Heatley carrying enough of a burden

Updated: July 20, 2004, 4:25 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- Late last season, Thrashers defenseman Andy Sutton was watching Dany Heatley talk to reporters just before Heatley was to return to the lineup when, suddenly, Sutton burst into tears.

Heatley wore a cap adorned by angels wings flanking close friend and teammate Dan Snyder's No. 37, and watching Heatley publicly share his guilt and remorse over the car accident that took Snyder's life in September struck a chord in the 6-foot-6 defenseman.

"These types of things make you think about your life differently and how quickly things change," Sutton said at the time. "This is something of monumental proportions. I think we've all been changed."

Friday served as a reminder that, like ripples on what was a placid surface, it'll be a long while before a sense of calm returns to the organization.

Almost 10 months after Heatley, 23, caused the wreck that killed Snyder, he was indicted on vehicular homicide and five other charges. He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted on all counts.

The indictment came on the same day that Mike Danton, the former St. Louis Blue, pleaded guilty to trying to hire a hit man to kill his enigmatic agent.

In both cases we might wonder, how will justice be served? Or, more to the point, what is justice?

It is clear from all that has been said and written about Danton that he is a troubled young man. It seems equally clear that he needs help of some kind.

It is equally clear that Heatley, too, is troubled. But his situation is markedly different in that he's had help dealing with it virtually from the moment the accident occurred last Sept. 29.

Help has come from his family in Calgary. Help has been provided by his professional family in Atlanta, from general manager Don Waddell on down through teammates like Slava Kozlov, who was involved in a similar car wreck in Russia before turning pro.

"We feel it's not only the right thing to do but we want to continue to support Dany," Waddell said Friday, adding that he was disappointed the case had come to this point, that the wreck was an accident and not a crime.

"There is a balance. But this truly was an accident. There's no intent there," Waddell said.

Help has also come from Heatley's peers, from coaches and opposing players like Doug Weight, who said on the night Heatley returned to action in January that he was proud to be an NHL player because of the way fellow players around the league had rallied behind Heatley. Fans and well-wishers also have sent hundreds of letters and cards expressing support for Heatley.

And help has come, poignantly, selflessly, perhaps in the end most powerfully, from the Snyder family itself.

Shortly after the indictment was announced Friday, the Snyders released a statement through the team saying they will continue to support Heatley regardless of the charges he faces.

"Our feelings have never changed and we continue to support Dany and the entire Heatley family," the statement read.

Earlier this week Heatley played in a charity golf tournament near Snyder's hometown of Elmira, Ontario, helping to raise money for a fund in Snyder's name. Snyder is buried nearby.

It is difficult, then, to separate the heavy cloak of emotion that has always permeated this story from the stone-cold issue of justice.

"I think it's safe to say we've been preparing for the best-case scenario, the worst-case scenario and everything in between," Heatley's agent Stacey McAlpine said. "I'm still hopeful we'll be able to arrive at a happy resolution because that's what everyone involved wants, specifically the families involved."

But this is about more than the good will shown Heatley and the graceful honor he has shown Snyder's memory. Justice is always about more than what happens to individuals involved. It's about sending messages and posting warnings and setting some sort of standards and, if we're lucky, teaching lessons.

The fact that Heatley, a former rookie of the year and most recently the MVP of the World Championships, during which he helped Canada to a second straight gold medal, helped out with a charity golf tournament did not affect the indictment, district attorney Paul Howard Jr. told ESPN.com.

It can't be a factor. If it were, what message would that send to defendants who don't have the wherewithal or the circumstances to show remorse in such a way? Similarly, the Snyders' position on the case was of little relevance to the decision to take the indictment to the grand jury.

"What that really means is that the Snyders are some good folk," Howard said. "We've got to be fair to not only him [Heatley] but to everybody else, too. This is the way we normally proceed with cases. We just felt that this case ought to be handled in the normal fashion."

Heatley's lawyer Ed Garland, part of a high-profile legal team that defended the NFL's Ray Lewis from murder charges and is now representing Baltimore Ravens teammate Jamal Lewis on drug charges, said Snyder's death was a tragic accident and nothing else.

"We don't want any sentence that would put him in jail, destroy his career or have him deported from the United States," Garland said.

Heatley has been asked to play for his country at the World Cup of Hockey next month. He will, presumably, play for many more years in the NHL making a significant living as one of the game's brightest young stars.

He has much at stake in these proceedings.

From the tone taken by both Howard and Garland, there may be common ground for a solution that will allow Heatley to avoid serving jail time, perhaps without going to trial. One imagines there is a way to see Heatley share his burden with others -- youth hockey players or high school students, without seeing another career ruined.

One imagines there is justice in that.

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

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