After tragic loss, a team finds its will to win
On the ice, one was an all-star hero and the other a fourth-line grinder who'd wanted to play in the NHL since kindergarten. Off the ice, they were the Two Dans.
Atlanta Thrashers Dany Heatley and Dan Snyder were a team outside the team, together tooling around the bright lights of Atlanta, reveling in high-dollar cars and the heady life of sports stars.
But two weeks before the start of this year's NHL season, a joy ride in a Ferrari turned to tragedy: Heatley lost control of his Ferrari going 80 m.p.h. through Atlanta's Buckhead district. Snyder died. Heatley, despite broken bones and bruises, lived.
Sometimes, experts say, a sports team facing such life-and-death trauma will crumble, because playing a game suddenly seems insignificant.
But like the Boston Bruins' 50-win season after first-round draft pick Norman Leveille's hockey career ended suddenly following an aneurysm in 1982, the Thrashers, wearing Snyder's No. 37 stitched on their jerseys above their hearts, are hardly wallowing.
In fact, minus Heatley - its best player - a once-struggling team that didn't win a single game in its first 10 outings last year now sits in second place in its division.
Instead of a place to grieve, the rink has become, in the words of coach Bob Hartley, the team's "sanctuary."
The season is young - and indeed a losing weekend toppled the Thrashers from the No. 1 spot. But the team' spirited play is a powerful reminder how tragedy can bring greater meaning even to a coliseum sport some see as populated primarily by toothless goons and crooked-nosed jocks.
"The Thrashers are playing the most exciting hockey in the league - and they're playing for Dan Snyder and Dany Heatley," says Barry Melrose, a former NHL coach and current ESPN hockey analyst.
Certainly, some might see it as unseemly to revel in a sport amid the loss of a human life. But a confluence of events, experts surmise, has enabled the Atlanta hockey squad not only to use the sport to work through their grief, but also to dedicate their game to a lost friend.
"They're not only honoring a fallen comrade, but [the tragedy] is likely providing a sense of urgency where players who thought they were working hard realize they weren't - and they need to do more," says Peter Roby, director of the Center for the Study of Sports in Society in Boston.
To be sure, several immediate factors have contributed to the team's success. For one, they have coach Hartley, who has clearly made a connection with the players and who spoke tearfully for the team at Snyder's funeral.
But most important, the public display in Snyder's hometown of Elmira, Ontario, toward not just Heatley - who was driving when the accident occurred and faces charges of vehicular homicide - but the entire team put the tragedy into context.
Instead of laying blame, Snyder's parents and hometown welcomed the team at the funeral, where local Elmira rink rats tapped their sticks on the pavement during the funeral procession.
In return, the Thrashers gave the Snyders the game-winning puck from their home-opener win against the Columbus Bluejackets.
After the funeral, Snyder's father, Graham, hugged Heatley.
"The Snyder family has been unbelievable," says Mr. Melrose. "They realized that one boy's life has already been ruined and that another boy's life doesn't have to be."
A sense of communal grief has left a redoubt of humility in the clubhouse and around dinner tables in Atlanta and Elmira, but has apparently created sheer joy on the ice.
"I don't know if it's helping us now," Thrasher goalie Pasi Nurminen told the Associated Press. "But everybody came together after that [accident]."
Another reason for the Thrashers' winning run is that people have the ability to excel, especially at sports, when thoughts are turned outward, away from "the self," says Richard Keefe, a sports psychologist at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "When players find a motivation to play selflessly, they often play better - not just as a team, but individually."
For now, Heatley, a rookie who scored four goals in last season's All-Star game, is recovering well - and may even return to the rink this year.
But he faces an uncertain future that depends not just on how he's treated by the courts, but also how well he bounces back physically and emotionally from his role in the Thrashers' tragedy.
Meanwhile, Atlanta's skaters continue to dedicate their efforts to the Two Dans.