Darren Eliot
Monday October 19th, 2009

Six years ago, Dan Snyder died in tragic circumstances. I wrote right here one of the most difficult pieces I've ever had to author. It marked the beginning of an odyssey that in many ways culminated yesterday in Elmira, Ontario, Canada, where Snyder's Atlanta Thrashers visited the new Dan Snyder Memorial Arena to practice, sign autographs, and mingle with local youth hockey players in front of a full house of about 1,500.

The team's participation, according to Snyder's mom, LuAnn, "Was important to our family, but also to all of the people here in the community. It is a christening (of the facility) for us."

The time in between is what has proved so poignant. The grace and humanity of the Snyder family in embracing Dany Heatley, who was at the wheel in the car crash that claimed Snyder's life, has been revelatory (SI Vault: Heatley playing in pain-- 02.09.04) while the class and conviction of the local community and the hockey community at large has been nothing short of inspiring.

As Thrashers' Executive VP/GM Don Waddell put it, "Dan was a big part of our organization and everyone in our organization is family. We were looking forward to this day. The Snyders have been so incredible, it is the least we can do to come to Elmira and some time with them."

Only captain Ilya Kovalchuk and Slava Kozlov were with the team in 2003. Both were delighted to see the response. Said Kovalchuk, "It's an emotional day for all of us. Dan will always be a part of our team and be in our hearts. To come here and see his family and all of the people in the building is just incredible." Kozlov thought the experience was "Important for all of us. It is a great day, wonderful atmosphere and an awesome experience."

No matter whom I spoke with, the vibe was the same -- nothing but glowing, positive responses. The only things brighter were the wide-eyed smiles of each and every youth player that was at the rink, getting a glimpse of an NHL team in their town, on their ice. And that is what is amazing about the life and death of Dan Snyder. So much goodwill has spread in the wake of what was a terrible event.

Dan wanted to give back to his town and had hoped to be behind one day getting a new sheet of ice put down for the kids growing up. Snyder's father, Graham, took to making sure that his son's goal didn't die with him. They set up a foundation in his name and held an annual golf outing to raise funds for a new rink. From the Snyder family's passion and compassion, the project grew exponentially. The county of Woolwich got involved and soon a single sheet of ice turned into a two-sheet facility with a pool, gym and senior center.

The price tag rose to over $22 million, of which the small town of Elmira raised over $5.5 million all by itself, with 10 percent coming directly from the five-year golf outing plan. Beyond the politics, planning and funding, though, it is truly an impressive facility, made all the more so in how it came to be. A community benefits for years to come while a family's focus in the near term helps them heal.

As Graham Snyder put it, "It's something we've been dreaming about and working towards for a long time. Dan was part of it right from the beginning when he was with us. It wasn't quite the way we planned on opening, but he has been a big part of it."

Yes, they built a rink -- a feat in and of itself. But the real story is the journey the Snyder family has taken us all on, from heartbreaking to heartwarming, improbable to indelible -- a goal achieved and a legacy taking on a life of its own.

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