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Playing in Pain
Stephen Cannella
February 09, 2004
Four months after he crashed his car and a teammate died, Dany Heatley returned to the Atlanta Thrashers. Hockey is a refuge, but things are complicated
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February 09, 2004

Playing In Pain

Four months after he crashed his car and a teammate died, Dany Heatley returned to the Atlanta Thrashers. Hockey is a refuge, but things are complicated

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If, as philosopher George Henry Lewes said, the only cure for grief is action, Dany Heatley took a long stride toward closing the most painful chapter of his young life last week. The 23-year-old Thrashers forward played for the first time this season, in a 1-1 tie with the Blues, nearly four months after he drove his Ferrari into an iron fence in Atlanta, leaving him with a broken jaw and a shredded knee and ending the life of his teammate, passenger and friend, Dan Snyder. After his third game back, a 5-2 loss at Tampa Bay, a winded Heatley was still in search of his legs and a goal, but he was back on the first line, hearing the cheers of fans and flashing his familiar gap-toothed grin. Said coach Bob Hartley the day after Headers return, "Now we can get back to more normal business."

Not exactly. The absence of Snyder, a 25-year-old grinder who would have centered the fourth line this season, is palpable. The team has kept his locker, with his equipment still in it, and the Thrashers wear black number 37 patches on their sweaters. Media members ask the players about life and death as often as they ask about wins and losses. And it's possible that Heatley will face legal trouble. He was speeding at the time of the wreck, and the Fulton County District Attorney could indict him on a charge of vehicular homicide.

If that were to happen it would be against the wishes of the Snyder family, which has privately embraced Heatley and publicly absolved him of blame, helping him to cope. Snyder's parents, Graham and LuAnn, speak regularly with Heatley, most recently on the morning of his first game back. (Snyder's brother, Jake, chatted with him afterward.) The Snyders watched Heatley's debut on TV and plan to attend a Thrashers game soon. "It's good to see Dany back on the ice," Graham Snyder said. "It's a chance for him to heal, and for us, too."

Heatley's physical progress has been remarkable—a testament to his determination and physical resilience. On Oct. 7 he underwent surgery to repair two torn knee ligaments, an injury that sidelines most athletes for six months or more. He began a rehabilitation program three days after the operation, spending four hours every morning exercising and getting treatment from the Thrashers' medical staff. He has progressed without a setback "I thought there was a chance he would be back sometime after the All-Star break," says Thrashers general manager Don Waddell. "Never did I think he'd be playing in January."

The rehab routine and the dressing room became Heatley's emotional sanctuaries. "There was a time when you were just worried about getting your life back together and supporting the Snyder family," he says. "But once I started coming to the rink, being with the guys and the trainers helped me a lot"

His comeback has become more complicated now that he is back in the intensity of the NHL season. Atlanta, which a month ago was in first place in the Southeast Division, was at week's end winless in six games and had fallen seven points out of the last playoff spot in the East. Hartley stresses that Heatley isn't a savior, but as last season's leading scorer—and team MVP—he's being counted on to revive a punchless power play and take the Thrashers to their first postseason. The rink, once Heatley's refuge, is now a pressure cooker.

After the All-Star break the Thrashers go on a seven-game road trip that wends through the hockey hotbeds of Canada, including Heatley's hometown of Calgary. At every stop Heatley will be engulfed by reporters eager to gauge the state of his psyche. "Emotionally if s going to drain on him," says Waddell.

That's putting it mildly. The comeback may be just short of miraculous, but the healing has just begun.