Team in shock; players in jeopardy

Updated: October 1, 2003, 2:29 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

Dan Snyder
Snyder

Dany Heatley
Heatley

ATLANTA -- A season that held such promise for the Atlanta Thrashers and their biggest star, Dany Heatley, has been thrown into chaos after a horrific car crash that has left teammate Dan Snyder in a coma and Heatley facing five driving-related charges.

Snyder, 25, a native of Elmira, Ontario, remains in critical condition at Grady Memorial Hospital in downtown Atlanta after surgery for a depressed skull fracture suffered when he was ejected from the passenger seat of Heatley's black 2002 Ferrari 360 Modena after it crashed at a high speed into a low, red brick lighting post late Monday night.

The force of the collision, which took place on the opposite side of a narrow, winding road near Heatley's home, disintegrated the back end of the luxury sports car.

"He has significant brain injury," said Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who performed two-hour surgery on Snyder at 2 a.m. Tuesday. "Two things happened really during his car accident. He had a significant skull fracture on the right side of his head and what we call in neurosurgery an acceleration/deceleration injury. So his brain was sort of moving quickly and then stopped quickly during the course of that car accident."

Snyder's condition remained critical Wednesday morning, team spokesman Tom Hughes told The Associated Press. Heatley was listed in stable condition.

Gupta said it would be several days before any further prognosis can be given on Snyder's recovery.

"I've seen patients wake up with a coma scale this low before. It's hard to tell," he said, adding that a CAT scan of the brain showed no significant bleeding, "which is a good sign."

Basically, guys are all worried about Heater and Snyds and we're not going to practice or anything like that. It's just not important right now. This has nothing to do with sports. These are guy's lives. We're just praying for those guys.
Thrashers captain Shawn McEachern

Heatley, who was hospitalized in the same facility, is expected to be transported to another Atlanta hospital Wednesday and will undergo surgery to repair his fractured left jaw.

"He also has a contusion of his lung and perhaps a small contusion or bruise to his kidney," the team's head physician, Dr. Scott Gillogly, said late Tuesday afternoon.

The Thrashers had considered canceling Wednesday night's preseason game against Florida, but decided to play. The team held a morning skate Wednesday at Philips Arena after calling off practice Tuesday.

"We're doing the best thing we can -- getting back on the ice," Thrashers coach Bob Hartley said. "We had a good practice. The guys showed good spirit. Once the puck drops, we'll be ready to play. I'm sure if you asked the two Dans, they would want us to play."

Although it's not known how long Heatley might be out of the lineup, more troubling for the 22-year-old Calgary native are the charges stemming from the crash.

By late Tuesday, he had been charged with reckless driving, serious injury by vehicle, driving too fast for conditions, driving on the wrong side of the road and striking a fixed object. The serious injury by vehicle charge is a felony that carries a sentence of 1 to 15 years.

Police reports indicated a negligible amount of alcohol in Heatley's system. Several sources reported that he was given a blood-alcohol test, standard procedure in accidents with serious injuries, but that results of that test might not be available for days or even weeks.

"What I've been told is to not expect any alcohol-related charges," team president Stan Kasten said.

Atlanta police estimate Heatley was traveling about 80 mph when he hit a red brick pillar on Lenox Road, a narrow, winding city street near Heatley's home, at about 10:30 p.m.

Because of the condition of the car, police were uncertain whether either man was wearing a seatbelt or whether it would have made a difference, Jeff Hensal, who works with the Atlanta Police Department's unit that investigates serious accidents, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

"The car was so destroyed the seatbelts were shattered," Hensal said. "It's by the grace of God that they were still alive."

The teammates had appeared at a reception for season-ticket holders at Philips Arena in downtown Atlanta from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

It's an unwritten team rule that players don't imbibe during such appearances.

It's believed the pair then met up with other teammates at a popular restaurant at a mall near Heatley's home before returning to Heatley's. Snyder was staying with Heatley during training camp.

Snyder's parents and other family members arrived from Toronto early Tuesday morning, and Heatley's parents, Karin and Murray, arrived midafternoon.

"They're doing remarkably well. They've traveled a great distance," Kasten said. "They're with their boys. They're asking a lot of good questions. Spending a lot of time with doctors in getting all the information they need."

Snyder, who played a career-high 36 games for the Thrashers a year ago, had 10 goals and four assists. He was expected to start the season on the disabled list after having surgery to repair a tendon in his left ankle.

Snyder was described by Gupta as being in a grade six or seven coma on a scale that ranges from three to 15.

"Danny has not been awake, and part of that is because we are keeping him sleepy with the medications, part of that is because of his head injury," Gupta said.

Not surprisingly, the crash has left the organization in shock and players reeling.

After taking a vote, the Thrashers voted to cancel practice Tuesday morning.

"Basically, guys are all worried about Heater and Snyds and we're not going to practice or anything like that. It's just not important right now," captain Shawn McEachern said outside the team's practice facility north of the city. "This has nothing to do with sports. These are guy's lives. We're just praying for those guys."

Added Heatley's linemate Slava Kozlov, "hockey, it's our life, it's very important. But today all our minds are with both Dannys."

"It's very sad."

"We're very proud of our organization and we're very proud of our people and we just hope our two guys will be all right," Hartley said.

Players did not visit the hospital during the day because of the severity of the injuries.

The accident leaves profound questions for Heatley and for the organization.

Waddell often tells the story of how he sat down with Heatley after making Heatley the second overall pick in the 2000 draft.

Although Heatley likely could have made the NHL club that fall, Waddell wanted him to spend one more year playing NCAA hockey at Wisconsin.

He figured it was better to have Heatley in Madison with fifty bucks in his pocket than living the life in trendy Buckhead with a million dollars in his bank account.

It is a story that now carries tragic undertones given the nature of the accident.

Heatley lives in Buckhead.

His initial court appearance is scheduled for 8 a.m. Oct. 10, according to the Atlanta newspaper, the day after the Thrashers open the season at home vs. Columbus.

Few young players have received the attention afforded Heatley in his short career. Few have earned it as he has, winning rookie of the year honors two years ago and following that with an 89-point effort last season that saw him finish ninth in NHL scoring.

He was also the MVP of the All-Star Game, where he scored four goals.

Later, Heatley was an offensive force for Canada at the World Championships in Finland last spring, scoring a hat trick in the semifinal game against the Czech Republic to catapult Canada into the gold-medal game, which it won in overtime against Sweden.

Heatley earned praise from Team Canada coaches Andy Murray and Barry Trotz at the World Championships for his improved play.

"I was awestruck with some of the things he can do on the ice," said Murray, head coach of the Los Angeles Kings. "And I was equally impressed with how genuine he is as a young man."

Dany's younger brother, Mark, dubbed Little Heater by the players and coaching staff, tagged along and also was embraced by players and coaches alike.

After the World Championships, there was a visit home and the wedding of a former college teammate who is now a golf pro.

At home, the routines remain the same with the exception of having a curfew, Heatley said during an interview earlier this fall.

"It's still the same thing around the family. I've still got to do the same things I had to do when I was a kid."

Before the start of training camp, Heatley jetted to San Francisco to launch a new video hockey game, which bears his likeness on the cover. He is on the cover of the latest Hockey News and often is referred to as the leader of the next generation of NHL stars.

Pretty heady stuff for a 22-year-old.

Yet in the same interview, Heatley discussed his fame and what he felt were strides he had taken in assuming a leadership role with the Thrashers.

"One goal I do have is to get better every year. And what goes with that is maturity. I don't just sit down every once in a while and say I've got to be more of a leader," Heatley said.

Late Monday night, in a moment that likely changed the lives of two young men forever, that discussion seemed far away.

Kasten said that he had spoken to Heatley and that the player's first concern was over Snyder. "And then obviously everything else pales in comparison," Kasten said.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta. Information from The Associated Press was included in this report.

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