Boosting the birds
Heatley's amazing comeback will help Thrashers for playoff run
Posted: Wednesday January 28, 2004 2:34AM; Updated: Wednesday January 28, 2004 2:34AM
Through all the tears and all the hard days of rehab on his torn knee ligaments, Dany Heatley has focused on one moment. The goal that has motivated him has been getting back on the ice at Philips Arena and helping the Thrashers reach the playoffs for the first time in their five-year history.
Heatley will reach the first part of that goal on Wednesday when he makes his return against the St. Louis Blues, 121 days after his tragic car accident in Buckhead that took the life of teammate Dan Snyder.
The Thrashers' medical staff cleared Heatley to play on Saturday, but his status wasn't officially decided until a meeting on Monday with Heatley, head coach Bob Hartley and general manager Don Waddell. They decided that if Heatley made it through practice on Tuesday without any troubles, then he would make his return Wednesday.
"I think it means a lot for Dany and it means a lot obviously for us because we all know what happened and the process that Dany had to go through," Hartley said. "I think that this young man deserves lots of credit for not only doing it in a very good way, but also getting ahead of schedule."
After Heatley announced himself as one of the NHL's future superstars by winning the Calder Trophy after the 2001-02 season and the MVP award at the 2003 All-Star Game, it was obvious that he was a special athlete. But no one in the Thrashers organization knew just how special he was until they watched him diligently rehab his severe knee injuries over the past four months.
From the time he started rehabbing his knee three days after surgery, Heatley has been in the gym seven days a week, sweating through the pain in the hopes of being back on the sanctuary of the ice as soon as possible.
"Rehab is not fun," Heatley said. "It's hard work every day. But I had a great group of guys to work with -- great trainers. I'm not surprised by it [returning so quickly]. If you work out for four months, you should be in pretty good shape. But I think nothing is going to prepare me for a game, and it's still going to take a few games to get into game shape."
Many athletes miss an entire season with the type of injury Heatley suffered, but he will be back with 31 games remaining in the Thrashers' season. If Heatley suffers another injury, rushing back to the lineup will be viewed with hindsight as a foolhardy move. But if Heatley can quickly recapture his future Hart Trophy candidate form that he flashed last season, Atlanta's recently fading playoff hopes could be rekindled in a hurry.
"Emotionally, you have to believe that it's going to be a lift for everybody," Waddell said. "Regardless of what the contribution ends up being from Dany, I think it's going to be a lift just to have him back on the bench and see him on the ice. So whether he has an impact on the game or not is yet to be seen, but I think emotionally it's been a big lift for the team, the coaching staff and me personally."
Agent Stacey McAlpine said that Heatley had a conversation with the Snyder family on Tuesday to let them know that he would be returning, but McAlpine wouldn't elaborate on what he called a private conversation. The Thrashers said the Snyders were on vacation out West and weren't planning to attend Heatley's season debut on Wednesday, but that they had expressed interest in attending a Thrashers game once Heatley was back in the lineup.
"I think everybody from top to bottom in the Thrashers organization has been incredibly supportive of Dany and his family, and the Snyder family," McAlpine said. "I think everybody that is close to him is looking forward to tomorrow night."
There is nothing new to report on the legal status of the vehicular manslaughter charge against Heatley, as the prosecution continues to investigate the accident. Heatley's attorney Ed Garland said on Dec. 26 that they were hopeful that the prosecution would reach a decision on how to proceed in the case sometime in mid-February. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard released a statement on Tuesday in regard to Heatley's return.
"As the conditions of his bond allow for him to play and to travel for purposes of employment, this development is to be expected and in no way reflects on the seriousness of the charges against him or the likelihood of any prosecution," the statement said. "We have nearly completed our thorough investigation of the complex matter at hand and hope to be able to announce a charging decision soon."
Waddell said there would be no travel restrictions on Heatley, since he gained clearance to go to Canada with the team for Snyder's funeral on Oct. 11.
There will be smiles, cheers, tears and surely thoughts of Snyder all around Philips Arena on Wednesday. The Thrashers expect Heatley to step into his usual role immediately and play 18-22 minutes, likely on a line with Slava Kozlov and Daniel Corso, who will be filling in until center Marc Savard returns from his concussion within the next week.
"This is opening night for me," Heatley said. "Any year opening night is an exciting time. Mine just took a little longer. And I'm really excited to be playing tomorrow."
Heatley's stats in his season debut won't matter at all. He could go scoreless and post a minus-3 rating and he'll still be the first star in the minds of the hometown fans.
There will be a time when the accident itself becomes the focus again, but that time isn't this week. The focus deserves to be on Heatley's hockey career and not his role in Snyder's tragic death for the next several days.
Mostly it will be good to see No. 15 back on the ice.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.