Family, Heatley, team united in their grief

ATLANTA -- During the long days while Dan Snyder lay in a coma at Grady Memorial Hospital, Atlanta Thrashers general manager Don Waddell and Snyder's mother used to sit in the hallway and talk.

"His mom and I would sit there in the waiting room and talk about him, and she'd tell me stories of when he was a kid. He was a battler as a kid," an emotional Waddell said Monday afternoon outside the team's practice facility north of the city.

"He was battling; he was the same way he was on the ice."

Snyder's battle ended Sunday at about 8:30 p.m. when he died, six days after slipping into a coma, the result of a horrific car accident that left teammate and close friend Dany Heatley injured and now facing a charge of first-degree vehicular homicide.

Yet in spite of the charges that could see him jailed for up to 15 years, and in spite of knee surgery that was scheduled for Tuesday morning in Atlanta, Heatley is determined to be at his friend's funeral in Elmira, Ontario, on Friday afternoon. On Tuesday, Magistrate Richard Hicks gave his consent for Heatley to attend.

"His whole focus is grief over the death of his wonderful friend Snyder," Heatley's lawyer Ed Garland told ESPN.com late Monday afternoon. "He's really not thinking about anything else."

"If the doctors will let him travel, he'll be at the funeral," Garland said.

They were, of course, from opposite sides of the hockey tracks, Heatley all high-end, rookie of the year, the future of the league while Snyder, undrafted, hair all kinky and uncombed, was blue collar and proud of it.

They became close friends, and Snyder was living with Heatley when the accident happened just a short distance from Heatley's upscale Atlanta home.

Less than 24 hours after Snyder's death, the Fulton County district attorney's office recommended to Atlanta police that they elevate an initial felony charge of injury by vehicle to first-degree vehicular homicide.

The charge carries with it a prison sentence ranging from three to 15 years, but Garland said there is much latitude in terms of actual sentencing.

"It will be up to the judge what the punishment will be if there's a conviction or a guilty plea," Garland said.

Jail time would not be a certainty.

In the meantime, Heatley's defense team will conduct a thorough investigation of the accident, including examining why the car seemed to disintegrate, whether it might have been caused by something other than Heatley's simply driving too fast for the stretch of road.

Regardless of the outcome of the criminal matter, the emotional sentence facing Heatley may be far more severe.

Still, when a reporter from the National Post happened on Snyder's father in the family's hometown of Elmira, Ontario, he said he does not blame Heatley for his son's death.

They used to call Dan Snyder "chicken legs."

"Because he had real, real skinny legs," said Atlanta Thrashers general manager Don Waddell. "If you ever watched him walk, you'd try and figure out how he could be a hockey player. That was always his goal, to come back every summer and prove to us that his legs were getting bigger."

But it was never about Dan Snyder's legs. It was always about his heart.

"When he came here last year, I think the second half of the year he really proved he was ready to be an NHL player. He wasn't the most skilled guy in the world. He did it by pure determination and commitment and hard work for the game," Waddell said.

Last week, Snyder's father took time out from the family's constant vigil at the hospital to speak to his son's teammates.

He told them his son would want them to go on, to get ready for the regular season, a regular season that just a week ago held such promise for a young franchise yearning for success.

In the hours after Snyder died, there was talk among the Thrashers about whether they should try to petition the NHL about postponing Thursday's season opener against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

When Waddell broached the subject with the Snyder family -- who had returned to Elmira, Ontario to prepare to bury their son -- they were steadfast.

"They really expressed their concerns for the team and how we move forward. When I asked them their thoughts on Thursday's game, they really felt that the team needed to play and that Dan would have wanted it that way, and I think that helps all of us to try and move forward," said Waddell.

And so the healing process for players and indeed an entire franchise begins with the blessings of those who are hurting most deeply.

It is a healing process that will occur not just in Atlanta.

At least 21 players who attended at least a portion of the Thrashers' training camp spent time playing in Chicago with the team's AHL affiliate last season.

Most of the players live in an apartment complex that is handy to the suburban rink that is the team's home. Snyder lived there, too, when he was part of their lineup for 35 games last season before finally making the jump full-time to the Thrashers.

Coach John Anderson recalled not knowing what to make of Snyder when he first walked into the Wolves' dressing room, his wiry hair askew.

"I don't think it'd seen a comb through it in about two weeks," Anderson said yesterday.

But Snyder, who had been a thorn in the team's side when he played against it in the old International Hockey League, soon proved himself invaluable to the Wolves.

"He was so much fun to coach," said Anderson, a former NHLer who has been with the Wolves, now Atlanta's AHL affiliate, for seven years. "He was what we call a glue guy. He's what makes a team a team."

Last week, Waddell flew to Chicago to address the Wolves, knowing how deeply they were affected by the accident that had left Snyder in a coma.

When Waddell left, there was a feeling among the players that perhaps Snyder would make it.

Maybe he wouldn't be able to play hockey again, "but at least we were going to have Dan Snyder back," Anderson said. "Kind of a feeling of comfort that really wasn't there."

Snyder never regained consciousness after slipping into a coma after brain surgery last Tuesday.

"For us, it was kind of surreal. We didn't get to see him in the hospital," Anderson said.

Counselors were made available to the Wolves players, and Dr. Brian Shaw of the joint NHL/NHLPA substance abuse and behavioral health program has been in Atlanta for several days offering his services to the Thrashers' organization.

But in the end, the only way to move on, to grieve for Dan Snyder, will be on the ice, where it is has always been more than a game whether you're Dany Heatley or Danny Snyder.

"Everybody that's involved wants us to continue going forward," Waddell said. "We have a commitment for each other to move forward. As hard as it sounds, sometimes what brings these guys together on the ice is actually playing games. That's what they do. That's what they do for a living. That's what keeps us together as a family. The best way for us to move forward is to prepare for the upcoming games and continue on from there."

And so the team will play Thursday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets, as the Snyders asked.

And then they will pack their bags and fly to Toronto and drive to Elmira and bury their teammate and friend.

And then they will fly again to Washington for a game against the Capitals on Saturday.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.