Heatley's skate: First test in return

ATLANTA -- The moment lasted exactly 11 minutes and was book-ended by polite applause from the 100 or so fans and children gathered Tuesday to watch Dany Heatley take his first tentative turns around the ice since the car accident that took the life of teammate and close friend Dan Snyder.

Wearing an Atlanta Thrashers baseball cap and lightly outfitted in a practice jersey and workout pants, Heatley's initial skating session since his right knee was surgically repaired on Oct. 7 was for the most part uneventful; a few strides up and down the length of the ice surface at the team's practice facility north of the city, some side-to-side twisting and stretching, some low-speed circles, a few wrist shots ripped at the empty nets and, near the end, a couple of slapshots.

In between Heatley stopped briefly to chat with members of the team's training staff, who hovered near the entrance to the ice surface.

The sounds were all familiar, the collision of the puck with Plexiglas, the churning of the blades on the just-cleaned ice surface.

"I kind of said to a few people, yeah, he still can skate. I don't know what we were all looking for other than we all wanted to see him out on the ice," Thrashers general manager Don Waddell said. "Obviously for him, emotionally, being able to do this, I think is very satisfying for him."

As he headed back to the dressing room, Heatley stopped and signed perhaps a dozen autographs for youngsters.

"Welcome home, Dany," someone yelled.

"Merry Christmas, Dany," another offered.

Waddell has always been circumspect about setting a timetable for Heatley's return but said that Heatley's rehabilitation program will now include on-ice sessions, a second workout perhaps later this week.

The next three to four weeks will be crucial to setting a realistic timetable for his return, although many have highlighted the Thrashers' Feb. 10 visit to Heatley's hometown of Calgary, the team's first game after the All-Star break, as a possible date.

"I think rehabilitation is one of those things that you always look for some peaks and valleys and he hasn't had any valleys," Waddell said.

Given that Heatley, 22, has been working out for weeks alongside his teammates and with the team's strength and conditioning coach, yesterday's appearance on the ice is mostly symbolic -- symbolic of Heatley's speedy recovery from surgery and of the progression he must follow, the difficult steps that lie ahead in preparing for game action.

The skate was also Heatley's first public appearance since the Sept. 29 accident, which occurred after an appearance by Heatley and Snyder at a reception for season ticket holders and a late dinner with teammates.

On Friday, Heatley will pass another symbolic test, his first meeting with the media since the accident. He did not speak on Tuesday.

"I think for everybody it's just an emotional lift. It's part of the process," Waddell said.

"He's on a mission right now to get back," added defenseman Yannick Tremblay. "Seeing him on the ice, skating, seems like a really nice step in the right direction."

Among those players who ventured out to mark the moment was Heatley's longtime pal and scoring sidekick Ilya Kovalchuk.

At one point the team's perpetual prankster Marc Savard, who along with the rest of the team had practiced beforehand, appeared dressed in goaltender's gear but was denied access to the ice.

"Just trying to keep it light today," Savard said later. "It's been a tough ride. I think he's doing a great job. He's handled himself excellent."

Waddell praised the team's public relations staff for making a quick decision in keeping Savard off the ice and avoiding some sort of catastrophic collision or other misadventure.

Asked if he was worried more about Heatley's health or Savard facing the NHL's 2002 rookie of the year Waddell paused.


Heatley will now spend Christmas with his family, which is in Atlanta for the holiday and some of whom attended Tuesday's workout.

The significance of the outing extends beyond Heatley's individual physical and emotional struggles.

In the days after the accident, a season that had been sunny with promise for the Atlanta Thrashers was left in chaos.

Snyder, a passenger in Heatley's black Ferrari that last Monday night in September, required emergency brain surgery after Heatley lost control of his car and struck a brick pillar and iron fence. The native of Elmira, Ontario, never regained consciousness and died six days later.

Heatley was badly injured, suffering a broken jaw, nerve damage in his shoulder, a torn MCL, a torn ACL, and a torn meniscus. And after Snyder's death, he was charged with vehicular homicide.

Yet the team, which had never challenged for a playoff berth in its previous four seasons of existence, rallied and hit the holiday break in first place in the Southeast Division.

Waddell resisted making a deal to shore up scoring that seemed certain to be a problem without Heatley, who finished ninth in NHL scoring a year ago with 89 points. Waddell was rewarded for his patience, as the Thrashers boast the second-highest goal total in the league, behind Detroit.

Now, with Heatley on the ice and his return more or less in focus as opposed to a vague notion, Waddell will presumably narrow his focus to bolstering his defense and perhaps adding some size down the middle.

Given the money saved on Heatley's salary, a portion of which will be covered by insurance, and the assurance from new owners they will free up money to make the team competitive, Waddell should for the first time in the team's five-year history be in a buyer's mode at the March deadline, as opposed to selling off assets.

"Certainly if we knew he was going to be back [in] that time frame, and knew what kind of player he's going to be, that's going to help me make decisions for what our needs are," Waddell said.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.