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Return comes weeks in advance

ATLANTA -- Dany Heatley's quick return to the ice couldn't have
come at a better time for the Atlanta Thrashers.

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.

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."