The new face of the NHL is really an old face. Take a look at the Atlanta Thrashers' 22-year-old Dany Heatley, with his Little Prince ringlets and the gaping space where one of his upper teeth used to be. Now think back to one of those classic photographs of Philadelphia Flyers captain Bobby Clarke in the 1970s. Same mug, right? Both are practitioners of old-time hockey, and Heatley is essentially Clarke without the Hall of Famer's full-frontal dental nudity.
Heatley's Calder Trophy-winning performance last season and his record-tying four goals at the All-Star Game three weeks ago might make him a household name, but that smile has made him a household face. He lost the tooth 18 months ago during a rookie-camp scrimmage in which he was accidentally high-sticked. Since then Heatley has gone, more or less, au naturel.
He does have a false tooth, maybe the only thing not authentic about Heatley, who has a zest for the game and a hybrid style that marries superb puck skills with power-forward presence. He inserts the tooth for formal occasions such as the press conference after the All-Star Game, during which he parried questions about tying the record for goals in one All-Star match, but Heatley takes it out to play, party or pick at his pasta and seared tuna at lunch. The problem is, he keeps losing the darn thing and having to get replacements. He has left them in dressing rooms, on buses, on the team plane. He has asked his dentist to have them made in bulk so he always has a spare, like a 50-year-old who scatters drugstore reading glasses around the house. Sure, Heatley recently signed an endorsement deal with Coca-Cola, but there would be justice in the world if he were shilling for the Gap.
Heatley's game, by contrast, has no obvious holes. "I've been watching him," says Colorado Avalanche defenseman Rob Blake. "Because of his size [6'3", 215 pounds] and skill, he's a combination of a lot of guys. Obviously, the comparison is to Mario Lemieux because there aren't a lot of guys that big who have that kind of talent with the puck. What amazes me is that it's only his second year in the league, but he wants the puck because he knows he can make plays." The Norris Trophy-winning defenseman had an excellent view of those skills at the All-Star Game, when, on Heatley's first goal, the Thrashers wing beat him with a nifty move that left Blake swimming and Western Conference goaltender Patrick Roy exposed to the subsequent wrist shot.
Heatley's NHL-high 13 goals in January boosted his doormat of a four-year-old franchise to a winning record (7-6-2-0) for the month and—with his All-Star performance—enabled him to carve an identity separate from that of teammate and sometime running mate Ilya Kovalchuk, whom Heatley edged last year for rookie honors. For the past season and a half they have been referred to as Kovalchuk-Heatley or the Kids or the Goal-dust Twins, as inseparable in the public mind as Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier. "I think it's good for both of us, getting known on our own," says Heatley, a naturalized Canadian who was born in Germany and raised in Calgary. "We came into the league together, played together [often in 2001-02]. This will let us break out of our shells, let us have our own style."
They remain fast friends—Heatley dined with the vacationing Kovalchuk in Miami during All-Star weekend—but could not be more different as players. The 19-year-old Kovalchuk, who was the No. 1 pick in the 2001 draft, is a flamboyant one-way talent, a puck hog who lives to score. (He had 30 goals and 19 assists at week's end.) Heatley, the second pick in the '00 draft, comes without bells or whistles but with a heavy shot (24 goals and 28 assists through Sunday), defensive smarts, the acute sense of responsibility that allows the Thrashers to use him on the point of the power play, and rare leadership qualities. Suddenly the comparison Atlantans are making is not Heatley to Kovalchuk but Heatley to another 22-year-old team leader, Falcons quarterback Michael Vick. "Dany pretty much gets the big picture," says teammate Jeff Odgers, and not merely because Heatley brought back All-Star trinkets for Odgers's two sons unsolicited.
Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock says that Heatley is the leading candidate to be the next great player—"He's so big and fearless that he can score in traffic but also can go flying down the wing and rip it through you from 45 feet"—although Thrashers coach Bob Hartley topped that prediction by saying Heatley would be the best player in the NHL soon. Despite those flattering comments from two Stanley Cup-winning coaches, Heatley insists he's not one of the league's top stars yet.
Since taking over for the fired Curt Fraser on Jan. 14, Hartley, who was axed by the Colorado Avalanche four weeks earlier, has attempted to accelerate Heatley's ascension, naming him as an alternate captain and bumping up his minutes per game from the 20:46 he had been averaging to 22:45. In Colorado, Hartley did a poor job developing promising young talents such as winger Alex Tanguay and defenseman Martin Skoula, but he rewards his best players with a conspicuous amount of ice time. By shortening his bench and assuring that Heatley will play megaminutes, Hartley is breaking Heatley's (and Kovalchuk's) nasty habit of taking shifts that are too long.
There could be worse flaws for someone who would be a senior at the University of Wisconsin if he had not heard the siren call of the NHL. Heatley takes boyish delight in knowing that he might be in Toronto one night, New York the next, and that his only worries are about winning the next game. He bolts lunch on this day because Our Lady Peace, a Canadian band, has invited him to the sound check for that evening's concert in Montreal. He has met The Tragically Hip. He would have gone backstage to meet Bruce Springsteen when he played in Atlanta in December, but the security guards didn't recognize him. Perhaps he should have smiled.