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Collision Course Part 1: The Konstantinov Story

Detroit Red Wings defensive player Vladimir Konstantinov following the game against the Chicago Black Hawks, Dec. 12, 1996. Konstantinov's ferocious playing style earned him the nickname the Vladinator.
Julian H. Gonzalez

Collision Course is a special Stateside podcast series about the breaking of Michigan’s no-fault auto insurance law and how it’s upending the lives of thousands of people, including one Detroit hockey legend.

This is Chapter One of our three part series on Vladimir Konstantinov and Michigan’s Auto No-Fault laws. You can listen to Chapter Two here.

Among hockey fans, Vladimir Konstantinov is a legend for being a tough, fearless defenseman.

Affectionately nicknamed the Vladinator, the Russian-born player helped earn the Detroit Red Wings the 1997 Stanley Cup against the Philadelphia Flyers. It was the team’s first championship win after more than four decades.

But these days, Konstantinov is facing a fight tougher than anything he saw in the hockey rink. He is one of around 18,000 car crash survivors in Michigan whose lives have been upended by recent changes to the state’s auto no-fault laws.

A seismic shift

Every driver in Michigan pays into a system that’s designed to protect us when we’re at our most vulnerable. It’s for big car accidents, and having it can be a matter of life or death. For a long time, Michigan had some of the best coverage for people injured in serious, catastrophic crashes.

Then, in 2019, the Michigan Legislature passed massive reforms to the state’s auto no-fault insurance laws. And now, the tectonic plates of insurance, health care, and human rights are moving beneath our feet. The care that hockey hero Vladimir Konstantinov—and thousands of other catastrophic accident survivors—receive is at risk of disappearing.

So what happened? We’re going to get to that.

But before do, we want to tell you the story of Vladimir Konstantinov. Because if you know all that he’s accomplished—everything that he represents to Michiganders and Red Wings fans—then you can see how indiscriminate these new laws are.

UNO with Vladdie 

These days, Konstantinov spends much of his time at his home in southeast Michigan where he has around the clock care. One of his favorite things to do is play the card game UNO. Vladdie—that’s what his friends and caretakers call him—is a force to be reckoned with in the game. When we visited, he won 10 out of the 11 rounds he played with caretakers Natalie Moroz and Angela Martin. Always a good sportsman, Konstantinov shook hands at the end of the games.

Konstantinov, known by friends and family as "Vladdie," loves to play UNO with his caretakers Natalie Moroz (pictured) and Angela Martin.
Rachel Ishikawa

Given that he's won a Stanley Cup, you might think winning a card game seems inconsequential for Konstantinov. But it’s actually kind of a big deal when you realize how far he’s come.

Around 25 years ago, the former Soviet hockey star turned legendary Red Wings defenseman was in a catastrophic car accident that left him with a serious traumatic brain injury. For a while it was not clear if Konstantinov would recover any cognition, if he would ever be able to talk, walk, or play card games. But against the odds, he did.

His friends and family say that is largely due to the unique system of care for crash survivors that has built up in Michigan since the state first passed auto no-fault legislation in the 1970s. Because of the comprehensive coverage offered under that law, Konstantinov’s care is entirely covered by insurance.

Each day, Vladimir's caretakers lay out a schedule that includes all of Vlad's therapies, appointments, and activities.
Rachel Ishikawa

That care is substantial—and expensive. Konstantinov has serious physical and cognitive limitations and requires 24/7 home care. He can’t get in and out of his wheelchair or bed without help. He can’t cook for himself or drive a car or make it to his doctor appointments. He receives physical therapy and massage therapy to maintain his physical condition, and his caretakers provide opportunities to socialize and engage.

His family, friends, and caretakers say Michigan's no-fault auto insurance has allowed Konstantinov to build a meaningful life, even if it's vastly different than the one he lived as a hockey hero.

A rising Soviet star

Konstantinov may be a Michigan sports legend, but his origins take place far away. Before the he was recruited to play for the Red Wings, Konstantinov lived his whole life in Russia—Soviet-era Russia. A lot of star hockey players in the U.S.S.R. started playing early in life—at age six or seven. But little Vladdie had a different love: football (or what we Americans refer to as soccer).

“And he was good at it, and he thought, this is it. This is going to be it,” said Vladimir’s wife Irina Konstantinov. “And at some point whether it was the same coach, or a coach who saw him playing, he said, ‘I think you'd be as good and even better in hockey, and why don't you let me try you?’”

And the rest is hockey history. From the age of 11, Konstantinov dedicated himself to hockey with the tenacity that would one day earn him the nickname the Vladinator. But this kind of dedication, it was also part of the culture in Russia at the time.

“All of these hockey players were part of the army. And they lived in a barracks that was a hockey barracks, and all they did was play hockey. They were not soldiers,” explained Art Regner, a journalist and Red Wings biographer who now works for the team.

Regner said that Konstantinov was one of the youngest players to ever captain the Soviet team. Scouts and coaches of the National Hockey League took notice of Russian players because every time the team played in the Olympics or World Championships, it was clear they were a powerhouse.

And the Red Wings had their eye on Vladimir Konstantinov.

“He was always an abrasive player,” Regner explained. “..The Russian team, they were playing Canada in a match and a brawl broke out. And Vladdie was the only Soviet player that defended himself. So the Red Wings really, really liked him.”

"He was just an unreal combination of offensive skill, but grit tough as a $2 steak, and he could hit like a Mack truck."
Devin Scillian

Okay, so Vlad wasn’t the only Russian player who fought that day, but he did head butt someone.

This was 1987, and having a player like Konstantinov on the Red Wings would be a big deal. Because for nearly 20 years, the Red Wings were just not good. From the 1960s until the 1980s they were known as the Dead Wings. Ouch.

But then in 1983, they brought in this bright, young, really talented new captain from Canada: Steve Yzerman. And the Red Wings were looking to win, which meant they needed winning players—players like Vladimir Konstantinov.

But recruiting a hockey player from Soviet-era Russia was not as simple as inking a contract and getting a visa. So how did they pull it off?

Here’s the SparkNotes version:

Basically, the Red Wings approached Konstantinov with two big duffel bags full of cash and asked him to come play for the team. He told them that he wanted to, but that he couldn’t leave behind his wife Irina and their young daughter in Russia. Plus, he had a 25-year contract committing him to the Russian army. If he defected, he would be a felon.

The Red Wings weren’t deterred.

“Through bribery, the Red Wings paid, I think, six Soviet officials and doctors to claim that Vladdie had inoperable cancer, which he did not,” said Regner.

A collage of career highlights hangs in Vladimir Konstantinov's home--including him holding up the 1997 Stanley Cup. It was the first time the team had won the championship in more than four decades.
Rachel Ishikawa

Vladimir was discharged from the army. It was 1991, and the Soviet Union was in the midst of dissolution. The Konstantinov family had a big choice to make—stay or leave—when leaving might mean forever.

“It was pretty scary, unnerving, whatever you want to call it. You may never see the rest of your relatives ever,” recalled Irina. “But it's also, being in your 20s, being young, you don’t even know exactly how many challenges [there are], and it makes it in a way just easier.”

So they took the leap.

From Moscow to Detroit

The Red Wings arranged for Vladimir, Irina, and their daughter to fly to the U.S. and settle in Detroit. Irina remembers feeling so welcomed by the team and everybody around them.

“People would say, well, what do you feel different from being, you know, in the States? And I used to joke about it, well, you can buy toilet paper any day you want,” she said.

The Konstantinovs were adjusting to life in the U.S., learning English, picking up toilet paper at their leisure. Vladimir was also killing it on the ice. Fans loved his ferocity and frequent body checks.

“We can sometimes forget that Vlad was on his way to being probably a Hall of Fame kind of defensive player in the NHL," said long time journalist and WDIV anchor Devin Scillian. "He was just an unreal combination of offensive skill, but grit tough as a $2 steak, and he could hit like a Mack truck,”

Scillian spent a lot of time covering the Red Wings in the 1990s.

Konstantinov’s playing style really resonated with Detroiters. He was tough, but humble. Relentless on the ice and a family man off of it. And he was a star among stars. Because at the peak of this period for the Red Wings, there were four other former Soviet players on the team. Together, they were the Russian Five.

“Watching them all play was like watching a magic show. Every shift, the puck just seemed to be glued to their sticks. It was insane,” said Scillian.

What started with the Russian Five soon spread throughout the whole team. And after decades of losses, something incredible happened.

The Big Win 

In 1997, for the first time in 42 years, the Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup.

The city went wild. Hockey fans flooded the streets to celebrate the long-awaited victory. Four-time Stanley Cup Winner and Red Wings alum Darren McCarty said it’s a day he’ll never forget.

“I have a picture in my house taken from a helicopter over the Detroit River shooting back through Hart Plaza up Woodward, and you can’t see grass or cement,” he said. “It was all people. It was crazy, it was fun, it was everything it was supposed to be.”

Scillian, who was at the parade, said there was just an electric energy in the air that day. It felt like the whole city was coming together to share in the victory.

“I still remember it as, I think, my favorite day of covering news in Detroit in my time here,” he said.

Then, the unthinkable happened.

The accident 

On the way home from a golf outing, Vladimir Konstantinov and two other members of the Red Wings organization were in a catastrophic accident. The limo they had hired to drive them around hit a tree so hard that it uprooted parts of the trunk.

“It was like getting hit across the head with a two-by-four,” recalled Scillian. “After all of the exuberance that we had enjoyed for those days, it was just a stunning, stunning turn of emotion.”

Viacheslav "Slava" Fetisov, a fellow player, escaped with minor injuries. Sergei Mnatsakanov, the team’s massage therapist was paralyzed from the waist down. And Konstantinov had serious brain trauma. Some fans who were at the celebration parade changed course and came to the hospital to offer support.

Darren McCarty said the whole team was in shock. It was surreal to go from the high of a historic win to not knowing if their teammate would make it out of this alive.

“From everything that we heard, we thought we were going to lose Vladdie,” he said. “...I think in that moment, it really really sets apart how precious life is. That was a reminder, you know. Right smack in the face.”

Scillian also covered the accident for WDIV, and he told us the moment that most sticks with him was when Red Wings team captain Steve Yzerman spoke to the media the night of the accident.

“It was just heartbreaking to watch him at the microphone that night and begging people to pray, wish, hope, do all of the things that you do when somebody is hurting and in trouble.”

In that moment, Scillian said, Yzerman wasn’t just a captain for the Red Wings—he’d become a captain for the entire city.

Believe—Beрим

Konstantinov was in a coma for weeks. He survived, but suffered a severe traumatic brain injury–or TBI. It was obvious to everyone that he was never going to play hockey again. This dream team that came together from across the world was heartbroken.

But, the show must go on, right? And it seemed like the next season’s team was motivated to play for their teammate who would never again lace up his skates.

Valdimir Konstantinov (16) with the Stanley Cup along with Viacheslav Fetisov (2), Igor Larionov (8) and Steve Yzerman (19) in Washington, D.C. Tuesday, June 16, 1998.
Julian H. Gonzalez

The Red Wings kept Konstantinov’s jersey in his locker. They had this logo that said “believe” in English and in Russian. And in 1998, the Red Wings won another Stanley Cup. Vlad is at that game. And when they got the trophy, they rolled him out onto the ice in his wheelchair, and placed it in his lap. Scillian told us remembering that moment gives him goosebumps.

“All of those players, to a man, says that, you know, that next year was about winning it for Vladdie. Really, really a stunning story about sports and about humanity and about bad guys who love each other.”

A second upending  

Vladimir Konstantinov’s life is very different than the one he probably imagined when he first came to Detroit as a young hockey star. But for someone who suffered the extensive injuries he did, he is still able to get a lot out of life.

He has warm, loving relationships with people. He gets to go out to his favorite restaurants. He has specialized therapies to maximize his physical and mental recovery. And he lives in the comfort of his own home—not an institution.

The reason Konstantinov got to this point is not because he’s a famous hockey player. It is largely because of Michigan’s unique auto no-fault insurance system. For the past 25 years, all of his medical needs, his housing, his therapies, and his caregivers—they’ve all been covered by insurance.

But this could soon come to an end. With the reforms signed into law in 2019, Konstantinov is at risk of losing all of his care in a matter of weeks. The company that provides care for Vladimir sent his family notice it will no longer be able to keep him as a client if something doesn’t change soon through legislative action or the courts.

How is it possible that that system of care that’s kept this hockey hero living in his home for all these years could just disappear?

Listen to that story in Chapter Two, here.

This episode was produced by Rachel Ishikawa with reporting by Tracy Samilton and April Baer.

Other producers on Stateside are Erin Allen, Mike Blank, Mercedes Mejia, and April Van Buren.

Our executive producer is Laura Weber-Davis 

The theme music for Collision Course is by Brad Gowland.

Additional music from Blue Dot Sessions.

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Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Radio. She began her career at Michigan Radio as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Radio in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the Summer of 2020.
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