<
>

Heatley leaving behind city that stood behind him

ATLANTA -- This first blockbuster deal of the new NHL universe is less hockey trade than morality play.

Dany Heatley goes to the Ottawa Senators for Marian Hossa and Greg de Vries.

Run the numbers. Discuss among yourselves. Declare a winner.

Were it that simple for Heatley, the gap-toothed former rookie of the year who drags behind him far too much baggage for a 25-year-old.

No discussion of Heatley can ever be just about salary or point production or skating and shooting, regardless of what jersey he wears. It is not so today and it won't be so in five years' time or even 10.

Instead, Heatley's story will forever be told against the backdrop of misfortune and tragedy and the struggle to make things right.

So far that struggle has been marked by missteps and stumbles culminating with Heatley's formal request some 10 days ago that he wanted to be traded from Atlanta, the team that drafted him with the second overall pick in the 2000 draft, the team which has shown him unwavering support through the bleakest of times.

"Did I ever think we were ever going to trade Dany Heatley? I didn't think this day would ever come," Atlanta GM Don Waddell said Tuesday evening after Heatley had signed a three-year deal in Ottawa worth $13.5 million.

"It was a sad day. It was a sad day for me because of everything that's happened in this organization," Waddell said of Heatley's demand to be traded. "It was sad to see that he wanted to leave us. But after I had some time to think about it, reflect on it, I understood what his reasons were and certainly I respect him for that."

Heatley told Waddell that he'd sold his home in Atlanta and that he thought it would be difficult to return to the city where two years ago during training camp he was involved in a car accident that cost the life of teammate and close friend Dan Snyder.

"Just driving around the city and being with his teammates here he felt that it was going to be tough for him," Waddell said. "He just really felt that the emotional side of him said a change would beneficial for him, not only personally, but for his career."

In a brief statement issued through the Thrashers, Heatley said that "requesting a change of environment was an extremely difficult decision. After a tremendous amount of reflection and numerous conversations with my family, it made the most sense to seek a change."

"I appreciate the support the organization has given me over the years and I'd like to thank them for honoring my request," he added. "My teammates, the fans and community will always hold a special place in my heart."

Such sentiment, if in fact it is the basis for Heatley's request, certainly runs contrary to old-fashioned values of paying back a debt that is owed.

And if there was ever a young man who owed a debt to a franchise, a city, that man is Heatley.

From the moment Heatley crashed his black Ferrari into a brick gatepost and iron fence on the evening of Sept. 29, 2003, a crash that virtually split the car in two and left Snyder in a coma from which he would never emerge, Heatley was enveloped in a cocoon of support that ran unflinchingly from ownership through the training staff.

Teammates, many of whom were close friends of Snyder, balanced their grief with unequivocal support for Heatley when he returned from injuries sustained in the crash late in that season. Members of the Snyder family of Elmira, Ontario, west of Toronto, were constant visitors to Atlanta in the months after the accident, sometimes staying with Heatley. The Atlanta community has likewise shown a remarkable capacity for forgiveness and acceptance of one of the area's brightest and most recognizable sporting stars.

Given that, one might have imagined that as an unrestricted free agent, Heatley would have been anxious to sign a deal with the Thrashers as quickly as possible and devote himself to the task of restoring his game, his reputation. One might have imagined that regardless of whatever painful memories exist here he would accept them as part of the price of repaying the goodwill shown to him by so many.

But Heatley has long worked at distancing himself from the city, the team even, spending little time here since the end of the 2003-04 season.

After starting the 2004-05 lockout season playing in Switzerland, Heatley returned to Atlanta briefly last February when he pleaded guilty to second degree vehicular manslaughter and other traffic violations in connection to the accident. He then surprised many by immediately leaving to play out the balance of the season in Russia instead of staying and starting in on his community service work, which calls for 150 speeches on the dangers of speeding over a three-year period. It's unknown exactly how his trade will affect the outstanding community service work.

After the Russian league playoffs ended, Heatley took part in the World Championships, a tournament he had dominated in 2004, earning MVP honors. But Heatley played poorly in Austria and a number of independent sources have told ESPN.com that Heatley was involved in disputes with teammates and members of the coaching staff on and off the ice at the tournament.

Combined with a desultory performance during last August's World Cup of Hockey, hockey officials, scouts and GMs have quietly wondered if Heatley might ever return to the form that saw him finish ninth in league scoring with 89 points in 2002-2003. A year earlier he was named rookie of the year.

Ottawa Senators general manager John Muckler said Tuesday team doctors thoroughly examined Heatley who also suffered a broken orbital bone during his time in the Swiss elite league last season. As for the off-ice problems, Muckler said those too were investigated by the team and "there's absolutely no problem there."

Muckler also insisted he wasn't put off by Heatley's demand to be traded. Instead Muckler praised Waddell for granting Heatley's wishes.

"Not every organization would do that," Muckler said.

In some ways Heatley's demand to be traded lets Waddell off the hook on a number of fronts.

If Heatley cannot regain his form either physically or mentally, it would undoubtedly have led to more difficult decisions down the road for Waddell and an Atlanta team that has all the makings a contender.

Now, at Heatley's bidding, Waddell takes a great unknown out of his lineup and adds a player who many consider MVP material in Hossa, who signed a three-year deal worth and average of $6 million with the Senators on Tuesday morning. Only two players, Milan Hejduk and Markus Naslund, have scored more than Hossa's 81 goals over the past two NHL seasons.

"When I told Bob [head coach Bob Hartley] that Dany had come in and was looking for an alternative, we were disappointed. But I can remember the day I called Bob and said but Bob, we might be able to get Marian Hossa, Bob was pretty excited. Not that we were looking to get rid of Dany Heatley," Waddell said. "The GMs that called me today, I think a lot of people are very surprised that we were able to make this deal."

"I wasn't sure how it was going work out but at the end of the day the way it worked out I couldn't be any happier," Waddell added.

Down the road one can only hope that Dany Heatley finds enough peace of mind to be able to say the same thing.

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