Playing In Pain Four months after he crashed his car and a teammate died, Dany Heatley returned to the Atlanta Thrashers. Hockey is a refuge, but things are complicated

February 09, 2004

If, as philosopher George Henry Lewes said, the only cure for
grief is action, Dany Heatley took a long stride toward closing
the most painful chapter of his young life last week. The
23-year-old Thrashers forward played for the first time this
season, in a 1-1 tie with the Blues, nearly four months after he
drove his Ferrari into an iron fence in Atlanta, leaving him with
a broken jaw and a shredded knee and ending the life of his
teammate, passenger and friend, Dan Snyder. After his third game
back, a 5-2 loss at Tampa Bay, a winded Heatley was still in
search of his legs and a goal, but he was back on the first line,
hearing the cheers of fans and flashing his familiar gap-toothed
grin. Said coach Bob Hartley the day after Heatley's return, "Now
we can get back to more normal business."

Not exactly. The absence of Snyder, a 25-year-old grinder who
would have centered the fourth line this season, is palpable. The
team has kept his locker, with his equipment still in it, and the
Thrashers wear black number 37 patches on their sweaters. Media
members ask the players about life and death as often as they ask
about wins and losses. And it's possible that Heatley will face
legal trouble. He was speeding at the time of the wreck, and the
Fulton County District Attorney could indict him on a charge of
vehicular homicide.

If that were to happen it would be against the wishes of the
Snyder family, which has privately embraced Heatley and publicly
absolved him of blame, helping him to cope. Snyder's parents,
Graham and LuAnn, speak regularly with Heatley, most recently on
the morning of his first game back. (Snyder's brother, Jake,
chatted with him afterward.) The Snyders watched Heatley's debut
on TV and plan to attend a Thrashers game soon. "It's good to see
Dany back on the ice," Graham Snyder said. "It's a chance for him
to heal, and for us, too."

Heatley's physical progress has been remarkable--a testament to
his determination and physical resilience. On Oct. 7 he underwent
surgery to repair two torn knee ligaments, an injury that
sidelines most athletes for six months or more. He began a
rehabilitation program three days after the operation, spending
four hours every morning exercising and getting treatment from
the Thrashers' medical staff. He has progressed without a
setback. "I thought there was a chance he would be back sometime
after the All-Star break," says Thrashers general manager Don
Waddell. "Never did I think he'd be playing in January."

The rehab routine and the dressing room became Heatley's
emotional sanctuaries. "There was a time when you were just
worried about getting your life back together and supporting the
Snyder family," he says. "But once I started coming to the rink,
being with the guys and the trainers helped me a lot."

His comeback has become more complicated now that he is back in
the intensity of the NHL season. Atlanta, which a month ago was
in first place in the Southeast Division, was at week's end
winless in six games and had fallen seven points out of the last
playoff spot in the East. Hartley stresses that Heatley isn't a
savior, but as last season's leading scorer--and team MVP--he's
being counted on to revive a punchless power play and take the
Thrashers to their first postseason. The rink, once Heatley's
refuge, is now a pressure cooker.

After the All-Star break the Thrashers go on a seven-game road
trip that wends through the hockey hotbeds of Canada, including
Heatley's hometown of Calgary. At every stop Heatley will be
engulfed by reporters eager to gauge the state of his psyche.
"Emotionally it's going to drain on him," says Waddell.

That's putting it mildly. The comeback may be just short of
miraculous, but the healing has just begun.

--Stephen Cannella


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