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Refreshed by New Ice
MICHAEL FARBER
December 05, 2005
A trade to Ottawa helped Dany Heatley put a tragic crash and injury behind him. Now he's leading the first-place Senators and playing on the NHL's most exciting line
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December 05, 2005

Refreshed By New Ice

A trade to Ottawa helped Dany Heatley put a tragic crash and injury behind him. Now he's leading the first-place Senators and playing on the NHL's most exciting line

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The toppling of Prime Minister Paul Martin's minority government in a no-confidence vote on Monday in Ottawa might have been the bigger political mess, but it did not leave the same bad taste in Canada's bucolic capital as the town's previous crisis, a threatened shortage of free pizza. Alarmed by the production of the Senators' line of Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza--when these guys start freewheeling with the puck, they are the Globetrotters minus the confetti-in-the-water-bucket gag--the Pizza Pizza chain last month raised, from five to six, the number of goals the Senators must score at home before ticket holders can redeem their stubs for a free slice. Between 6,000 and 8,000 of the 19,000-plus Corel Centre patrons typically take advantage of the deal after a game, and it costs the restaurant chain one Canadian buck per slice, which is a lot of dough, not to mention cheese and tomato.

Yet Ottawa's title-famished fans, who for years have chanted "Piz-za! Piz-za!" as their team closed in on the magic number, have still been cashing in. In the first two games after the snack-food bar was raised, the Senators pumped in six. In 12 home games through Sunday first-place Ottawa, the NHL's best offensive team, had been pizzalicious five times.

To honor Alfredsson, Heatley and Spezza for their hockey and culinary contributions, The Ottawa Citizen ran a name-the-line contest. More than 1,000 entries came in--Pizza Line among them--and the paper whittled the finalists to Cash Line, Dash Line and Dazzle Line. (The egregious Cash Line got 57% of the vote.) Maybe the line would be better served with a slogan. Say, We Deliver in 60 Minutes, an accurate claim given their productivity since Ottawa's new coach, Bryan Murray, cemented the line on Nov. 2 during a 10--4 rout at Buffalo in which Alfredsson, Heatley and Spezza combined for six goals and 13 points.

Or maybe they are better off without a moniker. In life some things should be left unnamed and unsaid, which Heatley appreciates. The left wing on the NHL's best line is a playful soul--part star, part Spicoli--who is reveling in his new city and new team, but when asked about the defining moment of his young life, his voice tightened and his lips pursed over the famous gap in his teeth. "Obviously a person's always going to be with you," he said in carefully chosen words, "but it does get better with time. You get back to doing what you do."

Heatley's career took a famous and deadly turn on Sept. 29, 2003, when he crashed his Ferrari into a brick pillar coming around a bend on a narrow road in Atlanta, leaving friend, passenger and Thrashers teammate Dan Snyder in a coma; Snyder died six days later. (Heatley pleaded guilty to misdemeanor vehicular homicide last February and got three years' probation.) Because of the crash Heatley needed surgery on his right knee, keeping him out of all but 31 games in 2003--04. The scars on his psyche were less visible and rarely revealed. "I talked to him once a bit [about the accident]," Alfredsson said, "really not much." If Heatley had stayed in Atlanta, he would have driven those same roads, walked into the same training-rink conference room with the portrait of Snyder on the wall. He realized he had to start over elsewhere.

Heatley first took refuge with the Swiss club SC Bern during the lockout, but he sustained a serious injury when a puck struck his left eye. Not long after the eye had healed, he moved to Ak-Bars Kazan in the Russian elite league. He was adrift, no more so than at the 2005 world championships in Austria when he kept fanning on one-timers, suggesting a problem with hand-eye coordination. Heatley, who had scored 41 goals in his second NHL season, also seemed a step slower. For some NHL general managers Heatley was risky business. "I don't know if they saw him as damaged goods, but [other G.M.'s] all had the same concerns," says Atlanta's Don Waddell. "There was always that question: Will he get back to being the player he was?"

Last summer Waddell faced an odd scenario: his 24-year-old franchise player had asked for a trade. Ottawa general manager John Muckler had a more common dilemma. Senators star winger Marian Hossa wanted more than $6 million annually, a tab that could have shattered the team's payroll structure. On Aug. 23 Muckler and Waddell swapped problems. Muckler gave Hossa a three-year, $18 million contract, agreed to the trade with Atlanta, then signed Heatley to a three-year, $13.5 million deal. There were salary-cap implications (Muckler also sent defenseman Greg de Vries to Atlanta, creating $2.28 million in cap room), but at its core the trade was an intriguing talent-for-talent exchange: the explosive 26-year-old Hossa, a potential 55-goal scorer who likes the high-traffic areas, for Heatley, a devalued former All-Star Game MVP whose release is so quick it seems as if the puck is barely on his stick.

The result of the swap, at this chaotic, quixotic moment in NHL history, when new rules practically beg for a super-line but salary-cap restraints inhibit one, is that Ottawa has put together the most formidable trio in the NHL. In 11 games together full time they have combined for 59 points. Heatley (17 goals, 20 assists this season) has had at least a point in each of his 21 games as a Senator. Alfredsson, a dashing two-way player, leads the team with 19 goals. The conduit is Spezza (29 assists, second in the NHL), who chafed under ex-coach Jacques Martin but now is playing with brio.

"All three are very smart on the ice," says Philadelphia Flyers general manager Bob Clarke, who considers Heatley among hockey's five top players. "When you get three players who can think the game plus have their skill, you have a very dangerous line combination. They always have the puck, [so] you're chasing them the whole time."

They are in the vanguard of the Ottawa Liberation Movement (now that's a nickname), free to express their hockey gifts because of the philosophical bent of Muckler, an Edmonton coach during the Oilers dynasty, and Murray. After a surfeit of structure under Martin, who turned Ottawa from joke to juggernaut manqu� in his 81/2 seasons, the Senators needed space. Although Ottawa finished in the top six in NHL scoring during the past six seasons, they were doing it in handcuffs. Murray changed the dynamic, making the players, not the system, the focal point. Because he had conspicuous skill up front and the luxury of Dominik Hasek in goal, Murray encouraged the Senators to play at Mach 3, sending two forecheckers deep and repealing Martin's law that no one could leave the defensive zone until the puck did. Through Sunday, Ottawa, 18-3-0, led the NHL with 98 goals and had allowed the fewest goals, 45. "If I see Spezza or Heatley with the puck under control [in the defensive zone], I'm taking off," said Alfredsson. "Even if I don't get the pass, it opens up the ice. We do a lot of ad-lib. It's tough for other teams to read us because we don't know what we're doing ourselves."

After he made the Heatley-Hossa deal, Muckler framed it as a necessary alteration in the Senators' chemistry. That word, especially in the case of underachieving Ottawa, is loaded. In hockey's coded language the implication seemed to be that Hossa, in particular, and the Senators' glut of Europeans, in general, were the reasons that a team with superior talent dropped into a dead faint in its nearly annual playoff series against the ornery Leafs. Muckler said he meant nothing of the sort. "I have the utmost respect for the player I traded; he played very well in the playoffs," Muckler said of Hossa, who has 28 points in 24 games with Atlanta. "What we liked about Dany was he was younger and saved us money.... But when he came into the room, the chemistry did improve. His personality, his talent, made him stand out. Because of his skill level, he has challenged players to step up with him."

In their first conversation in Ottawa, Murray told Heatley, "This is Canada. This is different. Everyone knows who you are, where you are, what you're doing and how hard you're working." Heatley feels freer in Canada's hockey fishbowl than he did in Atlanta. His knee and psyche seem just fine, thank you. Front tooth out, game locked in, Heatley has been beyond reproach. "A lot of people said [I would never be as good as I had been]," Heatley said after practice two weeks ago, "but I feel now I'm the player I was before, or better than I was before."

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