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Tuesday, January 27, 2004
Updated: January 28, 11:37 PM ET
Heatley ready for 'opening night'

By Scott Burnside
Special to ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- It's hard to know for whom the moment is more important: Dany Heatley, whose appearance on the ice Wednesday against the St. Louis Blues was another huge step on the road to healing both physically and emotionally, or Heatley's team, the Atlanta Thrashers, who are in free fall and in danger of falling out of the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Regardless, anyone expecting Heatley to ease back into the Thrashers' lineup is in for a surprise.

"[I'll] play the hell out of him. A thoroughbred needs to run," head coach Bob Hartley said earlier this week when it became clear Heatley was on the verge of returning from surgery to repair a knee injured in the Sept. 29 car wreck that claimed the life of Heatley's close friend and teammate Dan Snyder.

Heatley concurred, saying it has been the plan all along not to return and play just five or 10 minutes a game, "but to get me ready to play the way I did before."

Wednesday night against the Blues, Heatley tested that theory -- and though he had ample minutes on the ice and several chances to score, none of the four opportunities went into the net.

"Obviously," he added, "there's still a little rust."

By any measuring stick, the 2002 rookie of the year and last year's All-Star Game MVP has made dramatic progress in his rehabilitation from surgery to repair complete tears of his medial collateral ligament and the anterior cruciate ligament, and a repair of his lateral meniscus of his right knee 3½ months ago. He also suffered a broken jaw in the accident.

He has been practicing with the team since Jan. 16 and engaged in his first full-contact practice on Jan. 21, his birthday.

"I feel 100 percent," Heatley told reporters after practice Tuesday. "Tomorrow is my opening night.

"It's been a long time. I don't know how well I'll sleep tonight."

Hartley described the 23-year-old Heatley as one of the best-conditioned athletes on the team. The coach reiterated Tuesday morning there would be no coddling of the team's offensive leader, who finished sixth in the league last season with 41 goals and ninth overall with 89 points..

Given Hartley's use of Heatley in practice, the big right winger resumed his duties as the point man on the power play, freeing fellow sniper Ilya Kovalchuk to work his booming shot from closer to the net. Heatley's presence on the power play should stabilize a unit that, while dangerous, is often disorganized and is just 7-for-66 in its last 14 games.

Although Hartley last season split the dynamic duo, making it more difficult for opposing teams to respond defensively, it won't be a surprise to see Heatley and Kovalchuk play together at some point five-on-five during Heatley's return.

Heatley skated Tuesday on a line with Slava Kozlov, with whom he had tremendous success last season, and newcomer Daniel Corso at center.

"When you have a player of his stature on the bench, he's going to play. He's not a player that's going to play 10 minutes a game," added general manager Don Waddell late Tuesday. "I wouldn't be surprised if he got 18 to 22 minutes tomorrow night."

For those wondering if Heatley's accelerated rehabilitation and return to action will put him at greater risk of reinjuring the knee, Waddell insisted doctors told the team that Heatley's knee was sound enough that it wouldn't have mattered if they waited another week, month or three months.

"The doctors assured me, and that's the one thing we had to get comfortable with, that we were not rushing him whatsoever," Waddell said.

Waddell said he knows of no other athlete, in any sport, that has rebounded as quickly from the kinds of injuries sustained by Heatley.

"I don't know if it's unique to hockey. I think it's unique to this athlete," Waddell said.

The interest in the Calgary native's return to action has prompted Turner South, which carries most Atlanta games, to pick up the previously unscheduled broadcast, and national media from Canada will cover Wednesday's game.

Heatley insisted his return has nothing to do with the Thrashers current condition. After an inspiring start to the season, they have won just twice in their last 14 games (2-9-2-1). They now trail Tampa Bay by six points in the race for the Southeast Division title (Tampa has three games in hand) and are four points back of the New York Islanders for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference (the Islanders have two games in hand).

But there is something more than a little symbiotic about Heatley's return to a team that has surpassed expectations without him but which lately has seemed emotionally drained. The Thrashers have been sapped by the string of injuries to defensemen Andy Sutton and Garnet Exelby, and top forwards Marc Savard, Serge Aubin and J.P. Vigier.

Vigier and Aubin returned to action Wednesday night as well, although their presence was overshadowed by No. 15.

"Emotionally, I've got to believe it's going to be a lift for everybody. Regardless of what the contribution ends up being from Dany, I think it's got to be a lift just to have him back on the bench and see him on the ice," Waddell said Tuesday. "Whether he has an impact on the game or not will be yet to be seen, but I think emotionally it's been a big lift for the team, the coaching staff and me, personally."

That emotional lift should be considerable for Heatley, who at one point did not know whether he would play at all this season.

After weeks of practicing against "friendly" opponents, Heatley isn't concerned about his endurance or his ability to play against real NHL competition.

"You work out for four months and you should be in pretty good shape," he said.

"I can pretty much do anything," Heatley said earlier. "It's just a matter of getting comfortable again."

Comfort is, of course, a relative term when it comes to Heatley and the tragic events that cast a shadow on what looked to be the team's most promising season.

Heatley was driving his black Ferrari at what Atlanta police estimate were speeds in excess of 80 mph on the night of Sept. 29 when he lost control on a narrow city street and struck a brick pillar and iron fence. The force of the collision tore the car in two and ejected Snyder, who was staying with Heatley during training camp. Snyder suffered serious head injuries and never regained consciousness after undergoing emergency surgery. He died six days later.

Heatley was charged with vehicular homicide and a series of traffic-related offenses in connection with the accident.

In the days and weeks since, Snyder's family members have been unequivocal in their support for Heatley and his family, first inviting them to the funeral in Elmira, Ontario, and then visiting and staying with Heatley in Atlanta.

A month ago, Heatley's high-profile Atlanta lawyer, Ed Garland, who successfully defended Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis on murder charges, said he felt the direction the case would take would be made clear by the end of January or early February. Heatley faces one to 15 years in jail if convicted.

Waddell said Tuesday that there were no travel restrictions on Heatley and hadn't been since he attended Snyder's funeral in Elmira.

Heatley said the support he's received from throughout the hockey community has been "very helpful" in dealing with the aftermath of the accident.

"I think the hockey community has always been very tight," he said. "It's tough. I didn't know what to expect."

Wednesday night was another step on the road to recovery.

"Being part of the team again and playing with the team is a bigger step and a bigger part," Heatley added. "I think it'll be a lot better."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.