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Days are busy, fulfilling for Mnatsakonov - The Detroit News
Former Red Wings masseur enjoys reading, car rides, time with his new granddaughter
By Jerry Green / The Detroit News
GROSSE POINTE WOODS--The flat-screen television flashes pictures as they do in every home in suburban America, and the viewers watch with deep interest.
But the words are strange and the letters on the screen are written in the Cyrillic alphabet.
News, direct from Moscow ... from home.
Sergei Mnatsakonov, seated in his wheelchair, smiles. That is noticed immediately by his visitor, that he smiles more now.
"TV from Russia," says Elena Mnatsakonov, Sergei's wife and devoted caretaker. "We get three stations on satellite. I watch the same news as my mother in Moscow. Sergei watches news, hockey games. After Russian, I turn on American news."
It has been six years, almost, that Mnatsakonov, along with Vladimir Konstantinov and Viacheslav Fetisov, were passengers in a limousine after a party celebrating the Red Wings' capture of the Stanley Cup. The limo, for some reason, went off the road in Birmingham and crashed into a tree.
Konstantinov would be so severely injured that he would never play hockey again. Fetisov recovered from his lesser injuries and played with the Wings as they won another Stanley Cup the following season.
Mnatsakonov had worked with his hands and fingers as a masseur for the players. He was skilled in his job, kneading their muscles, soothing their pains. He would be unable to work again.
Three of his four limbs were paralyzed. His right hand works.
"I go on the computer," Mnatsakonov says. "News from Russia."
Or he plays solitaire, controlling the mouse to shift the red 6 onto the black 7.
"Now we don't have any special program for Sergei, because it does not make any difference," says Elena, who has learned to speak English in America. "But it makes him very mad."
For years, a specially equipped van would roll up to the Mnatsakonov home and Sergei would be driven to a rehabilitation center. Usually it was the facility in Troy, operated by former Wings trainer John Wharton. Now Elena drives Sergei.
"We go to the Russian store to buy a newspaper," Sergei says.
"Then we go some place," Elena says. "Sergei likes being in the car. He likes when I drive him somewhere. He doesn't like being in a mall. Too crowded.
"From time to time, I take him for some entertainment. From time to time, he tells me, 'OK, today we'll go to a restaurant.'"
There is some new entertainment for the Mnatsakonovs. "We are grandparents now," Elena says.
Their son, Maxim, has a daughter, Elane, 11 months old.
"Our American granddaughter," Elena says. "When Sergei works on computer, she likes to sit there.
" ... We do what our family needs to do. Not a special schedule for Sergei. But now my life is always around Sergei. I take care of him. Then I do what my family needs. Groceries. Now lots of work for the garden. And we baby sit with granddaughter. Every day is different.
"Busy, busy, busy."
And Mnatsakonov remains passionate about his hockey.
During the winter, he attended a few Wings games, watching from owner Mike Ilitch's box. So did Konstantinov. And when their pictures are flashed onto the center ice scoreboard, the Joe Louis crowds applaud.
"Yes, Sergei saw Vlady at some Red Wings games," Elena says. "It's hard for Sergei to talk with Vlady. Sergei tells him, 'Vlady, don't worry. Everything will be OK.'
Mnatsakonov spends much of his time at home in his library, at the computer or reading. All but two of the books are in Russian, with the words written in the Cyrillic alphabet. The two in English are Red Wings books written and published by The Detroit News after the team won the Stanley Cup.
"Sergei likes history," says Elena, displaying a thick, encyclopedic type of book. "About people, events and dates. You can read here about America. About all countries, old presidents."
On the cover are pictures of Sitting Bull, Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and Queen Elizabeth I.
Sergei's books are in Russian, but Elena says he understands English. Sergei nods.
"Is that correct? You understand what I'm saying, that the Red Wings were terrible in the playoffs?" asks his visitor.
"No terrible," responds Sergei, true to the Red Wings.
Quite often, when the weather is sunny, Elena takes Sergei through the neighborhood in his wheelchair. Their lawn is immaculate. Its beauty, its neatness, puts some of the neighbors' front lawns to shame. This writer, who lives two houses from the Mnatsakonovs, compliments them on the care of their home.
The grass is lush and trimmed. A bed of flowers decorates the front of the house. There have been additions built, a room for Sergei in which he can relax and can be helped into the wheelchair. A new garage has been built. A barbecue pit.
Much of improvements have been orchestrated and overseen by Al Sobotka, the maintenance supervisor of Joe Louis Arena.
"Oh, Al Sobotka, best friend," Elena says. "You know, Sergei call him 'general manager.' Our family's general manager.
"I don't like to call busy people with my problem. I like to decide my problem myself. But I can call him twice a day. And he help me twice a day."
A month ago, with the Red Wings gone so quickly from the playoffs, Sobotka called Elena.
"He calls me, 'What plans do you have for Sergei?'" she says. "'I don't have plan for Sergei.' He said, 'OK, let's do barbecue here for him. And I will help you.'
"Igor Larionov came to the barbecue. Dave Lewis came."
'His own way'
As Mnatsakonov sits in his wheelchair, goes about town driven by Elena, works on his computer, watches news live from Moscow, another auto accident has afflicted the Red Wings. Three such crashes now have injured members of the organization, two in Russia and the one in Michigan.
Igor Grigorenko, the Red Wings' 20-year-old prize prospect, remains hospitalized with severe injuries in Russia, stemming from a crash. Before the crash that destroyed the careers of Mnatsakonov and Konstantinov, Vyacheslav Kozlov was badly injured in a car accident. As with Fetisov, Kozlov recovered to play again and contribute to the Red Wings' run of Stanley Cup championships.
A tragic coincidence, three such crashes. It is a subject the Mnatsakonovs are not inclined to discuss. "It's not good for team," is all Sergei says.
The visitor mentions another auto accident involving a famed Russian hockey player, the great Valeri Kharlamov. Kharlamov died in his accident many years ago, in the then Soviet Union.
"Kharlamov wasn't driver," Elena says. "His wife was driving."
Then Elena adds about the devastating crash that injured her husband one week after the Red Wings had won the Stanley Cup in June 1997: "Maybe, you know, God take best people. Maybe Sergei not good enough for God. He's good enough for me.
"At hospital, I touch him. He was warm. I hug his hands, and I say, 'Now you will be with me. I will not give you chance to go away.'
"Every person, when he was born, he has his own way in life."