July 24, 2013

7 for 7: Red Wings Tragedy

[This is day three of 7 Posts for 7 Days. With Detroit making headlines for its bankruptcy, I'm spending the week sharing my Detroit experience. I lived there from mid-1997 to mid-1998.]

Throughout the decade that I worked in TV news, I lived in five different cities; and in each stop along the career ladder, there was always one big news story that stood out. While I was working in Detroit, that one big story happened just a few days after I started my new job, and it stayed in the headlines for pretty much every single day of my year there.

Detroit is Hockeytown. So the city was all abuzz about the Red Wings winning the Stanley Cup championship in 1997. But that that didn't turn out to be the big story. Just a few days after the big win, I was still afflicted with new (introvert) employee syndrome at my new job, working a 2 - 11 p.m. shift. So I wasn't exactly prepared for what was about to happen. 

Somehow or other, the assignment editor working the same shift got a tip that a Red Wings player may have been killed in a car accident. [To spare you the suspense, no one was killed.] You know that sound a record player makes when you accidentally drag the needle?  That's about what it sounded like, figuratively speaking, when the celebration of the Red Wings' 1997 Stanley Cup championship came to a sudden and tragic end.

The rest of that long night at work was a blur of story chasing and fact gathering, along with crazed media circuses at the accident scene, the hospital, Joe Louis Arena and other places. As is often the case in big stories, the facts were slow to emerge, and speculation turned out to be wrong. One player who was believed to have been injured in the accident was not actually involved in the accident.

I'll give you a brief recap of what really happened, to the best of my recollection. Fact errors are quite possible. But I thought it would be more interesting to rely on my fleeting memories. If you want the full story, a simple web search of "Red Wings limo accident" should suffice.

Having just won the finals a few days prior, some of the Red Wings players and staff were attending a private party one night. A few of them hired a limousine to take them home. That sounds like a good idea since the alcohol was probably flowing freely at he party.

As I recall, the passengers in the back of the limo suddenly noticed that the driver had dozed off, and the limo was speeding off the roadway into a wide, landscaped median. I think some of them were even banging on the partition in the limo to try to wake the driver. The vehicle struck a tree head-on.

Courtesy: reocities.com
There were a couple of players and a team trainer in the back of limo. One player was injured less severely and recovered. But the two other men are probably still battling to recover all these years later. Eventually that night or the next morning, the media confirmed who was involved.

The two most seriously injured were defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov and trainer Sergei Mnatsakanov (hereafter referred to as VK and SM to save me from having to type Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov over and over). Both were in a coma for a long time, and many people were expecting and preparing for the death of VK. He was known as a very tough player on ice. His nickname was Vlad the Impaler. So maybe that toughness is what helped him survive.

I had just arrived in town, but helping to cover this story certainly broke me in quickly. For the sake of brevity, I'll skip ahead a little. If my memories are accurate, the man behind the wheel of the limo was driving with a suspended license because of a drunk driving conviction. Or maybe it was multiple drunk driving convictions. And I think the investigators found the remnants of a marijuana joint in the front the limo, but there was not enough of the drug in his system to charge him with driving under the influence. In fact, I think all he was charged with was driving with a suspended license and maybe reckless driving.

Needless to say, there was serious outrage all over Hockeytown that the limo driver was not charged with something more serious while two beloved Red Wings were nearly killed. Maybe the driver was charged with something else later, but I don't remember. Had faith been a part of my life back then, I would have done some serious praying for everyone involved in this tragedy.

I would never endorse this line of thinking, but many people in the community were outraged that the driver only suffered minor injuries. He was wearing a seat belt. VK and SM were not, and they suffered serious head trauma in the crash. 

It was a somber off-season for the Red Wings. They still did some of the usual Stanley Cup winning traditions like traveling with the Cup and showing it off all over the world. Several players were from Russia, so when they took the cup to their home country for a visit, our station sent a crew to follow along. (TV newsrooms had bigger budgets back then!). But at every public event, the team always expressed their support for VK and SM.

When the next season started, the Red Wings dedicated it to their injured colleagues and wore a special patch on their uniforms with their initials and the word "believe" in English and Russian. Sure enough, the team played so well that they won the Stanley Cup for a second year in a row.

The most dramatic moment of this whole story occurred after that winning game in 1998. VK was at the arena for the game and was wheeled onto the ice for the celebration. I still have my souvenir T-shirt with the amazing photo from the cover of the Detroit Free Press showing VK  with the Stanley Cup in his lap giving a thumbs up. Sadly, I remember reading a few years later that VK's wife said that within a day or two, he had absolutely no memory of that second Stanley Cup celebration.

Courtesy: My t-shirt drawer
Courtesy: thehockeyguys.net
Not long after that second hockey championship in 1998, I left the Detroit station for a job back in Florida. I tried to keep up with the VK story for the next few years. I think he still requires daily medical care but over the years was able to walk and talk a little more.

On a happier note, it was really exciting to see the way the city celebrated after winning back-to-back championships. One of my biggest regrets about my year in Detroit is that I never made it to a Red Wings game in person. But I did get to see the Tigers play in the old Tiger Stadium and the Lions play in the dump formerly known as the Pontiac Silverdome. 

Preview: 7 for 7: Solidarity Forever will focus on the interesting experience of working at a unionized television station for the first and only time in my career. What had previously been the simplest of newsroom tasks, like pressing the eject button on a video recorder, suddenly were against the rules. Tune in tomorrow for the next installment.

[For others participating in 7 Posts in 7 Days, visit Conversion Diary.]

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