Heatley feels love from teammates, fans, foes in season debut
Posted: Thursday January 29, 2004 2:34AM; Updated: Thursday January 29, 2004 2:38AM
The reminders of Dany Heatley's four-month ordeal to get back on the ice were sprinkled throughout Philips Arena on Wednesday in the form of signs, shirts, pins and hats both supporting Heatley and honoring Dan Snyder.
But the most prominent one was the No. 37 patch adorning Heatley's navy blue sweater just above the assistant captain's A on his left shoulder. Snyder was both on his best friend's mind and close to his heart as Heatley made his season debut just four months after ripping up his knee in the violent car crash that eventually took Snyder's life.
Heatley's night got off to a terrific start when he set foot on the ice for a few quick twirls in his own end prior to the opening faceoff, and he received one of the loudest ovations in the five-year history of the Thrashers.
"It was all excitement today," Heatley said. "The fans were loud. We've got great fans who have supported me and have supported us through this whole thing. It was more excitement than anything at the start of the game."
Lining up for the opening faceoff opposite Blues left winger Keith Tkachuk, Heatley exchanged a few words with the hulking St. Louis forward. No, they weren't the typical taunts and trash talk that commonly precede draws and often leads to fights right off the faceoff. This was an atypical moment of tenderness that is rarely found on the ice.
"I just wanted to give him support," Tkachuk said. "I told him that he's a tremendous person and don't forget that. I just wished him all the best and said that we're thinking of him. The whole NHL, not only myself, but my team and everybody else is thinking about him. I feel for him and wish him all the best for the future."
Heatley didn't waste any time getting himself into the mix on his first shift, blocking a shot by Bryce Salvador from the left point nine seconds into the game, and then hammering Salvador into the left boards just seconds later.
The first period was Heatley's best of the night, as he appeared to tire a bit and lose some speed late in the game.
No one is worried, though, as the Thrashers have acknowledged that getting the timing down again might take a few games.
"I think it's a very positive first step," Thrashers head coach Bob Hartley said. "He had some real good chances on the power play. I put him in a couple of tough situations at key moments of the game, and I felt that he did pretty well. But let's face it, this is step one. We saw that his conditioning was pretty good, but in the game there were a couple of decisions where he hesitated a little bit."
Ilya Kovalchuk seemed to pick right back up with his good buddy. The Thrashers' dynamic duo showed excellent chemistry on two first-period power plays.
Heatley's first scoring chance came with 4:15 remaining in the first period, with only a Reinhard Divis sliding left pad save preventing the Thrashers from taking the lead. Heatley worked the puck from his usual power-play position on the right point back up top to Frantisek Kaberle who quickly moved it to Kovalchuk on the left half boards. With the defense shifting over, Kovalchuk whipped a pass through the Blues' penalty-kill formation to Heatley who fired a hard, accurate wrist shot that Divis turned away with a flash of his pad.
Another scoring chance came with 3:22 left when Heatley fired wide to the left after a rebound squirted out to him pinching in from the left point.
But Heatley's best shot at a goal came on another cross-ice pass from Kovalchuk with just six seconds left on the Thrashers' second power play of the game. Heatley ripped a one-timer a bit too far back toward the middle of the net, and Divis managed to make the save on a quick post-to-post move. It's a goal that an in-the-flow Heatley likely buries, but a rusty Heatley was just a touch off on his timing.
Not to worry, says his power-play cohort.
"He had a couple of chances," Kovalchuk said. "It's coming. It's just his first game and I hope he's going to get much better. We were playing exactly the same way as we did the last couple of years. When I got the puck I always looked for him. But we're going to work on that in practice [Thursday] and against Toronto [on Friday] he's going to score a couple."
After finishing third in the NHL with 19 power-play goals last season, Heatley showed that his quick shot and excellent vision in setting up his teammates are ready to do some damage with the man advantage. The game will start to slow down for him at even strength, and it shouldn't be long until he picks back up in all phases of the game.
"He's the same old Dany," linemate Slava Kozlov said. "I think he played hard and he got good chances on the power play. Unfortunatley he didn't score, but there are lots of games left and I think you are going to see the same Dany like last year pretty soon."
Truthfully, Heatley isn't likely to ever be quite the same. As a 19-year-old, Kozlov was involved in a fatal car accident that killed his teammate Kirill Tarasov in Russia, so he knows the difficulties of recovering emotionally from a tragic accident.
Heatley says he still thinks about Snyder daily, and he spoke with Snyder's parents on Wednesday.
"[Snyder] was a great guy and the perfect teammate," Heatley said. "He's a guy that you look at and play with you just respect he worked so hard -- harder than anybody -- and that's what I take most from him."
Heatley's first outing of the season was a courageous effort for which Snyder would've been proud.
A playoff berth would be the best present Heatley could give to honor his friend's memory. You can be sure Snyder will be riding close to his heart for the entire journey.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.