Heatley thanks Snyders for support

ATLANTA -- On Dec. 26, 2003, Dany Heatley first spoke publicly about the car accident that took the life of his Atlanta Thrashers teammate and close friend Dan Snyder and left Heatley facing physical and legal ruin.

The NHL's former rookie of the year addressed a large media crowd alone that night -- a 22-year-old struggling to take ownership for a moment's recklessness that changed forever the lives of so many people.

Amid tremendous support from the Thrashers, the hockey community at large and, most importantly, the Snyder family, there remained the unmistakable feeling that Heatley was nonetheless very much alone in his grief and his guilt.

Saturday morning Heatley stood in almost exactly the same spot, the threat of a jail term and the possible end of his promising NHL career put to rest the previous day in an Atlanta courtroom.

That he was able to return to this spot along a concourse at Philips Arena, the playing surface hidden behind heavy curtains, was once again a tribute to the support he has been shown, especially by the Snyders.

"They lost a son. I think about that every day. But all I can say to them is I'm very, very thankful for their support and their continued support. They're a great family," Heatley said.

"Obviously it's changed me. It's a life-changing experience. I think about Dan every day and those scars will never completely heal but you have to move on with your life," he said.

For Heatley, moving on with his life will mean being on probation for three years.

He pleaded guilty to second-degree vehicular homicide and misdemeanor driving charges. Prosecutors dropped a first-degree vehicular homicide charge that could have sent the 24-year-old Heatley to jail for 20 years in large part because the Snyder family of Elmira, Ontario, vigorously opposed a jail term.

Family members, who remain close to Heatley and who have stayed with him during visits to Atlanta following the Sept. 29, 2003, crash, initially opposed criminal charges.

Among the terms of Heatley's probation -- 150 speeches to young people during the three-year sentence. That works out to almost one per week over three years.

It is a creative punishment handed down by judge Rowland Barnes, who admitted to the Snyders on Friday that he didn't know if he could find such forgiveness in his own heart.

"They are an amazing family. Like the judge said, he doesn't know if he could have done it yesterday and I think a lot of people feel that way," Heatley said.

Some will wonder whether there is justice in this sentence and whether Heatley received more lenient treatment because he is a professional athlete and a star, but the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Saturday that the three-year probation is a more severe punishment than those meted out to most drivers convicted of similar charges.

It is a punishment that means the details of that night, the hard lessons of loss and guilt and suffering and of redemption will be Heatley's constant companions at least for the next three years, invoked each time he steps to a lectern or microphone to deliver one of his speeches.

"I look at the speeches as a positive thing. I'm going to relive this every day no matter what," Heatley said. "If I can turn it to something positive and hopefully talk to some kids down the line and save them from something, then that's a positive thing."

It is a punishment that reinforces that no matter the support, Heatley will continue to carry a singular burden.

Snyder, 25 at the time, was a gritty forward who'd just made the Thrashers squad after bouncing back and forth from the minors for several years. He was staying with Heatley while rehabilitating an injury during training camp, and the two had attended a social function for season ticket-holders earlier that evening before joining teammates for a late dinner at a shopping mall near Heatley's condo.

Police believe Heatley was driving his 2002 black Ferrari at more than 80 miles per hour when he lost control on a narrow stretch of city roadway and struck a brick pillar and iron fence. Both men were ejected from the car and Snyder was left in a coma from which he never emerged. He died six days later.

Heatley said Saturday he tries as much as possible to avoid traveling that route.

"I try and stay away from it. I don't remember really anything from that night, but I try and stay away from it," he said.

Before each game Heatley honors Snyder with a series of rituals.

"There's certain things I do. Certain, I don't know if you want to call them superstitions or tributes, but I'll keep that just with myself," the Calgary native said.

Heatley returned to action with the Thrashers just over a year ago amid an almost universal show of support from the hockey community. As he lined up for the opening face-off of his first game, St. Louis Blues forward Keith Tkachuk leaned in and tapped Heatley's shin guards with his stick and wished him well.

It's difficult to imagine the game in that light, what with the NHL seemingly poised to cancel the season because no resolution to the ongoing lockout seems possible. And yet there was some small evidence of it Saturday morning as the Thrashers were given permission by the league to allow Heatley to use Philips Arena to address the media (he did not speak after court Friday). While Heatley said the lockout was the furthest thing from his mind, it was somehow reassuring to see that the community still exists at least in some form.

"It's been a long 16 months, been a tough 16 months," Heatley said. "The hockey culture or the hockey brotherhood, it's a tight group and they [the Snyders] are part of that."

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