Dan Snyder's dream to come true in Elmira

October, 16, 2009

It's been six years.

It was just more than six years ago that planning for a new sports complex and hockey arena in Elmira, Ontario, began. And it was just over six years ago that Dan Snyder was taken away from this world much too early, at the age of 25, in a tragic car accident in Atlanta.

On Sunday, when the Atlanta Thrashers honor their former player by skating at the new Dan Snyder Memorial Arena in his hometown 90 minutes west of Toronto, Graham Snyder will no doubt have a heavy heart, but he will also know that his son will be looking down with a big smile on his face.

After all, this is what Dan wanted, a new arena for Elmira.

"I know for sure that was the case," Graham Snyder told ESPN.com this week. "That July [2003], he was getting ready to head for Atlanta for training camp, and I know when the first plans came out for the new rink, the arena was going to be built in 2017. We got pretty vocal about that here, that it had to move a lot quicker. And when I told him about it, he shook his head and said, 'Well, we have to do something to make it happen a lot quicker than that.' He was aware of the plans and he'd do everything he could to help out."

On Sept. 29 that year, Dan Snyder was a passenger in Dany Heatley's car when the NHL star lost control of it and crashed into a brick pillar. Snyder died six days later from his injuries. The Snyder family, led by parents Graham and LuAnn, immediately and famously forgave Heatley, showing immeasurable compassion in an incredible moment of grief.

The healing continues six years later, and the opening of the arena in their son's name is a terrific way to celebrate his legacy.

"It's really great, it is," Graham said. "It's a real honor and a real tribute to him. It's part of a team effort, too, and I like that idea. It's the main rink, but there's also a second ice pad, a swimming pool, a seniors' center, a walking track and a fitness center. So it's a real community effort."

The Dan Snyder Memorial Foundation has raised more than $1 million since its inception, and $750,000 of that has gone into the construction of the complex. The Thrashers have done their part every year by helping out with the Dan Snyder Memorial Golf Tournament in Elmira.

"They've been front and center every year," Graham said of the Thrashers. "They've been our lead sponsor for it. They've always been in attendance every year with somebody there."

The Snyder family has kept ties with the Thrashers organization, going to the last regular-season game every year for the awarding of the Dan Snyder Memorial Trophy, "presented to the Thrashers' unsung hero, the player who best embodies perseverance, dedication and hard work without reward or recognition, so that his team and teammates might succeed."

The Thrashers have shown tremendous class in the way they've maintained a link to the Snyder family and Dan's memory. I'm not sure every NHL team would have gone to these lengths to keep the memory of a fourth-line forward alive.

"They have stayed in touch and they have been very supportive of our family and our town, really," Graham said. "It says a lot to the character of the people with that organization. The Thrashers have always been pretty special for me.

"We became fairly close going through the whole tragedy. We certainly did everything we could for them, and they certainly returned that to us."

On Sunday, the Thrashers will bus from Buffalo, where they play Saturday night, to Elmira for a 1 p.m. ET practice at the new arena, followed by a lunch and autograph session before heading to the airport for a flight to Montreal, where they play Tuesday night.

It's a tight schedule for NHL teams, and Snyder appreciates the Thrashers' efforts.

"[GM] Don Waddell deserves a lot of the credit for it," Snyder said. "He made it happen. Back last year, he had asked the NHL to hopefully have a game in Buffalo or Toronto early in the season so they could do something like this."

Snyder is holding out hope that maybe one day the NHL will hold a preseason game at the Dan Snyder Memorial Arena. The town was a finalist for the "Kraft Hockeyville" contest in Canada last season, in which the winner gets to host an NHL preseason game. Alas, Elmira finished third.

Perhaps one day the league will stage a preseason game there anyway, with the Thrashers involved, of course.

"I still follow the Thrashers," Snyder said. "I see some positive signs this year."

For more information on the Dan Snyder Memorial Foundation, visit www.37risingstars.com.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer


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