Dan Snyder narrowly escaped being cut from his junior hockey team for two years in a row. That’s hardly the stuff that NHL careers are made of. But Snyder earned his spot on the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers roster through sheer force of will and strength of character, even though scouts thought the odds were against him. Those who knew Snyder describe him as the kind of person others naturally gravitated towards. One of those people was Dany Heatley, college star, All-Star, and marked to be one of the NHL’s next great players. On September 29, 2003, while driving down a treacherous Atlanta road with Snyder, Heatley lost control of his car. Snyder was injured, and died in hospital six days later. The lives of his family, friends, and teammates changed forever, as they searched for meaning and healing. Meanwhile, authorities in Atlanta charged Heatley with vehicular homicide. Snyder’s family, however, took a path of forgiveness and reconciliation a path that is ingrained in the Mennonite tradition from which they hail. While some might lash out against an easy target, the Snyders invited Heatley and his parents into their lives in an effort to make peace with their grief. This paperback edition contains an afterword by the Snyder family.
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John Manasso has worked as a reporter in Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC, and was a contributor to the "Hockey News." He is a freelance writer for NHL.com and covers the NHL, NBA, and NFL for an affiliate website of FoxSports.com. He lives in Decatur, Georgia.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Atlanta Thrashers general manager Don Waddell had made up his mind and decided it was time to deliver the good news. The start of the nhl season was three weeks away and even though Dan Snyder had not been able to take part in training camp, because he had undergone surgery on an ankle ligament, Waddell wanted the 25–year–old to know he had made the team. He approached Snyder and Dany Heatley, Waddell’s budding star and the most valuable player at the previous season’s All–Star Game. At Heatley’s invitation, Snyder, a gregarious floppy–haired, gap–toothed player to whom teammates took a liking for his ever–present crooked smile, had been staying with Heatley for about a month, as Snyder had bounced up and down from the minor leagues to Atlanta and back during his previous three seasons.
“Are you getting tired of the hotel yet?” Waddell asked Snyder.
“No,” Snyder responded, unsure of the line of questioning. “I’m staying with him,” he added, motioning to Heatley.
“You’ve got to be tired of him by now,” Waddell said to Snyder. “I think it’s time to get your own place.”
On that late September day, in oblique fashion, Waddell signalled to Snyder that he had would be with the team for the entire season. It was the crowning achievement of Snyder’s brief professional career. Snyder excitedly called his parents and his brother Jake to inform them of the news and started his housing search. But the celebratory mood would last only a few days.______
The week before Thrashers’ training camp was set to begin, Waddell had persuaded Snyder to have the surgery, explaining bluntly that, with Snyder’s skating ability, he needed to be at top form to compete in the nhl. That Snyder needed the surgery, in Waddell’s mind, served as a microcosm of the player’s career — barely fast enough, barely big enough. Nonetheless, Snyder embodied the ethic Thrashers coach Bob Hartley prized: He was tough, fearless, and with a mouth that never stopped yapping, no one wanted to play against him.
Snyder had been through enough trials before, so the 2003 training camp need not be one of them. Based on his performance at the tail end of the previous season, Snyder had earned a spot as the team’s third–line centre for the 2003–04 campaign — a season which held high expectations for the expansion franchise entering its fifth year. In previous stints with the Thrashers, Snyder had lived out of a hotel room beside the highway near the team’s practice facility in Duluth, Georgia, about 30 miles northeast of downtown Atlanta. However, since arriving in Atlanta in August from his hometown of Elmira, Ontario, to prepare for the season, Snyder had stayed at Heatley’s home in the city’s upscale neighborhood of Buckhead. Heatley, a right winger who had earned about $8 million in his first two pro years, was coming off a season many observers believed would act as a springboard to launch a spectacular career. He could become one of the best players in the world at his position — perhaps Canada’s next great player.
September 29, 2003, was a practice day for the Thrashers. Over the weekend, the team had played exhibitions in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Richmond, Virginia. After a day of rest on Sunday, it was back to work on Monday. Hartley and Waddell had trimmed the roster down to 22 players, the number they planned to start the season with. Only two pre–season games remained. The boot that Snyder wore as a protective cast on his surgically repaired ankle had been removed the week before, and he was eager to get back on the ice.
“He kept trying to convince Bob he’d be ready for start of the season, which was probably a little out of reach,” Snyder’s older brother Jake said. “I could see Dan playing with that [injury].” That was his personality: no injury was going to stop Snyder from achieving his goals. At a pre–season game against the Carolina Hurricanes the previous week, Snyder wore a suit, a dress shoe and a sneaker where the recently removed cast had been — although unplanned, the mismatched shoes were typical of the kind of goofy behavior teammates came to appreciate in Snyder.
After practice on the 29th, the players attended an event at Philips Arena for season–ticket holders. The ownership group that had contracted to buy the team the week before was present, and the players were there to schmooze fans and sign autographs. Heatley and Snyder were among the last players to leave, around 9 p.m. They got in Heatley’s black 2002 360 f1 “Spider” Ferrari and headed for The Tavern at Phipps, a player’s hangout not far from Heatley’s home. At 9:47 p.m., Heatley and Snyder ordered 10–ounce draughts of Bass Ale with dinner, according to a statement bartender Greg Greenbaum later gave investigators. Snyder spoke to his former teammate Jarrod Skalde on his cell phone, confirming plans to get together the next day and attend an Atlanta Braves playoff game. The check came at 10:11; the players paid and left. Heatley turned left out of the parking lot onto Peachtree Road, then turned right onto Lenox Road to head home.
The details of what happened next might never be fully known.
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