Tuesday, December 23, 2003
Snyder's death brings teammates closer
By Eric Adelson ESPN The Magazine
Editor's note: This article appears in the ESPN 100 in the January 5 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Dan Snyder's mother walked to the end of the long hallway and looked inside the last room on the right. Dany Heatley was lying in bed, waiting. His feet hung awkwardly over the end rail. So tall, she thought. Snyder's mother, a nurse, noticed Heatley's pale face, his dark eyes trying not to cry. She sat down on the bed and took his hand, wide and heavy like her son's. Dany Heatley squeezed, and LuAnn Snyder squeezed back.
Heatley looked into her cobalt-blue eyes -- same color as Dan's -- and his words rushed. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm so sorry." Nothing else would come out, not even tears, so he kept on. "I'm so sorry. I'm so, so sorry." Again and again, as if apologies could pile together and fill the emptiness.
On the ice, Dany Heatley was flawless. He was Rookie of the Year two seasons ago, then won All-Star Game MVP honors last February, with four goals and one toothless grin. Heatley worked hard, said little. He would be a captain someday.
With the support of the Snyders and the Thrashers, Dany Heatley begins his long rehabilitation.
Then, on Sept. 29 in Atlanta, housemate and fellow Thrasher Dan Snyder got into the passenger seat of Heatley's Ferrari, and the future disintegrated. A ferocious crash, slicing the car from door to door, left Snyder in a coma and Heatley with a broken jaw and wrecked knee. Six days later, the 25-year-old Snyder lapsed into septic shock and died.
Now winter has come. Heatley limps around the Thrashers training complex under the weight of a possible prison sentence for vehicular manslaughter and the knowledge that every ringing phone reminds LuAnn Snyder that her son will not be calling again. Heatley must somehow live with that.
One life has been lost and another shattered. But something has been salvaged from the wreckage: fragments of a broken dream for Dan's parents to find, for his team to piece together and for his friend to heal by.
Dan is still around. He's in the Thrashers locker room. He's strong in the memory of defenseman Chris Tamer, sitting by himself. Tamer is a lot like Heatley, quiet but emotional. Sometimes he sits on the bench before games, a cup of coffee in his hand, looking over at the "37" painted on the boards. Tamer says he can still see Snyder skating up to him, stick high. Little runt. Snyder once nearly crushed Tamer's elbow while battling for a roster spot. After Snyder made the team, Tamer smiled at him and said, "Glad you're on my side now."
Across the room, wing Slava Kozlov sits and stares. He has wide, empty eyes, and scars, not all from hockey sticks. Kozlov, 31, used to be Heatley. He was once the highest Russian NHL draft pick ever, chosen 45th overall by the Red Wings in 1990. He was once destined to be a franchise player. Then, at age 19, he got behind the wheel of his car, late for practice. His teammate, Kirill Tarasov, sat in the passenger seat. Kozlov does not remember swerving out of control, or hitting the windshield face first. He spent a day in a coma and three months in the hospital. Tarasov died instantly.
"It's in your head the rest of your life," Kozlov says. "For years I was unhappy, angry. I was the driver. I was responsible." Kozlov has lived for 12 years with the same kind of guilt Heatley has only begun to carry. "Why does this happen again?" Kozlov says. "I don't want to see it again." But now at least Kozlov can find a shred of good in what happened to him. The worst day of his life suddenly has worth. Kozlov was the first Thrasher to visit Heatley in the hospital. He hates talking about his accident. But he talked about it with Heatley.
In front of Kozlov, Ilya Kovalchuk walks briskly to his locker. Coach Bob Hartley calls Kovalchuk the most exciting player in the league. Hard to argue-his wrister can make Joe Sakic's look like a lob. But Kovalchuk is different this season. He used to be a bit of a rascal, hanging around at the red line waiting for passes or taunting the opponent's bench, or pumping a fist before scoring an empty netter. Not anymore. Kovalchuk was with Snyder and Heatley on the night of the accident. The three friends ate at a place called The Tavern. After dinner, Snyder turned to Kovalchuk as he got into Heatley's Ferrari. "Bye, Kovi," he said. "See you tomorrow."
Kovalchuk was also at the hospital the night Dan died. He was standing against the wall in that same long hospital hallway when LuAnn Snyder asked for his hand. Here, she said, here's a link from Dan's watch. This team needs you to lead, she told Kovalchuk. "This," she said, "is your link to Dan."
Kovalchuk might have become a more serious two-way player even if Dan Snyder hadn't died. But it's hard not to think that link made something click. Hanging unworn in Kovalchuk's locker is a gray T-shirt made for the team. On it is a drawing of Snyder's watch and his number 37. And when Kovalchuk brags to reporters now, he boasts of "taking the defense out of the play and helping out." A career minus-47, Kovalchuk is minus-4 this season.
Not far from the young Russian, Hartley scribbles practice times on a dry board. The players like to tell a story about the time Hartley wrote "I.S." on the board before a skate-around. Nobody knew what it meant until Hartley called the players over and pulled a caliper out of his warmup jacket. He measured each player for an illegal stick. "At first you think it's a stupid little detail," says left wing Serge Aubin, who also played for Hartley in Colorado. "But that's the difference between winning and losing." So is the constant repetition of commands: Keep your head up in the defensive zone. Keep your stick in the passing lane. Think coverage even on odd-man rushes. And then there are those blasted questionnaires, handed out several times a season, with questions like, "How would you rate your performance? How would you rate the team's performance? What do you need to do to improve? What does the team need to do?"
Every day, the coach walks through the training complex, making sure all the clocks show the same time. On every bus ride to the airport, he jokingly asks the driver to please avoid running into the charter plane's wing. Yes, Hartley is compulsive. It's his way of making sure he's never unprepared again. Like Heatley, who is not speaking to the media, tragedy caught Hartley completely unprepared when he was young. That's a story worth telling, how this coach became the man he is, because the man he is may be the biggest the reason the Thrashers are the team they are.
If Atlanta has an emotional anchor, it's Hartley, who was 17 when his dad died suddenly from a heart attack. Saddled with responsibility, Hartley took on more. With his family's source of income gone, he abandoned his dream of going to college in order to take a job at the paper plant where his dad worked. Then he bought a house in his blue-collar hometown of Hawkesbury, Ontario, and married his girlfriend, Micheline. To stay close to the game, Hartley volunteered as a goalies coach for his town's junior team, the Hawkesbury Hawks.
"You have nothing to be sorry for," Snyder's mom told Heatley. "We forgive you."
But when the players grew tired of losing, the whole team showed up unannounced one night on Hartley's doorstep and asked him to take over as head coach. The next morning he did, and as the team began winning, the responsibilities kept
coming: 10 years coaching in Juniors and the AHL, then a call from Colorado in 1998. Hartley led the Avalanche to a Stanley Cup in 2001, only to be axed 18 months later when the team slumped.
Being fired was a new responsibility. Hartley drove straight home and took every phone call, answered every reporter's question. Then, with years still left on his contract, he called the coachless Thrashers. Atlanta GM Don Waddell got Hartley's message and at first didn't take it seriously. Bob Hartley? He could have any job. Why Atlanta?
Not for the obvious reasons. Sure, the Thrashers had Heatley and Kovalchuk, but they also had guys who reminded Hartley of home. Guys like Snyder, from little Elmira, Ontario. He was small-town, like Hartley, with a ready smirk and chicken legs. The day he learned to skate, Snyder refused to hold anyone's hand. He spent two hours on his face. But from that morning on, LuAnn and Graham Snyder heard their toddler say one phrase over and over: "I'll do it myself." Dan even bristled when LuAnn told him to wait until first grade to start reading. When Mom wasn't looking, the boy did that himself, too.
Still, the first time Waddell saw Snyder play for Atlanta's minor league team, he called a Thrashers scout and said, "I might have just wasted $25,000." But Snyder won Waddell over and made it to the NHL the same way Hartley did, by doing the dirty work, by paying attention, by saying yes to every challenge. Snyder liked it when Hartley yanked him aside after a bad penalty and said he wouldn't be in Atlanta long by pulling stunts like that. He scored the next period. "I like this guy," Snyder told his mom on the phone. "He's got chicken legs like me."
But Snyder's legs were always strong enough. The night after the accident, Dan's sister Erika consoled her brother's girlfriend in an Atlanta hotel room. "He's going to be okay," Erika said. "Hey, it's Dan." Even on Snyder's last day, Erika and her family gathered around the beeping heart monitor beside his bed and watched him fight death. But for the first time anyone could remember, Dan wasn't okay. At Snyder's funeral, Hartley told the story of his first visit to Colorado as Thrashers coach. He called Snyder into his office before the game and asked him to shadow Peter Forsberg. Snyder smirked and said yes. But one thing: he'd always looked up to Sakic; would it be okay to take one shift against him? Hartley smiled. Pure Dan. Snyder allowed an assist to Forsberg, but answered with one of his own. He fought two All-Stars to a draw, and the Thrashers won in overtime.
And this season, despite the kind of tragedy that had most people writing off the Thrashers completely, Atlanta leads the Southeast because a little of Snyder has shown up in Kovalchuk (17 assists to go with his 18 goals), a little of Heatley has shown up in Kozlov (13 goals, 14 assists) and a lot of Hartley has shown up in everyone. The hyperalertness that Hartley and Snyder shared has seeped into every minute of every day, and every game. Turnovers are down, players
are in better physical shape than ever, practices are more focused. The Thrashers are the most surprising team in the NHL because they are the least surprised team in the NHL.
Through a family's grace, the Thrashers could get their on-ice leader back later this season. Though Dany has found Dan in his coach and teammates, he had only to look to his friend's parents. LuAnn is a mother who doesn't want a second young man's life ruined. Graham, a financial adviser, is a Mennonite who believes the path to redemption is forgiveness. The Snyders will not press charges. (The Fulton County district attorney is expected to decide on prosecution this month.) That day at Heatley's bedside, LuAnn shushed his apologies by placing her tiny hand over his mouth and saying that it could have been her son driving. "Nothing to be sorry for," she said. "It was an accident, and we want you to know we forgive you. You and I, we're connected forever." Days later, Graham stood in front of the team, his son's nameplate above the only empty locker, and told the Thrashers to please look after Dany Heatley. And at his brother's funeral, Jake Snyder stood beside Dan's coffin and pointed to Heatley. "If you're one of Dan's guys," Jake said, "you're one of mine." Jake spent a week in December in Atlanta, living with Heatley. "They can try to help each other," Graham says. "Dany can be the brother Jake doesn't have."
After Dan died, after Hartley leaned over his player's body to say goodbye, LuAnn Snyder gave the coach the broken band from her son's watch, saying, "I want you to have this. Dan worshiped you."
That watch stopped ticking when Dan Snyder lost consciousness. Now, a generous woman holds its face, a caring coach holds its band, a confident athlete holds its missing link and a humbled one with scarred eyes holds a deep awareness of the power of time.
Together, they just might make Dany Heatley whole again.
Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.