First team skate for Heatley since accident

Updated: January 16, 2004, 4:01 PM ET
Associated Press

ATLANTA -- Thrashers star Dany Heatley was back on the ice with his teammates, moving effortlessly through a 45-minute workout and looking as if he could rejoin the team any day.

But this was a simple pregame skate, held hours before Atlanta played the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday night. Thrashers coach Bob Hartley was quick to make the distinction.

"This basically was a walk in the park," Hartley said. "Dany's doing very well, and he's pain-free."

Hartley tried to downplay Heatley's return as another step in his comeback from knee surgery, perhaps mindful of Atlanta's eight-game winless streak.

"That's why our focus has to be on the team," Hartley said. "Today is a big day in Dany's rehab, but somebody decided it was news."

Although Heatley did pretty much the same drills he's been doing by himself, his appearance with the team was his first since the car wreck in September that killed teammate Dan Snyder, a crash that left Heatley with a broken jaw and torn knee ligaments.

Heatley was charged with vehicular homicide after Snyder died from head injuries. Test results showed he consumed a small amount of alcohol before the crash, with his blood alcohol content less than 0.015 percent, below the state's legal limit of 0.08 percent.

Because Heatley wasn't drunk, and Snyder's relatives said they forgave him, prosecutors could decide the crash was just an accident, with no need to pursue felony charges and sentences ranging from three to 15 years.

Heatley had surgery on his jaw and knee in October, and he skated for the first time Dec. 23.

"I never thought he would be on the ice when he was," Atlanta general manager Don Waddell said. "That's where he was, way ahead in his rehab."

For Friday's workout, Heatley donned a red sweater to designate him as an injured player, even though the skate was entirely non-contact. He likely will participate in a full practice for the first time late next week, and might be ready for games a couple of weeks after that.

The team has been careful not to put any firm timetable on Heatley, who wasn't available after the workout. In his only public comments since the wreck, he readily admitted the tragedy had changed him off the ice.

"I'm going to think about this forever," Heatley said on Dec. 26. "Every time I go to sleep I think about it, and Dan. It's something I'll deal with the rest of my life."

During the skate, he showed no signs of the knee injury, although he appeared a bit rusty with his puck handling and shooting. His best moment came while working with close friend Ilya Kovalchuk during a 2-on-1 drill, when Heatley took a pass, then fed it back to Kovalchuk, who beat goaltender Pasi Nurminen.

"It's unbelievable, us being together again," Kovalchuk said. "It's so easy to play with him. We're all excited to have him out there."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press