodward Avenue, parading in vehicles before a sea of red-and-white-clad fans. They have even been on the Stanley Cup, thanks to last year’s drought-ending NHL title.

The problem wasn’t acting like they had been there before; the problem was continuing the story for more than six days — which is how long the celebration lasted last year before a limo smacked into a tree, changed the lives of Konstantinov and Sergei Mnatsakanov, and let the air out of the celebration like a knifed balloon.

Ever since, the Wings’ first Cup in 42 years had a bittersweet feel to it. Which is why Thursday was so important. For while Konstantinov was not moving like the hockey player he once was, everyone on that stage remembered where he and Mnatsakanov were last year at this time, lying in intensive care at Beaumont Hospital, their teammates hurrying in, hoping for some news.

“I remember the doctors saying, we don’t know if they’ll live or not live,” Yzerman recalled.

In light of that, those weren’t baby steps Konstantinov took Thursday. They were flying leaps. And they seemed to finally soar over the hesitations the Wings and their fans always had about celebrating anything too much while Vladdie and Sergei were struggling.

“It’s all right,” Konstantinov seemed to say as he walked, waved and gave a thumbs-up sign. “Look — I’m right behind you.”

“Next year,” predicted trainer John Wharton, who has watched over Vladdie like a brother, “he walks across the stage by himself.”

First you rise.

A series of lasting memories

At one point Thursday, Kevin Hodson, the Wings’ backup goalie, shouted, “There ain’t no party like a Dee-troit party because a Dee-troit party never stops.”

That’s what we hope. For if ever there was a group that deserved a season of fun, it was this one. Seeing the players Thursday on that Hart Plaza stage, their playoff beards mostly gone, their uniforms and pads replaced by T-shirts, shorts and caps, they looked every bit the boys of summer, ready to share that Stanley Cup with every nook and cranny of the planet. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, “Oh, the places it’ll go!”

Like where? Oh, like parties, houses, swimming pools, lodges, restaurants, sports bars, barbecues, halls, like America and Canada, Russia and Sweden, like every camera angle in every hometown of every player on this championship team. That’s the beauty of the Cup. That’s the beauty of the celebration.

And that’s the beauty of Thursday. The Wings got a second Cup — more important, they got a second chance. “No limos this time,” said Sergei Fedorov, being typically blunt. “We’ll drive our own cars, or we’ll walk. We want to celebrate more than six days.”

And savor the good memories. Which is your favorite? Chris Osgood leaping on that loose puck against Washington? Fedorov winning a finals game with a solo shoot-and-score? Doug Brown doing his dance after scoring in Game 2? Brendan Shanahan winning the double-overtime classic against St. Louis? Yzerman digging, poking, passing, scoring, night after night, until finally, he lifted that Conn Smythe Trophy over his head?

Pick a memory. Pick a player. Pick a jersey name to wear around town: Murphy, Larionov, Lapointe, Lidstrom, Fetisov, Kozlov, McCarty, Maltby, Draper. The nice part is, you don’t have to worry: They plan to be back. These are not the Chicago Bulls, playing some trumped-up will-they-stay-or-will-they-go thing. The Wings do not bicker. The Wings do not hate their owner.

No way. This is where they want to be. Truth is, this is where they’ve wanted to be for a whole, very long year.

First you rise, then you walk — then you head toward open arms. That was one big embrace Thursday, for Vladdie, Sergei, and for the Wings themselves, who were finally back to where it started, a sunny day in a sunny city that simply adores its hockey team. We’ve come full circle on this story. Now we cross our fingers, look to the skies and ask that this time, the moment be allowed to ripen and last for maybe, oh, 1.2 million years.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581. Mitch will sign copies of “Tuesdays With Morrie” for Father’s Day at 5-6 p.m. Saturday at Barnes & Noble in Northville.

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