Five years since life was turned upside down

OTTAWA — From Monday's Globe and Mail

They may never call him "Captain Canada" - but they will certainly call on him.

Come the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010, Dany Heatley is as good a bet as any to be the hero who helps Canada regain the treasured gold medal in men's hockey - an incredible journey for a young man who, only five years ago, was at the centre of a tragic accident that cost a close friend his life and might have cost Heatley his career.

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That sad shadow - some based on fact, some on innuendo and some on falsehood - has largely lifted, and though the Ottawa Senators' forward remains media shy and reluctant to talk about any of it, his postaccident accomplishments have come to speak for themselves.

In the three world championships in which he has played, he was the leading Canadian scorer in the first and tournament most valuable player in the next two. After his extraordinary performance in last spring's championship, held in Halifax and Quebec City, he stands today, at only 27, as this country's career scoring leader in world play.

The German-born Heatley - his father, Murray, had gone to Freiburg to play professional hockey and married Karin, from Berlin - grew up in Calgary and followed his father's trail to U.S. college hockey before first wearing Canada's colours in the 2000 world junior championships. He has never since turned down a chance to play for his country.

"You forget sometimes how crazy this country can get about Team Canada," he says. "It doesn't matter if you're from Montreal or Toronto or Calgary, they're all pulling for you. I love playing for Canada - I just love it."

It seemed, right up until five years ago, that Dany Heatley was leading a charmed life. He loved school and his coaches and teachers adored him.

"When parent-teacher interviews came around," Murray Heatley said, "there was never any need to go, but we used to go anyway - just to get our tires pumped!"

He was a late bloomer in hockey - one summer growing six inches - and chose the scholarship route over major junior, which friends told him was a mistake.

It turned out not to be. He grew and his shot became his signature - a quick snap shot he seems able to get off from any position - and at 18, he was the No. 2 draft pick in the NHL entry draft. In his first year with the Atlanta Thrashers, he was voted the NHL's top rookie.

The next season, he was the sensation of the all-star game in Sunrise, Fla., where he became the youngest player ever to score four goals in the game. They gave him a truck, which he promptly gave away to a friend. They gave him a crystal MVP trophy, which he promptly left behind in the interview room. The red-haired kid with the gap-toothed smile seemed too good to be true.

"Did the league find someone transcendent," one U.S. publication asked, "someone who can break out of a provincial pocket and make all of North America notice, as Gretzky and Lemieux did?"

"He is only going to good things for our league," fellow all-star Jeremy Roenick marvelled on national television. "He's a better person than he is hockey player."

Life, it seemed, could not be better. There was, however, one massive distraction that same all-star weekend. A little farther up the Florida coast, they were waiting for the space shuttle Columbia - only to have it blow up on entry, killing all seven astronauts.

Before what was shaping up to be Dany Heatley's year was out, his own world would blow up in tragedy.

On Monday, Sept. 29, 2003, Heatley and his good friend and Thrashers teammate Dan Snyder left a team function in suburban Buckhead, Ga., and headed down twisting Lenox Road in Heatley's black Ferrari convertible when something terrible happened.

No one knows exactly what. Heatley has no memory at all of what left his car a wreck and his friend spilled out onto the hard pavement.

The early word was drinking and speed - the twin curses of so many sad hockey stories - but tests showed Heatley had a negligible blood-alcohol level of less than .015 per cent, not even remotely near the state legal limit of .08 per cent.

Police said the speed was 90 miles an hour or more in a 35-mile-an-hour zone.

Both young men were taken to hospital, Heatley with a broken jaw, concussion and a torn knee, and Snyder with a severe head injury. They operated immediately on Snyder and induced him into a coma. The 25-year-old seemed to be recovering when, after six days in the coma, he went into septic shock and died.

When Heatley awoke in hospital the next morning, he found himself handcuffed to the bed. No one had told him his close friend was dead.

Barely able to walk, Heatley insisted on travelling to Elmira, Ont., to attend Snyder's funeral at the local Mennonite church. He was met by Snyder's parents, Graham and LuAnn, who hugged him for coming.

Heatley was charged with vehicular homicide in the first and second degree, with reckless driving, speeding, driving too fast for conditions and failure to stay to his side of the road. The first-degree charge is a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Heatley was terrified. While he adamantly refuses to discuss the accident except in the most general terms, friends say he had but two thoughts: one, not to go to prison; and, two, to make sure the Snyder family suffered no further pain than this already worst of all possible hurts.

There was, however, some pressure to fight the charges. Experts hired by both defence and prosecution determined the speed was more in the order of 57, 58 mph - still over the limit, but far from what had been reported. Crash experts suggested the tire marks indicated another vehicle, or perhaps an animal, had contributed to the crash.

But Heatley wanted nothing to do with a trial that would require everyone going through it all again. He was also anxious to avoid any lawsuit that might arise and came to an understanding with the Snyder family that it was best for all to move on.

In many ways, Heatley was fortunate that Snyder came from such a family. Graham Snyder even stood in court and asked for clemency. "We forgive," he said, "because Dany has shown remorse to our family."

Judge Rowland Barnes agreed to a plea bargain that would see Heatley take full responsibility and avoid jail in favour of three years ofs probation, a fine and 750 hours of community service.

In the years since, Heatley regularly appeared at a golf charity event that has raised money for a new hockey rink to be built in Dan Snyder's name. It would be naive to suggest this has been a happy story, but both families continue to deal with it.

In a small young reader's book published this fall by Hockey Canada - Dominant Dany Heatley, by Dany Heatley with Lorna Schultz Nicholson - he deals only briefly with the accident. "I lost control," he says of the collision, nothing more.

"I found out that life isn't always fair and that terrible things can happen to good people," he writes. "I had lived my life till that point always trying to follow the right path. … I worked hard and respected those around me, but none of that mattered. I was to be part of an horrific event that would change my life and end the life of someone incredibly important to me - my friend and teammate Dan Snyder.

"The family values that my mom and dad had given me so early in life carried me through this horrible time. The media blew the story up and concocted many different versions of what happened, and most of the stories were inaccurate. I tried not to read what they said."

But, of course, he did, and he remains gun shy. Heatley only reluctantly talks about how he thinks of his lost friend.

On the ice, he says, there are no thoughts but hockey, which may explain why he is happiest on the ice. Off the ice, "in my private life and thoughts," he deals every single day with the loss. But he cannot go into details. At one point, he cannot even speak.

Wayne Gretzky, writing in a short foreword to the little book, says: "I understand how tough it is to be in the public eye for something other than your hockey, and it would have been easy for him to disappear from the game. But Dany remained a passionate, hard working hockey player and I really admire him for that."

Heatley eventually recovered from his injuries and returned to the Atlanta lineup, but he knew he needed out. The NHL lockout the next season was a blessing: he could go off to Switzerland and then to Russia to play. In the meanwhile, his agent, Stacey McAlpine, was helping facilitate a trade to Ottawa in exchange for another fine young forward, Marian Hossa.

Heatley knew he was coming to Ottawa with doubts. Had he fully recovered from an eye injury suffered in Europe? Was a changed player from the accident?

"There was talk I wouldn't be as good," he said. "That was a big motivation for me."

He quickly proved the doubters wrong, scoring back-to-back 50 goal seasons while playing mostly with Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson and close friend Jason Spezza. Last fall, after reaching the Stanley Cup final, he signed a six-year, $45-million (U.S.) contract extension.

"It's tough to fathom how much money you can make in a career," Heatley said, shaking his head.

But he learned a long time ago that there are far more important things than money. He talks proudly and hopefully of playing for Canada in the future - for country rather than money. And when he thinks, always privately, of the most important things in the past, he knows money has no currency there, either.

What he thinks about himself also involves something that cannot be purchased but must be earned: "I just want people to know that I'm a good person," he said.

"It's important to me."