Return comes weeks in advance
The star right wing played Wednesday night for the first time since surviving a car wreck in September that killed teammate Dan Snyder and left Heatley with serious injuries.
Wow, knee surgery has certainly come a long way in terms of rehabilitation time. Having gone through this myself in 1989, I know how much work it takes and how frustrating it can be to get back to playing at the NHL level. It took me six months to get back on the ice, and even then I suffered several setbacks that ultimately ended my career. However, Dany Heatley's quick of a turnaround is not unprecedented. Colorado Avalanche head coach Tony Granato had his torn ACL replaced by one from a cadaver on Jan. 11, 1999, and returned three months later, and Detroit Red Wings defenseman Chris Chelios returned in just under four months during the 2000-01 season. On the ice, I had one problem in my return: When there was traffic in front of my crease, I thought too much, worrying about someone making contact with me, and it took away from my ability to play instinctively. That's the one thing that could hinder Heatley. He is an instinctive player who likes to go to the net, and if he thinks too much about contact or his knee, it will affect his game. That being said, after spending so many grueling hours in the gym, Heatley is in great shape. Now, getting on the ice and being back with his teammates is the best place for him.
His return against St. Louis at home capped a recovery from two torn knee ligaments and a broken jaw. He had surgery in October to repair the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his right knee.
"I met with the doctors Saturday for about the 17th time about his status," Thrashers general manager Don Waddell said Tuesday. "They assured us he was 100 percent."
After leading the Southeast Division for much of the season, Atlanta has dropped to second place, six points behind Tampa Bay. The Thrashers were tied for ninth in the Eastern Conference with the New York Rangers entering play Tuesday night, four points behind the eighth and final playoff spot.
"It's nice to help, but at the same time, that has no bearing on whether I was ready to play or I wasn't ready to play," Heatley said Tuesday. "It's going to be fun to get going in the middle of a playoff run."
Coach Bob Hartley and Heatley decided on the move after practice Tuesday. Heatley skated for the first time following surgery on Dec. 23, then joined his teammates in a pregame skate about 10 days ago.
"I've seen Dany skate lots of miles out there, and we've put him through full-contact drills and practice," Hartley said. "There's absolutely no pain. (Wednesday) night or two months from now won't make his knee any stronger."
Heatley was charged with vehicular homicide after Snyder died from head injuries. Test results showed Heatley consumed a small amount of alcohol before the crash, with his blood alcohol content less than 0.015 percent, below Georgia'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 an accident, with no need to pursue felony charges, which carry sentences from three to 15 years.
The case remains under investigation and a final decision on charges has not been made, Erik Friedly, a spokesman for the Fulton County district attorney, said Tuesday.
Heatley hasn't played since the season finale last season, a 6-2 victory over the Lightning. He had two goals and an assist in that one.
"I'm coming into this like a regular game last year," Heatley said. "I want to play. There's going to be some rust, but I feel like I'm ready to go."
"It's been a long time. I'm anxious to get out there."
The Thrashers didn't work Heatley in slowly. He resumed his spot on one of the top lines and logged a lot of ice time. Heatley was the MVP of last year's All-Star game and finished as the ninth-leading scorer in the NHL with 89 points. In 2002, he was the NHL Rookie of the Year.
"There's no doubt when you have a player of his stature on the bench, he's going to play," Waddell said. "He's not a player that's going to play 10 minutes a game. Once you put him back on the bench, the coach is going to play him as he normally would."
His quick return is surprising. Players in other sports generally miss an entire season after similar injuries, and Waddell initially expected Heatley to miss four to six months. But Heatley started his rehab three days after surgery and beat every timetable throughout.
"I don't think it is unique to hockey, I think it's unique to this athlete," Waddell said. "We're dealing with a unique athlete who's in tremendous condition."
Dr. Henry Goitz, chief of sports medicine at the Medical College of Ohio in Toledo, said Heatley's recovery follows the current trend of athletes coming back earlier.
"There's no timeline guides to wait on," Goitz said. "Generally speaking, most surgeons feel that three months is about as soon as we'd like to see somebody come back. But we have people coming back in three to four months now pretty regularly."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press