'Dan is here today watching over us'

ELMIRA, Ontario -- Just around the corner from the new Dan Snyder Memorial Arena is the cemetery where the former Atlanta Thrashers forward was laid to rest six years ago.

As he has done several times over the past few years, Thrashers GM Don Waddell paid Dan another visit at the cemetery Sunday, perhaps sharing what an amazing success the day had been.

Earlier in the day, Waddell's NHL club practiced at the new rink named after their fallen teammate in front of a packed house of around 1,500. The excited screams of children, many of them getting their first live look at NHL players, filled a facility that was brimming with electricity. A luncheon and autograph session followed the practice.

The NHL Players' Association was also on hand Sunday. Through its Goals & Dreams fund, the union donated the local hockey association 20 sets of hockey equipment, worth roughly $10,000.

"For us to be able to come back here today and give back to this community, you know Dan is here today watching over us," Waddell told ESPN.com, his voice barely audible over the frenzied atmosphere during practice. "It means a lot to us being here."

Ilya Kovalchuk and Slava Kozlov are the two remaining Thrashers who played with Snyder, who died six days after sustaining injuries in a tragic car accident on Sept. 29, 2003. Dany Heatley, who was driving the vehicle, was injured, but survived the crash.

"It was a few years ago that we were here for Dan's funeral and now we're here skating in this rink," Kozlov said after practice. "I think it's very special. ... That was a tough time, and right now, this is a fun time."

The watch Snyder wore in the car crash was broken into three pieces. His mother, LuAnn Snyder, gave one piece to former Thrashers coach Bob Hartley and another to Kovalchuk, keeping the third for herself.

"I'm going to keep it always," said Kovalchuk, who ended practice by flipping a puck to a young fan.

Normally, after back-to-back games (the Thrashers won Friday in New Jersey and Saturday in Buffalo), this would have been a day off. But the team rode a bus from Buffalo to Elmira, and not a single player complained. Being at the rink meant a lot to this organization, including their captain.

"We will always remember him," said Kovalchuk. "He was one of our guys. He's always going to be in our hearts. I'm glad we came here today."

In the middle of practice, we found Dan's father, Graham Snyder, pacing in one of the rink's dressing rooms. He graciously once again spoke to ESPN.com, but clearly he was struggling on this day. He was instrumental in helping raise money to get this arena built and have the Thrashers come here, but it's obvious some memories were flashing through his heart and mind.

"For me personally, it's a very emotional day," said Snyder, taking a deep breath before continuing. "This is what we dreamed of when we sat down over six years ago."

That summer in 2003, father and son had talked about the need for a new arena here. Then Dan went off to NHL camp with Atlanta, his last.

"Dan at the time told me, 'I'll do whatever you need to help out.' So this day is very special," said Snyder. "It wasn't how we envisioned this day to be ... but given what we've been through, it's pretty gratifying."

Waddell said it was the very least his team could do.

"Dan was such an important part of our organization and anyone who is part of our organization is part of our family," said the Thrashers GM. "What we went through with the Snyders ... obviously is something I wish on nobody. But I learned a lot of things through this, and the biggest thing is how the Snyders dealt with this and the forgiveness that they showed throughout this whole process. I think it's made me a better person."

Waddell looked away for a moment, perhaps the emotion of the moment coming to the surface. It was that kind of day, a time to remember.

"We're happy to be here, it's a great memorial to Danny," said Thrashers coach John Anderson, who coached Snyder in AHL Chicago. "He was a very intense player and yet just so fun-loving off the ice."

Anderson said he'll never forget the call he got at 11 p.m. on the night Snyder succumbed to his injuries.

"I was very sad," he said. "My whole family knew him. It was tough on everybody. I certainly can't imagine how his parents felt. But out of that ... we have a beautiful rink that's opened here. It's been a fitting memorial."

Jake Snyder, Dan's older brother, looked on Sunday from behind the glass at one end as Thrashers goalie Johan Hedberg flashed some leather during a drill. Yes, Jake said, younger brother would have loved this place.

"I think he would be really happy to see what the result was," said Jake. "He kept really close ties to this community, volunteering with young kids and sports camps. Seeing that future generations of kids will be able to use this great facility, he'd be really happy."

Dan Snyder would probably be pretty happy with his team, too. The Thrashers haven't been world-beaters since they came into the league a decade ago, but the class the organization has shown in dealing with this tragedy and continuing its relationship with the Snyder family is beyond the call of duty. Waddell has been at the forefront of that effort, which includes the creation 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."

"It's so important to us and so special to us that Don and the organization have honored Dan's memory like they have and made us still feel part of the organization," said Jake Snyder. "Whether it's inviting us down to Atlanta every year to present Dan's trophy or just spending five minutes with us after a game in Buffalo or Toronto and seeing how we're doing, he's really made us feel part of things."

It's simply what has felt right, Waddell said.

"They're part of our family," said the GM. "It's something that's going to last with us forever."

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.