Heatley: 'I'll think about this forever'

ATLANTA -- In the three months since the car crash that took the life of Dan
Snyder and imperiled his own career, Atlanta Thrashers star Dany Heatley has received
unwavering support from Snyder's family, his own family, his teammates and, for the
most part, the public at large.

On Friday, though, an emotional Heatley revealed that in spite of that
support, he remains very much alone with his own guilt and grief -- a personal
sentence he may serve forever.

"I'm going to think about this forever. Every time I go to sleep, I think
about it, think about Danny. That's something I'll deal with for the rest of my
life," Heatley said, struggling to keep back tears.

Sitting alone at a table in front of a clutch of reporters and cameras,
dressed in a dark blue jacket with a pin bearing Snyder's No. 37 on the lapel, an
obviously nervous Heatley spoke for the first time about the Sept. 29 accident
that cost his friend his life.

Asked whether he imagines he will return to a "normal" life at some point, Heatley
candidly said there might never be such a term to him.

"I think, as a player, I like to think that I will be. As a person, I think, I
don't think I'll ever be the same," the 22-year-old said. "I think it's
changed me and it will change me down the road. You have to roll on and try and deal
with things the best you can.

"It's getting a little better with the support of everybody," Heatley added.
"I've come a ways since three months ago, but there's still a long road ahead."

General manager Don Waddell has said he believes Heatley, the NHL's rookie of
the year in 2001-02 and one of the brightest young stars in the league, will
play games this season, and coach Bob Hartley spoke earlier Friday about a timetable
that soon will have Heatley working on passing and shooting drills with
teammates -- prompting many to imagine a late-February return.

"I think time is a big thing for Dany. We can notice that. Every day is a
better day for Dany," Hartley said. "You can feel right now he wants to play
hockey. He feels he's getting closer. He's itchy. You can watch him go in the
locker room with his stick, shoots balls, shoots anything that's around him. I
think that's a good sign. I watched him skate today. He already wants more.
That's the nature of who Dany Heatley is. He's a competitor, and I know he's going
to be tough to keep on schedule. It's always easier to slow down a thoroughbred
than try and kick a donkey."

After Heatley watched the Thrashers defeated Tampa Bay 3-1 Friday night to take an eight-point lead
over their chief division foe, Hartley said the win was especially sweet given Heatley's appearance at the game -- his first since the crash.

"Another good day for Dany. Obviously winning tonight's game makes it an even better day," he said.

Despite his coach's optimism and engaging in solo on-ice sessions three times in the
last four days, Heatley tried Friday to temper discussions of a return.

"I don't know, there's timetables on everything," he said. "I think physically, I might
not play this year. I could be back. It's different for everybody with this
type of [knee] injury, and we'll see what happens, take it week by week."

If Heatley does return to action this season, or for that matter next year,
it will be in no small part because of the largesse of the Snyder family.

From the moment the accident happened the last Monday night in September through Snyder's death six days later, the funeral five days after that and the days that have followed, Snyder's parents and brother, Jake, have helped to ease Heatley's monumental burden.

In recent weeks, they have been visitors to Atlanta, staying with Heatley.

"It's been unbelievable. They're an amazing family," Heatley said.

"I will continue to give them as much support as they've given me through this," he added, his voice catching. "Very great family. I just can't say enough about them."

Heatley also praised his own family -- Calgary natives who have been a constant
presence in Atlanta since the accident -- and his teammates.

Although many had played alongside Snyder for a number of years and felt his
loss keenly, they have embraced Heatley without question.

Slava Kozlov, who was the driver in a crash that took the life of a teammate
in Russia when Kozlov was 19, has been especially important in helping Heatley
deal with the tragedy.

"There's been a lot of people that have written in or written letters or
tried to get a hold of me. One person, Slava Kozlov, has really helped me out
through this. He's been a good friend before this and continues to be a great
friend," Heatley said.

Teammates said Thursday that the difficult task of meeting with the media and
talking for the first time publicly is but another hurdle Heatley must overcome,
another element in the healing process.

"He's going through a tough time right now," said Kozlov. "We've had a few
conversations between me and him. I tried to give him some advice from my
personal experiences."

His message? "Life goes on and he has to play for two -- for himself and Dan Snyder too," Kozlov said. "I think he's on the right track."

Other teammates echoed those sentiments as well.

"He's smiling right now. I think he's feeling better. But you can't forget
those things [the accident], it's going to be a tough time," added Thrashers left wing and close friend
Ilya Kovalchuk. "But we'll support him. He'll be all right."

"It's a part of the process for him to get back to playing and back to the
whole atmosphere of everything, the team, the media," added Garnet Exelby, one
of Snyder's close friends. "It's a long and hard, grueling process, the rehabilitation stage of things. Getting back on the ice and meeting with the media are small steps.

"I think that the little things like that will give him a little taste, a
little light at the end of the tunnel."

Heatley would not answer questions about the accident that took place at
about 10:30 p.m. on a narrow, winding city street not far from his home.
Police estimate Heatley's black Ferrari was traveling in excess of 80 miles
per hour when he lost control and struck a brick pillar and adjacent fence. The
force of the accident tore the car in half. Alcohol has been ruled out as a
contributing factor.

He faces vehicular homicide charges along with other traffic-related offenses
and faces a jail term of one to 15 years.

After answering questions Heatley exited the interview table and was replaced
by his lawyer, Ed Garland, and Waddell.

Garland said that local prosecutors and Heatley's defense team are poring over
data connected to the accident and that in 30 to 45 days that work will done and the
future of the charges will be made clear then.

"There are a number of factual and scientific issues involved in the
reconstruction of this accident. The prosecution is carefully studying the
circumstances of the events. We are doing the same," Garland said. "At this time, the
results of those studies are not at all conclusive or finished."

Asked whether the Snyder family's public support of Heatley would be a
contributing factor, Garland said "I can't imagine that it would not. In the mind of someone trying to evaluate what is right and proper, it will be something that is thought about."

He cautioned it would not be a determining factor, but added "I am optimistic about the ultimate [legal] outcome."

Garland also said that if Heatley is physically ready to play before the legal issues
are resolved, there is nothing that would stop him from rejoining the Thrashers.

"At this time, there is not," he said.

Heatley attended Friday night's game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, making his first appearance at a Thrashers game this season.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.