Road To The Olympic Games

Olympics Winter

Dany Heatley: hard road to Turin

Hockey player Dany Heatley has travelled a difficult route on the road to Turin.

By Tony Care

There was no need for Dany Heatley to feel anxious the day Hockey Canada announced the much-anticipated Olympic roster.

Such tension is usually reserved for players on the bubble.

However, even as teammates and friends assured him of his Olympic selection, Heatley remained apprehensive in the hours before Canada named its team on Dec. 21.

Heatley's thoughts raced as he wondered if a terrific start with a new National Hockey League team and past international success were enough to convince Hockey Canada's executive director Wayne Gretzky and his staff to select the 25-year-old Calgarian.

"You're always nervous because you know you have to have a good start," says Heatley. "It was in the back of my mind but I tried not to think about it too much. There are so many great players in Canada and until you get the call you're a little bit nervous."

The anxiety didn't last long.

Team Canada assistant executive director Kevin Lowe phoned Heatley with the good news about an hour before the selections were made public.

"I was just really excited," says the Ottawa Senators sniper. "I got a chance to play for Canada before and I've had good experiences. The Olympics are something special and I'm honoured to be a part of this great team."

Heatley is one of the top NHL players this season and has made Senators general manager John Muckler look like a genius since landing the winger in an off-season swap with the Atlanta Thrashers.

A change of scenery

The Senators, looking to shed the moniker of playoff pretenders, quickly jumped at the opportunity to acquire Heatley when word leaked he'd asked the Thrashers for a trade last summer.

The deal was completed in late August after Muckler dangled talented but post-season disappointment Marian Hossa and defenceman Greg de Vries to Atlanta general manager Don Waddell.

The Senators already had considerable scoring talent so the challenge for new coach Bryan Murray was to find linemates complementary to Heatley's ability. It didn't take long. Murray got a glimpse of his team's future when he put Heatley on a line with Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza in training camp.

Heatley, Alfredsson and Spezza quickly established themselves as one of the most productive scoring lines in the NHL. A chest injury forced Spezza to miss 12 games this season, but Heatley and Alfredsson remain in the top 10 in league scoring.

"I think all three of us have fun playing with each other," says Heatley. "We can all move the puck and skate. That is the key to our line. When that happens the creativity takes over and good things happen."

The Senators, who lead the league in goals, are enjoying an excellent season and have become a top Stanley Cup contender. Many pundits have attributed the Senators' high-octane offensive triumphs to the new NHL rules that emphasize skating and skill over clutching and grabbing. However, many overlook the coaching change the Senators made in June 2004.

When Muckler decided to replace the defensive-minded Jacques Martin with Murray, the news was treated with indifference. With the 2005-06 season now past the halfway point, Murray's approach has proven to be more suitable to the style employed by Heatley and his linemates.

"Coming into camp we added a few new faces in certain areas and with this club being such a great skating team I think the [coaching change] really helped us," says Heatley.

Moving past the accident

The trade to Ottawa came at a good time for Heatley as it brought about a change of cities and gave him a fresh start after a tragic auto accident more than two years ago. The accident on Sept. 29, 2003, changed the lives of two families and left Heatley shattered.

That night, Heatley was speeding in his Ferrari on a curved Atlanta residential road, with close friend and teammate Dan Snyder in the passenger seat. Heatley lost control of his car and crashed into a brick pillar and a wrought-iron fence.

The results were devastating.

The 25-year-old Snyder suffered massive head trauma, went into a coma and died six days later. Heatley endured metal anguish that could only be eased by the support of the Snyder family. He also faced months of rehabilitation after suffering several injuries, including torn ligaments in his right knee.

Heatley initially was charged with vehicular homicide and reckless driving. He eventually pleaded guilty to four lesser charges as a result of the accident and Snyder's death. What impressed Heatley was the astonishing way in which the Snyder family handled the circumstances of the tragedy.

Graham Snyder, Dan's father, declined to seek retribution as he read his victim-impact statement and asked Fulton County Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes not to send Heatley to jail.

Respecting the Snyder family's wishes, Barnes sentenced Heatley to three years probation and ordered him to make 150 public speeches concerning the dangers of speeding. Barnes was so moved by Graham's plea that he admitted he wondered if he could do the same had the situation been reversed.

"The Snyder family acted on the basis of what they thought their son's wishes would've been," says John Manasso, author of A Season of Loss, A Lifetime of Forgiveness. "To them it wasn't really much of a thought process and they don't think of themselves as being so different and so special."

Manasso, who is the Thrashers' beat reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, did not speak to Heatley but talked extensively with Graham Snyder about how the family dealt with its grief.

Heatley remains quiet on the matter but says he still keeps in contact with the Snyder family and they continue to be incredibly supportive of him. The family has also helped Heatley move forward to a season that includes a chance at helping Canada repeat as gold-medal champions at the Torino Olympics.

While only an NHL rookie when Canada erased a 50-year gold-medal drought in 2002, Heatley has competed on several Canadian teams in the past four years. He won back-to-back world championships, including a Most Valuable Player performance two years ago. The first-time Olympian also skated for Canada at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey.

Unlike that tournament where players like Vincent Lecavalier, Joe Sakic, Joe Thornton and Mario Lemieux carried the offensive load, Gretzky is hoping Heatley will be one of Canada's top scorers in Turin.

"Every time we're entered in international play we're the favourites," says Heatley. "Especially with the pressure of the country and the fact we're defending gold-medal champions. In Canada, it's win or nothing and all the players know that."

For Heatley, making the team was the easy part. Performing to a nation's high expectation should be more of a cause for his anxiety.