Game provides relief from grieving

The Thrashers played a game Thursday night, but their hearts were with Dany Heatley and the late Dan Snyder.

Originally Published: October 9, 2003
By Jeff Merron | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- There were some signs: "God Bless Dan. Get well, Dany," read one.

"We love you Heatley," said another.

A third read, simply, "37."

For the Atlanta Thrashers and their fans, the opening game of the 2003-04 NHL season, played at Philips Arena Thursday night, was some kind of brief respite. After a short pregame ceremony honoring Dan Snyder, the 25-year-old center who died of injuries from a car wreck just five days ago, the arena was rocking and fans were roaring when Ilya Kovalchuk scored the season's first goal less than 14 minutes into the first period and when Chris Tamer scored the game-winner at 17:36 in the third period in the 2-1 victory.

From the noise at the end of the game, you wouldn't have believed that just 2½ hours earlier, the arena was deathly silent.

A few minutes before the opening faceoff, the arena lights went dark, and the blue, orange and yellow Thrashers logo danced wild circles on the ice, as spotlights lit the stands. Music boomed and Thrashers highlights played on the scoreboard. The arena lights went up as the Thrashers took the ice, and flames curled through the team's 3-D logos high above the blue lines.

It seemed like it would be a typical rocking, rolling opening of a typical rollicking NHL season.

But it wasn't.

The arena went nearly pitch black, silencing the crowd. The P.A. announcer made a short statement, beginning, "The tragic loss of Dan Snyder has affected everyone ..."

The words that followed paid tribute to Snyder, his "passion for hockey and for life." A short video came next, showing moments from Snyder's all-too brief NHL career.

Solo bagpiper John Recknagel of the Atlanta Pipe Band then played a moving rendition of "Amazing Grace," followed by a moment of silence.

When the tribute ended, and with the game about to begin, a fan screamed "We love you, Danny!"

Besides the small signs held by scattered fans, the only indication that something had gone very wrong was a small "37" patch on the left shoulder of the Thrashers' sweaters.

The team's souvenir store wasn't selling Snyder jerseys, and those most in evidence had Kovalchuk's number 17 on the back.

"They [the Thrashers] told us they didn't want to make money off of what happened," said a Philips Arena employee.

Though the pregame ceremony was short, many fans were moved. "Lots of people were very upset," said an elevator operator. "They were watching in the Center Club and crying." She shook her head slowly. "It's so sad."

Thrashers fan Elizabeth Shepherd, who'd seen the site where the car driven by Snyder's teammate, Dany Heatley, had crashed, said, "I was very impressed with the pregame tribute. It was just the right length, and it was tasteful. I was glad to see shots of him fighting and checking mixed in [the video]."

"Most of the things the Thrashers do, they do right," said fan Larry Hurst. "Something like that, if you don't do enough you get criticized. They did just right."

Shepherd wondered whether the Thrashers would retire Snyder's number. "They retire your number for what you did on the ice," said Hurst, acknowledging that Snyder only played in 49 NHL games.

"Well, we'll remember," said Shepherd.

A few of the signs held by fans in the stands looked far forward. "178 days until ATL Thrashers PLAYOFFS," read one realistic placard. Another, more hopeful, said, "Get Snyder On the Cup."

Fans looked forward to the season, even as they thought of two players. Snyder, lost forever before really ever getting started. And Heatley, the team's biggest star, gone indefinitely, and facing charges of vehicular homicide.

Atlanta beat the Columbus Blue Jackets, but there won't be a big celebration to mark a great start.

In just a few hours, around midday Friday, the Thrashers bury their teammate in his hometown of Elmira, Ontario. Then, on Saturday against Washington, their real run for the Stanley Cup playoffs begins.

Jeff Merron writes regularly for Page 2.

Jeff Merron has been a regular contributor to ESPN.com's Page 2 since 2001.

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