Thrashers start season in mourning

Posted: Thursday, October 09, 2003

ATLANTA This team was once filled with hope. Now, there are two unused lockers at the Atlanta Thrashers' practice rink and the same gray T-shirt in every other stall.

''We're All In It,'' is written across the front of the shirt.

The number ''15'' is on the left sleeve.

The date ''10-5-03'' is on the right sleeve.

The number belongs to All-Star Dany Heatley, facing criminal charges in a tragic car wreck and possibly out for the season with a knee injury. The date refers to Thrashers teammate Dan Snyder, who died Sunday from injuries suffered in the crash of Heatley's Ferrari.

''This has been my toughest week in 15 years of coaching,'' Bob Hartley said Wednesday, having just come off the ice after a 1 1/2-hour practice that fleetingly cleared the mind of all those grim thoughts.

The Thrashers were one of the NHL's up-and-coming teams, finishing with a flourish after Hartley took over as coach midway through last season. Everyone talked of making the playoffs for the first time in the franchise's five-year history.

Heatley was the 22-year-old centerpiece, a guy with both toughness and skill, who scored a team-record 41 goals and was named MVP of the All-Star game last season.

Everything changed on the night of Sept. 29.

Police say Heatley was driving his sports car at about 80 mph with Snyder in the passenger seat. The car spun out of control on a narrow road in Atlanta, slammed into a wall and split in half. The players were tossed onto the road like rag dolls.

Heatley's injuries made him the lucky one: two torn ligaments in his right knee, a broken jaw, some nerve damage in his left shoulder. He has undergone two surgeries and will miss most if not all of the season.

Snyder was unconscious when rescuers got to him, the victim of severe brain injuries. He hung on for six days in a coma before he died.

''I can't stop thinking about it,'' team captain Shawn McEachern said. ''It's always on my mind.''

Everyone is dealing with the same emotions: sadness, emptiness, helplessness, maybe even a little anger. Everyone is asking the same questions: Why did this have to happen to them? To us? How can one youthful mistake strike down a friend in the prime of life and leave another with a lifetime of guilt?

''Obviously, Dany never meant for any of this to happen,'' center Marc Savard said, his eyes red and filling with tears. ''It's just a freak accident. They're both young kids. This was never meant to happen.''

It did, and life goes on. The Thrashers open the season Thursday night against Columbus, wearing patches on their sweaters with Snyder's number, 37.

Before the game, there will be a moment of silence and a video tribute to the undersized center. Then, the puck will drop and the Thrashers will begin an almost desperate quest to earn two points ''for our two Danny's.''

''If you can't give 100 percent every night with what we've been though,'' goaltender Byron Dafoe said, ''then there's something wrong with you.''

On Friday, the entire team Heatley included will travel to Canada to attend Snyder's funeral.

The players made up the T-shirts to serve as a constant reminder of what they're playing for: the memory of Snyder, and the recovery of Heatley.

In another poignant touch, the lockers for Snyder and Heatley remain just as they were before the wreck sweaters hanging up, pads stacked on top, nameplates in place. They'll likely stay that way all season.

''We can't forget Dan Snyder, how hard he always played,'' Patrik Stefan said. ''He would go into the corner with a 250-pound defenseman, knowing he was going to get hit, but he would still go in there to get that puck. He showed everybody what we can do. He gives us motivation.''

Atlanta's first opponent knows a little something about dealing with tragedy. Two seasons ago, a shot by Espen Knutsen deflected into the stands at Columbus' arena and struck a 13-year-old girl in the head. She died two days later.

''It's obviously going to be a very difficult game to play, both for them and for us,'' Blue Jackets goalie Marc Denis said. ''I don't think you ever really get over it. You have to move on but you never forget about it.''

On the ice, it will be difficult for the Thrashers to overcome the loss of Heatley, the league's ninth-leading scorer with 89 points. He'll be replaced on the top line by McEachern, who scored 26 points in 46 games.

''I'm not replacing Dany Heatley,'' McEachern corrected. ''I'm just playing on his line.''

The Thrashers still have scoring punch with Ilya Kovalchuk (28 goals, 29 assists), Slava Kozlov (a team-record 49 assists) and Savard (50 points). But they'll need more from players such as Stefan, the top pick in the 1999 draft.

''I'm already putting pressure on myself,'' said Stefan, who scored only 13 goals last season. ''I have to do better. I have to be my best every game. As a team, each of us has to step it up.''

The most important strides need to be taken defensively. The Thrashers surrendered a league-high 284 goals last season, even though they improved dramatically under Hartley 3.1 goals per game, compared with 3.88 before he took over.

That commitment to defense was a major reason the Thrashers went 19-14-5-1 with Hartley as coach to finish with 31 wins and 74 points franchise records but still nine points short of the playoffs.

Through all the grief, the team hasn't lost hope of making the playoffs this season.

''We've gone through more than any team needs to go through,'' Dafoe said. ''But it's brought us closer together. Teams win championships. We're becoming a better team.''

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