Pained Heatley obviously has much healing yet to do
Posted: Saturday December 27, 2003 6:47PM; Updated: Tuesday December 30, 2003 3:54PM
ATLANTA -- Dany Heatley walked through the curtain into the club level at Philips Arena on Friday afternoon with a pained look on his face, and it was evident right away that the events of 88 days ago will never be far from his mind.
Heatley spoke publicly for the first time since the Sept. 29 accident that killed his teammate and best friend Dan Snyder. Wearing a blue blazer and a round No. 37 pin to honor his deceased pal, Heatley sported the same curly brown mop of hair nearly 11 months ago when he announced himself as a future superstar by scoring four goals in the 2003 NHL All-Star Game to take home the MVP honors.
And it was clear during his nervous nine-and-a-half minutes at the podium before the 100 or so media members that healing is an ongoing process, something from which he will never be completely recovered.
"I'm going to think about this forever," Heatley said. "Every time I go to sleep I think about it. I think about Dan. And that's something that I'll deal with for the rest of my life."
Heatley's life changed with his fateful decision to drive too quickly on a hilly, twisty Buckhead road in his hot rod Ferrari while heading home with Snyder as his passenger after they had dined with teammate Ilya Kovalchuk at The Tavern at Phipps. Heatley's sorrowful emotions displayed Friday made it evident that he will regret what he did from here to eternity.
Through all the pain over the past three months, his most ardent supporters have been the four remaining members of the Snyder family, Graham, LuAnn, Jake and Erica. Heatley continually praised the Snyders for their support, calling them "an amazing family."
The compassion they have shown to him and their desire for the prosecution to drop charges could weigh heavily in Heatley's favor as the Fulton County District Attorney's office decides whether or not to continue with the vehicular homicide charges, which could carry a sentence of up to 15 years. The fact that Heatley wasn't drinking before the accident also will help his cause, and his attorney Ed Garland hinted at a positive outcome for Heatley by saying, "I am optimistic about the ultimate outcome."
Heatley mentioned Slava Kozlov as being especially helpful among his teammates, largely because of the unfortunate bond that they share. Kozlov was a 19-year-old Red Wings draft pick when he was involved in a car wreck on the way to practice which killed his teammate Kirill Tarasov. Kozlov was hospitalized for three months and faced even longer odds to recovery than Heatley does, but his presence in the Thrashers' locker room has clearly given the 22-year-old Heatley an unfortunate bond with his former linemate.
Heatley went for an 11-minute skate at the team's suburban Atlanta training facility on Tuesday, signed some autographs for a few lucky fans and gave a quick wave before he disappeared back to the locker room. Returning to the ice provided an emotional boost to Heatley, proving to him that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
"I felt pretty good out there and I think I could compare it to the summertime when you are off the ice for a couple of months and you do feel very foreign," Heatley said. "But I was surprised that I felt pretty good out there. I wasn't going 100 percent, but I felt pretty good and it was just another step in the rehab."
Heatley's rehabilitation will continue over the next several weeks with more skates, more conditioning and surely more sleepless nights. But Waddell said that no outstanding legal issues would prevent Heatley from taking the ice with the team once his physical condition permits it.
"He has rehabbed very well so far and if it continues the way it's going we're anticipating maybe practicing in the next four to five weeks with the team," Thrashers general manager Don Waddell said. "And then we're probably still two or three months away from him playing. But we're just moving along and we're handling the hockey side of it. So far to date, his rehab has gone very well."
That would put Heatley's return to practice at between January 23-30 and his return to game action somewhere between late March and late April. The April date, of course, would mean that Heatley would only join the team if it made it past the first round of the playoffs. Peter Forsberg made a remarkable return to the Avalanche for the 2002 postseason after sitting out the entire 2001-02 campaign, so the precedent is there for that possibility. And not only did Forsberg play, but he played brilliantly, leading the NHL in postseason scoring with 27 points in 20 games.
Garland also spoke of the pending legal charges for which the prosecution is still gathering information to determine how to proceed.
"The prosecution is carefully studying the circumstances of the events," Garland said. "We are doing the same. So at this time, the results of those studies are not at all conclusive or finished. I would anticipate in the next 30 to 45 days that most of the work will have been completed and we will reach a point where there will be specific information concerning what the facts show of how this happened. And until that time, we won't discuss the details of what happened."
Heatley stuck around Philips Arena after his news conference to take in his first game of the season, a 3-1 Thrashers win over the Lightning which extended their Southeast Division lead to eight points. He said that while he wants to be on the ice helping Atlanta toward what looks like its first playoff berth, he has been enjoying the impressive play of his teammates in his absence.
"I'm having a lot of fun watching these guys and being around them every day," Heatley said. "This is the fifth year for us right now and the guys are playing great. It's great to see the guys rally around what happened here. It's actually been good to watch."
As much as he has been drawing inspiration for his comeback from them, they have enjoyed having him back around the team again, too.
"I think that was another good day for Dany," head coach Bob Hartley said after the Lightning game. "Winning the game makes it a better day."
"A hockey team is a very tight group," Heatley said. "It's like a family. And they've treated me like family ever since the start. I think everyone came to the hospital and everyone wanted to. And when I went back in the locker room [for the first time], they were great. It's just like regular teammates and they've been perfect."
Here's hoping that Heatley can write a perfect ending to this tragic tale and return in time to help his team in the postseason.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.