Heatley: 'I'll think about this forever'

Updated: January 29, 2004, 2:39 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

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.

Fri, December 26
Life, as we know it, can change in an instant. That's something Dany Heatley learned the hard way. And something he'll continue to deal with for the rest of his life.

Heatley's reputation speaks for itself. He's an awesome, amazing person who no doubt has struggled through many difficult days in an attempt to find some semblance of the life he once knew. In that process, the support he's received from Dan Snyder's family has been monumental.

The Snyder family has embraced Heatley. They don't "forgive" him, because forgiveness would indicate elements of guilt. And they're not looking to place blame. They view the incident for what it was -- an unfortunate accident.

I hesitate to speculate on how Heatley must be feeling right now as he returns to the ice, but I would imagine it's a step in the right direction. Any athlete can tell you that enduring physical rehabilitation is an arduous process with good days, bad days and frustrating setbacks. But it's impossible to know the emotional toll this tragedy has taken on him, and so many other lives.

Heatley is a well-rounded individual, I've heard that he and the Snyders are working on various charities together. But we'll have to stay tuned. I'm sure the details will unfold as time goes by and as the healing process continues.

"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."

Dany Heatley
Heatley, on crutches, attended Snyder's funeral in October.

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."

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, at Friday's news conference

"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.