Snyders look to honor son's legacy through NHL tour
The Pace Arrow recreational vehicle in the Pepsi Center parking lot in Denver was hard to miss, anyway, but the No. 37 inside a black shield logo on the side gave away that it was somehow connected to former Atlanta Thrashers center Dan Snyder.
Three years after Dan suffered fatal injuries in a notorious auto accident in Atlanta, his parents, Graham and LuAnn, are in the middle of a tour to all 30 NHL arenas. In Denver, they attended the morning skates and the Colorado-Vancouver game Saturday.
They're attempting to raise money for the Dan Snyder Memorial Fund and construct a rink named in his honor in Elmira, Ontario.
"We're here to carry on a legacy for Dan," Graham said. "He did a lot of work in the communities where he lived and played hockey. We'd also like to give back to the hockey community because they've been so supportive of us the last three years. They've helped us through a very difficult time. We're getting a chance to say thank you to a lot of people along the way."
The Snyders' grace in the wake of their heart-breaking loss remains worthy of salute. On Sept. 29, 2003, the Thrashers' Dany Heatley -- young, rich, successful, obviously headed for a great career -- was driving his Ferrari 360 Modena, lost control, and his pal and teammate, Dan Snyder, was thrown from the car. Snyder suffered a fractured skull and brain injuries, and later came down with an infection. Six days after the accident, Snyder died. He was 25.
At the time of the accident, Snyder had played 49 games with the Thrashers, scoring 11 goals. Though Atlanta coach Bob Hartley appreciated Snyder's feistiness and general manager Don Waddell had told him he could plan on being on the 2003-04 opening-night roster, Snyder still was hoping to cement his claim as a long-term NHL center, rather than as a career minor-leaguer.
He didn't get that chance.
Heatley pleaded guilty to second-degree vehicular homicide and other charges related to reckless driving, and was placed on three years probation.
Graham and LuAnn Snyder's refusal to push for additional charges and jail time, or to jump at the chance to sue Heatley, defied the disquieting modern precedents of a litigious society. And it's not as if anyone would have had a case for calling them disgracefully opportunistic; they would have been justified. They just decided it wasn't the thing to do.
Colorado winger Andrew Brunette was Snyder's teammate for only two games in 2000-01 with the Thrashers, but also encountered Dan in training camps.
"I didn't know the family," Brunette said. "But I knew Dan. I think they handled it exactly the way he would have wanted it handled."
The Snyders' struggle to accept Dan's death, and their ultimate forgiveness of Heatley, are among the key elements in "A Season of Loss," the recent book about the two teammates by Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer John Manasso. It is a terrific read, about angst, friendship, loss and compassion.
"There have been a lot of people in and out of the hockey world who have written to us, who have called us to say how much they appreciated that approach and spirit, and lent their support to it," Graham said. "We chose that route and I think people have responded in a very positive way and lent their support to it. I guess it was a little bit unexpected for a lot of people, but it's the right thing to do for us."
Their tour of all 30 NHL arenas this season began on Oct. 12 at Chicago. The Snyders visited the AHL's Wolves, for whom Dan played as a popular and inspiring Thrashers farmhand for parts of the 2001-02 and 2002-03 seasons, before attending the Blackhawks' game against Nashville.
Graham has left his financial planning business temporarily in the hands of a couple of partners and LuAnn has stepped away from her part-time work at a nursery and her own gardening. They're on a tour that could be recorded on a T-shirt.
"There's some connection with Dan everywhere," Graham said. "Sometimes it's a distant one, and in some places it's a very close one. In Los Angeles, for example, we saw Mike Weaver, who played with Dan at Orlando [IHL], Chicago and Atlanta and won two championships with him. Jeff Cowan was Dan's linemate at Atlanta, and Sean Avery was a teammate of Dan's in junior, at Owen Sound. So it's been like that."
At the morning skates in Denver, Graham was wearing a Quebec Nordiques T-shirt for a good reason.
"Joe Sakic was Dan's role model when he was growing up," he said. "Dan was a Nordiques fanatic, and he tried to emulate Joe Sakic as much as he could."
At Snyder's memorial service, in fact, Hartley was one of the speakers. The coach spoke of how he returned to Denver to face the Avalanche for the first time since his firing at Colorado and his hiring at Atlanta. He informed Snyder at the morning skate that he would spend most of the game checking Peter Forsberg. Fine, said Snyder. But after the team's pregame meal, Snyder approached Hartley.
Hartley said Snyder asked: "I'll cover Forsberg and he won't do much, but can I play one shift versus Joe Sakic? He's my idol." The Thrashers won that February 2003 game, 4-3 in overtime.
When the Snyders departed Denver, they were headed for Dallas in the RV supplied by Dan's agent, Don Reynolds of Burlington, Ontario. Eerily, it is a 37-foot RV.
"We're going until Christmas in this," Graham said. "We'll leave it in Atlanta and we're flying home for Christmas. Then, we'll be in something else -- I'm not completely sure what it will be yet -- in the Northeast. Eventually, our last stop is going to be in Atlanta for the last game of the regular season [April 7 against Tampa Bay], and on our drive home, we're going to stop and see the Chicago Wolves play their last couple of games."
One of those later stops, of course, is going to be at Ottawa. Heatley is there primarily because the shadows, shame and regret haunted him in Atlanta, and he needed a change. And the Snyders will be in the Scotiabank Place parking lot, in the halls, shaking hands, saying thanks and asking for support.
"We haven't talked about it for a while," Graham said. "Originally, we had talked about going there first and we even talked to Dany about that. We decided we didn't want the focus of this to be on the accident, but on Dan. Dany's been really supportive of all of this and what we're trying to do."
More information on the Snyders' trip, and the Dan Snyder Foundation, is available at: www.37risingstars.com.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."
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