When the Detroit Red Wings said farewell to Joe Louis Arena after their final game on April 9, they did so with a cavalcade of stars present and past. As legends and fan favorites took their turn saying hello to the crowd and good-bye to The Joe, the most bittersweet moment came when Vladimir Konstantinov was wheeled onto the ice where he was once one of the NHL’s most fearsome defensemen, beloved by teammates and Red Wings fans and loathed by opponents.
Konstantinov was entering the prime of his career when he was injured in a limousine accident just six days after helping the Red Wings end their 42-year Stanley Cup drought on June 6, 1997. Konstantinov spent weeks in a coma and suffered major brain trauma. Teammate Slava Fetisov and team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov were also injured in the accident. Fetisov’s injuries were minor but Mnatsakanov also suffered permanent injuries.
No Red Wing has since worn Konstantinov’s No. 16 sweater as the team has held the number out of circulation. When the Red Wings later acquired Pat Verbeek and Brett Hull, both of whom had long associations with the No. 16, both changed to different numbers, Verbeek to No. 15 and Hull to No. 17.
It is long past time for the Red Wings to make it official and have Konstantinov’s number be the first to be retired in Little Caesar’s Arena and join the numbers of other Red Wing legends.
At the time of his injury, Konstantinov had established himself as one of the NHL’s marquee defensemen and top-notch agitator.
His final season, at age 29, Konstantinov finished second in the voting for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman. He finished that season as a plus-38, most among defensemen and set a career-high mark with 38 points and totaled 151 penalty minutes, the second-most of his career and he also led the league in Defensive Point Shares, 7.1. The previous season he led the league with a plus-60 and an 8.5 DPS.
While Konstantinov was the consummate defenseman, he could chip in with the offense as well. He netted 47 goals, 128 assists and 175 points in his 446 career games. He scored his most memorable goal in double overtime of Game 3 of the 1995 Western Conference Final against the Chicago Blackhawks, which Detroit went on to win in five games.
The only argument against Konstantinov’s number being retired is longevity. He only played six NHL seasons. But had he not been injured, it’s fair to say he could have easily doubled his career games played as another six seasons would have taken him to age 35.
Konstantinov would not be the first player to be so honored by his team after a career cut short due to injury. Ace Bailey’s No. 6 sweater hangs in Toronto when his career ended by a fractured skull suffered in a hit from Boston’s Eddie Shore.
While the Wings and their fans waited for more than four decades to end their championship drought in 1997, the injuries Konstantinov suffered in his accident cast a pall over the Red Wings’ summer with Stanley. It wasn’t until the following year, when the Red Wings repeated as champions, and Konstantinov joined them on the ice to parade the Cup around the ice, that the true celebration could be enjoyed by everyone.
In the years since, Konstantinov has remained a rich part of the Red Wings’ lore. His appearances at the Joe through the years have always been among the longest and loudest ovations. He is beloved by fans and his teammates not just for the tragedy that ended his career, but also for the player he was. He was tough. A fierce competitor. A perfect blend of grit and skill. All the qualities that made the Red Wings a model organization for more than two decades. Also the same qualities upon which the city of Detroit was built.
The Red Wings have never had another player to wear the No. 16 and it doesn’t appear that is likely to change. If the Red Wings are intent on keeping Konstantinov’s legacy intact, then it time for his jersey to take its place hanging from the rafters alongside the Red Wings’ other legends.