You will likely never read a career highlight that is tinged with as much sadness as that of Viacheslav Fetisov.
On the surface, Fetisov had lived a charmed life. He was not only playing the game he loved, but was playing it at such an extraordinary level that he had won virtually every individual and team honour possible, both back home in Russia and as part of the National Hockey League.
On June 13, 1997, just six days after being handed the Stanley Cup, Slava and his Red Wings teammates were celebrating Detroit's first Stanley Cup victory since 1955. The Wings lost only four games through the entire post-season. Mike Vernon had collected the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff's top performer. Life as a member of the Detroit Red Wings couldn't be any sweeter.
And then, a tragedy of unimaginable proportions took place. That night, on a limousine ride home from a golf outing, Viacheslav Fetisov, teammate Vladimir Konstantinov and team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov were involved in a horrific single-car accident. The driver and Fetisov escaped with minor injuries but the two others weren't quite so fortunate. Both men suffered severe head injuries that ended their careers. "I was a couple of inches, maybe less, from being in the same situation," sighed Fetisov.
That summer, the defenseman had contemplated retirement, but decided to re-dedicate himself to another season, one which he dedicated to his dear friends Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov. "When you lay in the hospital, you're not always thinking about hockey," stated Fetisov. "Lying next door was Sergei and Vlady. It makes you think about life. It was a combination of a few things that pushed me through for another season. People were unbelievable in Detroit for our families, and we got so much support from the people."
The Red Wings finished second in the Central Division for a second straight season in 1997-98. It was as though Detroit was on a mission as they climbed past their challengers. Reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the third time in four springs, the Red Wings met the Washington Capitals for hockey's most cherished prize. Fetisov was only the fifth NHLer since the 1967 expansion to play in a Stanley Cup final past the age of 40.
The Red Wings won the first three games of the series 2-1, 5-4 and 2-1. Game four, possibly the clinching contest, took place in Washington on June 16, 1998, almost exactly a year following the accident. Team owner Mike Ilitch made certain that Vladimir Konstantinov was in the arena that night.
There was little doubt from midway through the first period that Detroit was playing inspired hockey. A second straight Stanley Cup was in their site, and their spiritual leader, Konstantinov, was in the building to help inspire his teammates. The Red Wings won the game 4-1 in front of the crowd at Washington's MCI Center, who dejectedly but appreciatively saluted the Stanley Cup-winning Detroit Red Wings.
Konstantinov was pushed out onto the ice surface in his wheelchair, wearing his number 16 jersey, as the Washington fans gave him a standing ovation. Gary Bettman, the NHL's commissioner, handed the Stanley Cup to Detroit captain Steve Yzerman, who had received the Conn Smythe Trophy moments before. Yzerman immediately spun around and handed the Stanley Cup to Konstantinov, who in spite of months of arduous therapy following the crash, was able to muster a broad smile while holding the Stanley Cup amongst his teammates. The Stanley Cup's traditional lap around the ice surface was made first in the lap of the wheelchair-bound Vladimir Konstantinov. There wasn't a dry eye looking on as this emotional ceremony unfolded.
"This is for Number 16," shouted Viacheslav Fetisov, referring to the jersey number of his long-time teammate, which coincidentally, is the number of playoff wins needed to capture the Stanley Cup. "He is going to walk soon I have no doubt about it!" Fetisov then knelt down beside his dear friend, who was holding a cigar and was wearing a Red Wings' Stanley Cup ballcap. Emotionally, Fetisov added, "Buddy, this one is for you!"
Kevin Shea is the Hockey Hall of Fame's Editor of Publications and On-Line Features.