Guilt, remorse common after accidents

Updated: October 1, 2003, 10:48 PM ET
Associated Press

ATLANTA -- Dany Heatley is expected to recover from his physical injuries. But can one of hockey's bright young stars overcome the mental scars after an Atlanta Thrashers teammate was critically injured in a high-speed car crash?

 Dany Heatley

An expert in grief counseling warned Wednesday that Heatley -- charged with being behind the wheel in the wreck that left Dan Snyder with a skull fracture -- could be in for some dark, dark days.

"He has to deal with all those feelings of guilt and remorse, and all the pain that's attached to that," said Len Tuzman, director of social work at The Zucker Hillside Hospital in New York City. "You worry about people like that."

Meanwhile, the Thrashers returned to the ice for a preseason game, beating the Florida Panthers 3-2. The team considered canceling the exhibition, but decided to play.

"We're doing the best thing we can," Thrashers coach Bob Hartley said after a morning skate. "The guys showed good spirit. Once the puck drops, we'll be ready to play. I'm sure if you asked the two Dans, they would want us to play."

Heatley's teammates weren't ready to speculate on how the 22-year-old wing, the MVP of the 2003 All-Star game, will cope with the inevitable feelings of culpability once he rejoins the team.

"I imagine it's going to be very tough," defenseman Chris Tamer said. "Initially, you just want the guys to get better physically. Then I'm sure there's going to be a lot of emotions for both of them. I can't imagine how tough it's going to be for them and their families."

Police estimated that Heatley's Ferrari was traveling around 80 mph when he lost control on a curve in a two-lane road. The high-performance sports car plunged into a wrought iron and brick wall in front of an apartment complex.

The car was ripped in half. The players were thrown onto the road.

"He has to assume some responsibility for what happened," Tuzman said. "His guilt is going to be a major issue for him to deal with. Ultimately, he's going to have to learn to forgive himself. But he may never be able to fully do that."

Heatley, of course, isn't the first athlete to face the ramifications of a fatal accident.

In 1993, Jeff Alm of the NFL's Houston Oilers wrecked on a highway, killing a close friend who was in the car with him. Apparently overcome with grief, Alm shot himself to death before police arrived.

Seven years later, NBA players David Wesley and Bobby Phills sped away from a Charlotte Hornets practice in their Porsches, reaching speeds up to 100 mph. Police said they were racing. Phills lost control and slid into oncoming traffic. Wesley saw his best friend die in the rearview mirror.

Wesley played on after the wreck, but it took him a while to recover emotionally.

"He played the rest of the year with a very pensive look on his face," his coach, Paul Silas, would say later. "I didn't know if that look would ever go away."

Eventually, it did. Wesley averaged a career-high 17.2 points the following year. Last season, he scored 16.7 for the Hornets.

"The most important thing is you don't want people to make major decisions about life at a time like this," Tuzman said. "It's much too raw."

Heatley was the NHL's rookie of the year in 2002 and scored a team-record 41 goals last season. His gap-toothed smile was the face of the Thrashers, a team that begins the season a week from Thursday with high hopes of making the playoffs for the first time.

Tuzman said it's important for those around Heatley to "give him the sense that he continues to have value to many people. Over time, they're going to forgive him and he has to forgive himself."

Heatley must realize that he didn't intend to injure Snyder, Tuzman added. It was a mistake of youth, a lesson he will carry with him for the rest of his life.

"Most 22-year-olds think they're omnipotent," Tuzman said. "They don't think anything is ever going to happen to them until they get a little older and realize how fragile things really are."

Heatley sustained a broken jaw, minor concussion, a contusion on his lung and a bruised kidney. Team doctors said none of the injuries were career threatening.

Then there are the legal troubles. Heatley was charged with serious injury by vehicle -- a felony -- and three misdemeanors, police said. He also was given a blood-alcohol test, but the result may not be known for weeks.

The most serious charge carries a prison sentence of up to 15 years, if convicted. Prosecutors could allow Heatley to plead guilty to a lesser offense that would remove the possibility of jail time.

For now, everyone is focused on Snyder and Heatley making a full recovery.

"I'm not worried about the other things," goalie Pasi Nurminen said. "I just want to see those guys back with us."

Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press