No easy answers
When Bruce Springsteen played Philips Arena last winter, Dany Heatley's red mop was easily spotted down on the floor by those of us high up in the cheap seats. He seemed to be, as he usually does, having a good time. After the show, I saw Heatley and his entourage get escorted backstage to meet The Boss.
I could only laugh and say to myself: It's good to be Dany Heatley.
To be 21 and graced with world-class athletic instinct and ability, to be single in the big city with your face on billboards and your name in lights. I didn't feel any of the envy or anger that sometimes surfaces when we see a rich, young athlete flaunting the spoils of his celebrity. I just felt, I don't know exactly ... glad, I think, that he was enjoying himself, living the life.
Two months later, Heatley would score four goals in the All-Star Game and officially become the toast of the NHL. The league GMs voted him as the player they would pick to build a franchise around, and he landed cover spots on EA Sports' NHL 2004 video game and The Hockey News, which tabbed him "The New Face of the NHL."
I could only laugh and say to anybody who would listen: It's good to be Dany Heatley.
That was then. And now? Now it is not a very good time to be Dany Heatley.
Where once he had his whole future in front of him, he now has only his past to greet him every morning. Where once he had it all, now Heatley has nothing.
That's more than we can say for Dan Snyder.
After a week of anguish, the Atlanta Thrashers tried to resemble normal as best they could Thursday night during a season-opening 2-1 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets. But from a touchingly simple pregame ceremony to the jubilant final horn, the Thrashers did all they could do to keep their emotions in check during the game.
When it was over, coach Bob Hartley stuck the game puck in his pocket and took it into the dressing room, where most of his players sat slumped at their stalls with heads in hands. He flipped the puck to assistant equipment manager Joe Guilmet for safe keeping until Friday afternoon, when it will be placed inside of Snyder's casket.
The Thrashers then headed straight to the airport to begin their trip to Elmira, Ontario, to lay their teammate to rest. Heatley, who, by all accounts, was not in Philips Arena for the game, was to travel with the team to the funeral.
"I just want to give the guy [Heatley] a hug," said Thrashers center Marc Savard. "It's going to be great for us to see him and talk to him and let him know that we're here for him."
Heatley's name never was mentioned in what was probably a conscious effort to keep the pregame ceremony all about Snyder. A single bagpipe played Amazing Grace during a video montage of Snyder. There was a short eulogy and a moment of silence. And then, there was just a hockey game to be played.
From 100 feet above the ice, it could have passed for just another game. Those involved said it most certainly was not.
"The way I presented it to the players was, 'Let's play a season of one game on Thursday,' " Hartley said, " 'and on Saturday we'll start a season of 81 games.' [This game] was just a big bump in the road and I had no clue if we would be ready. Human nature sometimes can play tricks on you and it has been a tough, emotional week for all of us.
"But [Friday] we're going to a beautiful little city in Ontario, where they are very proud of their boy."
If anybody knows how to categorize and file away the emotions of this tragedy, please let me know.
Those of us who live our lives following sports generally deal in win-lose situations, whether it's the score of a game, a trade, or a spitting contest between egos. And when athletes run amok off the court, we're fairly confident in passing judgment and picking sides.
Many columnists already have moved Heatley to the list of the damned, some calling him a "punk" and calling for a lengthy jail sentence. And I don't know if I can argue. Others have called for compassion during Heatley's long road to recovery, saying he is just a young man who made a foolish mistake that will haunt him for the rest of his days, and that should be punishment enough. I don't know if I can argue with that, either.
Snyder didn't die from a disease or a faulty organ. He wasn't murdered by a criminal. These are all things we understand, painful as they are. But when two young men climb into a sports car and drive like maniacs down a dark and winding road together, there is no evil force to shoulder the blame.
So what is Heatley? A victim of the same accident or a reckless youth who caused it? And what does he deserve? Snyder's family already has publicly forgiven Heatley, which is a far bigger act then I would be capable of doing in their shoes. But does that mean the rest of us are beholden to forgive him, too? Is forgiving Heatley somehow demeaning to the memory of Snyder? Doesn't killing somebody in your car warrant severe punishment, regardless of your remorse?
The charges of vehicular homicide carry a maximum sentence of 15 years, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported this week that the average sentence is just under 7 ½ years. However, from what I gather, the cases involving alcohol are the ones that balloon that average. If alcohol was not a factor, as Heatley's agent maintains, a conviction likely would result in a sentence well under that average. Edmonton Oilers coach Craig MacTavish served a year in jail after his alcohol-related vehicular homicide conviction in 1984, and he was able to overcome the grief and guilt to come back and have a successful playing career.
At this point, we don't know what will become of Heatley. But his hockey career is last on a long list of uncertainties.
I don't care if he ever plays hockey again, though I hope he does.
I just hope that someday it will be good to be Dany Heatley again.