- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 12, 2003

As the Atlanta Thrashers skated yesterday morning, pucks thudded off the boards in empty MCI Center with echoes as deep as their grief.

A day earlier, the Thrashers were in Elmira, Ontario, for the emotional funeral of teammate Dan Snyder, who died last Sunday from injuries sustained in a Sept.29 crash of a car driven by Atlanta star Dany Heatley. But yesterday the Thrashers were back at work preparing for last night’s game against the Washington Capitals, which turned into a 4-3 victory.

“The best place for us to be right now is on the ice,” said Thrashers coach Bob Hartley, who broke down during his eulogy at Friday’s memorial service. “That’s where we’re basically able to move on. There have been lots of sad faces, lots of crying, but when it’s time to put on the skates, the boys have been outstanding. Time is what we need the most. Every day we’ll get better. We play for Snydes. If you can’t draw motivation out of this, you’re in the wrong business.”

With Snyder’s jersey hanging in his locker and a patch with his No.37 on their uniforms, the Thrashers found that motivation in Thursday’s home opener. After a two-minute video tribute to Snyder that goalie Byron Dafoe said didn’t leave a dry eye in Philips Arena, Atlanta beat Columbus 2-1 on Chris Tamer’s goal with 2:24 remaining — just the 20th goal for the veteran defenseman in his 607 games. Thrashers assistant equipment manager Joe Guilmet, Snyder’s former roommate, presented the Snyder family with the puck Friday.

“[Thursdays game] was one of the toughest things I’ve had to go through, but once the game starts, your mind goes to hockey mode,” Tamer said. “Dan was always smiling, always laughing and always sticking up for guys on the ice. He would have been a valuable player on any team. He could change the momentum of a game with the way he hit people. He was like [Washington left wing] Steve Konowalchuk, a guy you don’t want to play against.”

Snyder made it the hard way. The undrafted, 6-foot, 190-pound center played four years of junior hockey and two years in the International Hockey League before making his NHL debut during the final week of the 2001 season. At 25, he finally established himself as an Atlanta regular in the second half of last season and was slated to be the fourth-line center when he returned next month from ankle surgery just before training camp.

“Dan had just hit that level where he was going to be a mainstay in the NHL,” Dafoe said. “He had clawed his way up. I have no doubt that he would have become a force to be reckoned with because of his attitude and work ethic. Unfortunately we’ll never see that.”

Dafoe said Snyder also was an unforgettable teammate in the mold of former Caps captain Dale Hunter, one of those guys who lights up the locker room by his mere presence.

“It’s really hard to tell you how much Dan meant to this team,” Dafoe said. “He was one of those guys who, when he walked in the room, you would crack a smile. Even after the accident, I honestly don’t think any of us believed that Dan wouldn’t be back playing with us. Then to get the phone call Sunday night was just devastating. Every day after that when you wake up, you realize that it’s reality, not just a bad dream.”

The absence of Heatley, the 2002 rookie of the year, is a crushing blow to a franchise that harbors hopes of making the playoffs for the first time in its five seasons. Heatley, 22, was the NHL’s ninth-leading scorer last year with 89 points and tied a record with four goals in the All-Star Game.

Heatley, who reportedly was driving 80 mph when he lost control of his Ferrari, suffered a broken jaw and torn ligaments in his right knee. It’s unclear whether he will be able to play again this season even if the legal system allows him to. Heatley faces vehicular homicide charges in Snyder’s death. If convicted, Heatley could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.

“To replace those two guys is basically impossible, so we have to pick up for them as a team,” Hartley said. “If everyone chips in 10 or 15 percent more, we’ll be very close.”

Remarkably, Snyder’s family doesn’t blame Heatley. Snyder’s father embraced Heatley just before he boarded the team bus after the memorial service as Elmira embraced the Snyders, the Heatleys and the Thrashers. As the funeral procession passed by, young area players stood on the street tapping their hockey sticks in tribute.

“The town shut down for Dan,” Dafoe said. “That goes to show what Dan meant not only to the hockey world but to the community. Yesterday was very important for all of us in the grieving process. You have to commend the Snyder family. They’ve been the strongest of all of us. You can’t put a price on their support for Dany Heatley. Dany has a tough road ahead of him emotionally, and we’re all there to help him get through it.”

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