Game becomes secondary
Tragedy ends one career; let's hope it doesn't crush another
Suddenly, hockey matters so little.
Just 72 hours before the puck was to drop on a new season, the game has been rendered meaningless by Dan Snyder's tragic passing, and we are left to grieve for a loss rather than celebrate a new beginning.
The two seemed like such an odd couple, even within the unique, diverse confines of a hockey locker room. Dany Heatley was a superstar-in-waiting -- a future captain and Hart Trophy contender, in fact -- scheduled to make millions this season. He was being marketed as one of the NHL's next generation of golden boys, a good guy with great talent on an improving team.
Snyder, on the flip side, was about as anonymous as they come. He was a hard-working energy player on the fourth line of a mediocre hockey team, making just above the minimum salary. But yet, with Snyder's death we are left to consider that not getting to see Heatley's emerging brilliance pales in comparison to never getting to see Snyder muck it up on the fourth line again in anonymity.
I can't say that I knew Snyder well, other than a few brief pleasantries in the locker room. When you are a fourth-line center, you get used to just saying hello to reporters as they stampede past you to chat with your first-line right wing, a guy who just happened to be your best buddy on the team.
Heatley has been perfectly cordial on every occasion I have spoken with him, but his ego had been growing as his prominence around the league increased. He was still charming during a 20-minute phone conversation we had in early September. In addition to speaking about his emergence as a young superstar, and the Thrashers' hopes for contending for a playoff berth, I jokingly asked Heatley what he did with the black Dodge pickup truck he was awarded for winning the 2003 NHL All-Star Game MVP award. At the time, he thought he might give it to his younger brother Mark, but his measured response spoke volumes as to his desire to have a more hip car than some silly pickup truck.
"I took care of it," Heatley laughed. "I don't really want to say what I did with it, but I don't have it anymore. I'm fine with my car."
Can you blame him for choosing a blazing-fast Ferrari over a hefty pickup truck? From a distance it's easy for us to criticize Heatley for being young and foolish, but given the same opportunities at a similar age, who is to say that we wouldn't have been just as reckless? Don't believe for a second that Heatley hasn't been regretful of his poor decision-making every moment since he found out that Snyder was severely injured. And his reaction Sunday to finding out his buddy had passed away will be a moment he won't ever shake.
Snyder and Heatley, tight friends by all accounts, reportedly were heading back to Heatley's condo (where Snyder was living during training camp) after dining with teammate Ilya Kovalchuk following a team event for season-ticket holders at Philips Arena. As Kovalchuk drove away in his new orange Lamborghini and Heatley got behind the wheel of his black 2002 Ferrari, Snyder climbed in the passenger seat of Heatley's car. The two young stars were in control of their destiny, but the fourth-line mucker had his fate in someone else's hands.
No one can get inside Heatley's head to understand why he acted so foolishly by getting his sports car up to 80 mph in a 35-mph zone. Maybe they were laughing and cranking some tunes on their short drive home -- two young, seemingly invincible kids on a joyride.
And then Snyder was gone in an instant.
Twenty-five years old, at the start of a promising young career ... and then gone.
Fate doesn't distinguish between role players and superstars.
Your heart just breaks for Snyder's family, friends and teammates. They all deserve our thoughts and prayers during this unconscionably difficult time.
But Heatley and his family can't be forgotten in all of this, either. The grief and emotions running through his mind right now are unfathomable. If the physical injuries he suffered in the accident don't derail his career from its path toward greatness, the legal repercussions might. And the emotional baggage he will carry on a daily basis certainly won't ever go away, whether he makes a triumphant return to the ice a changed and remorseful man, or serves time behind bars.
Hart Trophies and Atlanta's postseason contention are the least of his concerns right now. With the charges pending against him, as well as additional ones that are likely to be filed early this week, Heatley won't be appearing on the ice anytime soon. His physical maladies will be long healed when his legal and emotional troubles are cleared up.
Snyder, sadly, never will skate again. One life has already been lost. It would be a shame to make a waste of a second one as well. So we must learn from this tragedy and hope this serves as an example to other young players.
Hockey seems so trivial now at a time when we are normally all reveling in the game's beauty and grace, and the new beginning of the NHL's 87th season has been rendered secondary to the tragic loss of one of the game's participants.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.