Heatley's return good for Thrashers, NHL
If a hockey game can mean something more than the sum of its parts, then surely this 1-1 tie between the Blues and the Thrashers was such a game.
ATLANTA -- If a hockey game can mean something more than the sum of its sometimes uneven, sloppy parts, then surely this 1-1 tie between the St. Louis Blues and Atlanta Thrashers was such a game.
And if that is so, then Wednesday's game was a significant moment for a young man with a terrible burden, a young man named Dany Heatley who honored a fallen friend in the only way he knows, perhaps in the finest way there is, by playing the game they both loved.
"I just think of him all the time," Heatley said after he logged 22:55 in his first game after the Sept. 29 accident that cost Dan Snyder his life. "The perfect teammate. That's what I take most from him."
Earlier in the day Heatley spoke to Snyder's family and they, as they have from the outset, wished him well.
"We're glad to see Dany back on the ice doing what he does best," the Snyders wrote in a statement released Wednesday. "We're happy for him and are with him in spirit and will be watching tonight."
What they saw was a Dany Heatley who bore only a vague resemblance to the 2002 rookie of the year and MVP of last year's All-Star Game.
What they saw was a 23-year-old taking his first rusty steps toward picking up the pieces of a career that a year ago seemed to have no limits.
What they saw was Heatley taking another important step to reconciling his part in the death of his close friend and teammate.
Earlier in the day Heatley, wearing a black baseball cap with Snyder's No. 37 flanked by a set of wings, talked about the importance the game itself had in his recovery.
"Hockey's been a big part of me coming back," he said. "And being around the guys, it's helped me heal a lot. There's still a long way to go, but hockey's made it a lot easier on me and now that I'm back playing again, it's another step and it's going to be better."
After registering four shots -- the most dangerous on the power play off a feed from close friend Ilya Kovalchuk -- Heatley seemed upbeat.
"I felt pretty good overall," Heatley said. "A little rusty here and there, the timing may have been off, but as the game went on I felt pretty good and I thought that I adjusted pretty well."
He was the last Thrasher on the ice for the pregame skate and those fans arriving early greeted Heatley's appearance with a heartfelt cheer.
As both teams hit the ice, he was again the last player out. The fans began to buzz as the starting lineup was announced, Heatley taking his familiar place on the right side with recent AHL call-up Daniel Corso and Slava Kozlov, with whom Heatley enjoyed tremendous success last season when he finished sixth in the NHL with 41 goals and ninth overall with 89 points.
As Heatley and Blues left winger Keith Tkachuk leaned in together at center ice, Tkachuk tapped his pads in welcome.
"I just wanted to give him support," Tkachuk said. "I told him he's a tremendous person and don't forget that. I wanted to wish him all the best."
In spite of the urgency for both teams -- the Blues are in the midst of their worst stretch under longtime coach Joel Quenneville and the Thrashers have won just twice in their last 15 games as they struggle to make the playoffs for the first time -- there remained an impressive sense of solidarity, a shared hope for Heatley's future that seems to transcend the game's natural combativeness.
"Dany has paid for it and will continue to pay for it for the rest of his life, but I don't think it changes or excuses the type of person he is," said St. Louis forward Doug Weight who admitted he, too, has made many bad decisions in his life.
Asked if he thought other players would use the accident as a way of getting Heatley off his game, Weight was unequivocal.
"I would like to think that throughout his entire career he would never hear a thing from another player," Weight said.
"As a league I think we've united to stand behind Dany and this team. I'm very proud to be a part of this league."
And then it was on. The months of rehabilitation pushed to the corner, the good will of his opponents forgotten.
In their place, sticks and bodies, intuition and adrenaline were all thrown into the hopper.
In his first shift Heatley launched himself into St. Louis defenseman Bryce Salvador, his first physical contact of the season.
During his third shift, Heatley took the puck down the right side, faked a shot and set up defenseman Frantisek Kaberle in the slot for the game's first good scoring chance.
Although the announced crowd of 16,271 was more than 2,000 short of a sellout, dozens of fans sported Heatley jerseys and there were signs of welcome including one that read, "Hot for Heatley" and another that quipped, "It may be cold but we got our Heater back."
On the Thrashers' second power play, Heatley and Kovalchuk both missed high with good chances. Twice Kovalchuk set up Heatley for one-timers as though they'd never missed a game.
Only spectacular saves by Blues netminder Reinhard Divis kept the game scoreless.
By the end of the first Heatley had logged 7:13, more than any forward on both teams with the exception of teammate Patrik Stefan as coach Bob Hartley made good on his promise to "play the hell out of (Heatley)."
"Let's face it, this is step one," Hartley said after. "There was no doubt in my mind that he could handle tough situations. He loves it. He wants to be there when the game is on the line. He wants to make a difference."
Late in the second, on another Atlanta power play, Heatley ripped another Kovalchuk pass through Divis but somehow the puck emerged and went wide behind Divis. Seconds later, Heatley was slow to react as Steve Martins skated in alone and ripped a shorthanded shot off the crossbar.
Heatley seemed to tire in the third, although no one was happier than Heatley when Jeff Cowan tied the score with 2:24 left to secure the point.
"It's great. Just being in the room between periods and sitting on the bench, I missed that a lot and it felt great to be back as a part of that," Heatley said.
His teammates said there was something special about seeing Heatley getting dressed for the first time this season.
"Lots of energy, lots of skill," said netminder Pasi Nurminen. "I think he's a mental leader for our team. Right away today you could see him taking that space."
"You could tell in the room that the guys were very excited," Hartley said. "Tonight you could feel the passion. You could tell the boys wanted to be part of Dany's return."
By the time the Thrashers take the ice Friday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the importance of this game will be tucked away in Heatley's memory even as the details fade.
"It's a big night," Heatley said. "I'll remember this night for a long time."
Time instead for another step forward, for both Heatley and his teammates.
"Dany Heatley will not be the savior," Hartley said. "Dany Heatley is a very important part of our hockey club. We all know this. We have to give him time to get back to his real game."
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.