Commentary

Heatley's career now running on empty

Updated: August 22, 2009, 1:32 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

While listening to erstwhile NHL star Dany Heatley on Friday awkwardly try to explain why he has asked the Ottawa Senators to try to trade their best player, we kept coming back to one word -- empty.

Not just the reasons Heatley gave for demanding the trade -- some story about having a diminished role under coach Cory Clouston, as if anyone who has the raw scoring ability Heatley has will ever have a diminished role in this NHL -- but a somehow greater, more troubling emptiness.

We have known Heatley -- as gifted a pure goal scorer as the NHL has seen in many years -- for the better part of a decade. We recall an early story we wrote for USA Today about super rookies Ilya Kovalchuk and Heatley. When the story was filed, the editor called back and asked for more; that was the excitement the two reflected.

It's not that Heatley was ever the poster boy for Toastmasters International; but he was open, if not eloquent and passionate, about wanting to lead the expansion Atlanta Thrashers.

All of that changed, of course, almost six years ago, when Heatley lost control of his black Ferrari 360 Modena and crashed into a brick wall after attending a season-ticket holder event in downtown Atlanta. His teammate and good friend Dan Snyder was ejected from the car and died a week later, never having regained consciousness.

Who among us can say how we would have reacted?

Who can say what our lives would be like after such a calamitous incident?

One thing is certain -- few could have expected to have been treated as graciously as Heatley was treated by the Snyder family in the aftermath of Snyder's death.

Unconditionally forgiven by the Snyders, Heatley avoided jail time and was instead asked to do community service, talking about the dangers of driving too fast and sharing his story with young people.

In a perfect world -- in the Hollywood version of this story, perhaps -- Heatley would have embraced his second chance, embraced his past and justified all of the faith so many had in him. Instead, Heatley seems forever on the run from that past.

Heatley returned near the end of the 2003-04 season and was warmly greeted by fans in Atlanta. The Thrashers, from GM Don Waddell on down, did all they could to make Heatley's return as seamless as possible. Yet the young forward spent as little time as possible in Atlanta. Little, if any, of his community service was performed there.

During the lockout season of 2004-05, Heatley signed on to play in Switzerland, but then, after suffering an eye injury, bolted to play in Russia, establishing a pattern of indecision that continues to this day.

At the conclusion of the lockout, Heatley asked for a trade out of Atlanta, saying he wanted a fresh start. Waddell acquiesced and sent Heatley to Ottawa.

Now, one year into a six-year contract extension signed at the start of the 2007-08 season, Heatley has said he needs to move on again, complaining that somehow his role has diminished despite the fact he is the team's most dangerous offensive threat.

During a conference call Friday from his summer home in British Columbia, Heatley spent much of the time lamenting that news of his trade demand became public, as though that information, not the actual request, was somehow to blame for the controversy, as though he expected efforts to trade a player of his status could rightfully be kept secret.

Heatley also lamented that the Senators have come up with only one trading partner, the Edmonton Oilers. Heatley refused to accept a trade to the Oilers even though he insisted it had nothing to do with the city, invoking that old relationship chestnut -- it's not you, it's me.

"To this date, there's only been one option," Heatley said in his first public comments on the trade request. "I just wasn't ready to make a decision, and I'm still not ready to make a decision until there are other options."

One wonders how many fresh starts one young man requires. One also wonders if this is really about being uncomfortable with how much penalty-killing or power-play time he's getting or about simply being uncomfortable in his own skin.

Heatley, the all-time leading scorer for Canada in world championship play, insisted he loves playing for his country and playing in Canada. But did Heatley believe Edmonton was too much like Ottawa, a hockey town where people were going to want to talk to him, to pry, to watch him too closely?

Some players wait their entire careers for a chance to play in that kind of market. Heatley seems deathly afraid of such scrutiny. If you have trouble looking at yourself in the mirror, maybe the notion of having other people look too closely is unbearable. Perhaps that's why Heatley waits for a different option, a place where the external scrutiny will be less intense.

Much has been written about Heatley this summer, almost all of it negative. Anyone who is surprised by the visceral reaction by fans and media in Edmonton, Ottawa and beyond is ignorant of the emotional currents that run through those communities when it comes to hockey.

Still, does all of this make Dany Heatley a bad person? Hardly.

What all this suggests, really, is he should be more pitied than reviled.

Heatley chose to speak Friday so, in theory, the dark cloud hovering over him would not follow him to Calgary, where the Canadian Olympic orientation camp opens Monday.

The problem for Heatley is that even if he finds himself in San Jose (the most likely location at this point) or back in Ottawa for training camp, this isn't going away, perhaps not forever. How can any GM who assumes the outstanding five years and $31 million on his deal be sure that at some point Heatley's discomfort won't once again return?

In the short term, Heatley's inability to find personal comfort, to outrun whatever demons populate his soul, will almost certainly cost him a place on the 2010 Canadian Olympic team.

Never mind Heatley's disquieting propensity for fading in pressure situations like the 2006 Olympics in Italy, the 2007 Stanley Cup finals and the first round of the 2008 playoffs; what should ultimately cost Heatley a roster spot is his behavior, which demonstrates the antithesis of what the Canadian Olympic team should be looking for in its players.

How, in good conscience, can Steve Yzerman and the rest of the management team, who will be asking 23 players to buy into an all-for-one concept, to accept whatever is asked of them, give Heatley a spot on the roster when Heatley has consistently shown an inability to make that kind of commitment?

Beyond the Vancouver Olympics, Heatley must at some point confront the fact his career, once so promising, has been forever tarnished, not by the accident that cost Snyder his life, but by how Heatley lived his life in the months and years that followed.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

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