Many issues now surround team

Updated: October 1, 2003, 2:25 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to

The Atlanta Thrashers, who entered training camp with well-founded optimism they might make the playoffs for the first time since joining the league five seasons ago, will now have to embark on the critical first segment of the season without their best player in Dany Heatley.

A year ago, the Thrashers went 10 games without a win to start the season. Even when Hartley arrived in January and righted the ship, they finished 10 points out of a playoff berth.

Heatley's importance to the Thrashers cannot be overstated.

The NHL's rookie of the year two years ago had 89 points last season, good for ninth in NHL scoring. He has 156 points in his first 159 games.

More significantly, Heatley has matured at an almost unnatural pace. Both head coach Bob Hartley and general manager Don Waddell speak glowingly of Heatley's presence in the dressing room and on the ice.

Over the last half of the season Heatley turned in a plus-7 rating where he'd been minus-15 during the first half, the hallmark of a player who is learning to play at both ends of the ice.

At the World Championships this spring, Heatley impressed head coach Andy Murray and assistant Barry Trotz with his commitment to his defensive responsibilities while leading the team offensively.

In an interview earlier this fall, Heatley acknowledged that he felt his leadership skills were improving almost by osmosis, that his success on the ice had led to greater expectations both on and off the ice and that he was responding well to those expectations.

Yet, Monday's auto accident that has teammate Dan Snyder in a coma is bound to throw all issues of leadership into question.

How will Heatley be treated by his teammates, given the nature of the accident?

And perhaps more significantly, how will Heatley deal with what are bound to be feelings of remorse and guilt in returning to the dressing room, given the uncertainty about Snyder's longterm recovery.

There are other ominous issues surrounding the accident.

It's possible Heatley will face jail time given the serious nature of the charges.

The prospect of incarceration, even if that would be an extreme outcome, will no doubt weigh on Heatley's mind.

Snyder's recovery will also play into the psyche of both the team and Heatley.

Heatley's linemate, Slava Kozlov, has some experience in situations like this.

Days after he and his Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 1997, teammate Vladimir Konstantinov and team masseuse Sergei Mnatsakanov were critically injured in a limousine accident following a team reception.

Konstantinov's career was ended by the accident and both men remain disabled by the crash.

During the following season, the crash became a rallying cry for the Red Wings. They left Konstantinov's dressing room stall as it was and went on to win a second straight Stanley Cup.

The challenge in Atlanta will be for Hartley to try and focus the team's emotions and try and create something positive from something tragic.

It will not be easy.

This is a team that has known little in the way of success.

The optimism throughout training camp has been palpable, but in a split second along a winding city street, nothing is certain.

Team president Stan Kasten spoke to Heatley on Tuesday afternoon and that his first concern was over Snyder, Kasten said.

"And then obviously everything else pales in comparison," Kasten said.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.