"Paints a portrait of a grieving but remarkably compassionate family." Times Colonist
Season of Loss, a Lifetime of Forgiveness: The Dany Heatley and Dan Snyder Storyby John Manasso
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… See more details below
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 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.
"Paints a portrait of a grieving but remarkably compassionate family." Times Colonist
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A Season of Loss, a Lifetime of Forgiveness
The Dan Snyder and Dany Heatley Story
By John Manasso, Kevin Connolly
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2011 John Manasso
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.
* * *
The 2002 360 F1 Spider can go from zero to 62 miles per hour in 4.5 seconds. Its engine can deliver 400 brake horsepower — almost triple that of a Honda Accord — and it has a top speed of 180.2 miles per hour. It is made of a light aluminum alloy and weighs about 3,000 pounds, about 1,000 pounds lighter than a Ford Explorer. More a collector's item and an engine of speed than a utilitarian automobile, Ferraris are scarce, and keen-eyed buyers gobble them up quickly, as only about 1,000 are sold new in the United States each year. Unlike most cars that depreciate the instant their owners drive them off the lot, Ferraris appreciate because of their scarcity. Just over three months before that fateful September night, Heatley had paid $240,823 for the vehicle — in cash.
The car's previous owner, Steve Pruitt — a former professional race car driver — was later questioned by investigators about its speed. "Well, it ... it ... it's fast," he said. "I guess it just depends on your ability to be able to drive it the way, you know, the way it's capable of being driven. Obviously, you know, I ... I ... I drove competitively for four years, you know, so I ... I kind of know how to handle a car like that." The investigator asked if a buyer was required to take special classes before operating the Ferrari. "No, no, no, no," Pruitt responded.
On the night of the 29th, when Heatley turned down Lenox Road, a narrow, sloping, curving byway overburdened by its present status as a commuter thoroughfare, he soared past the posted speed limit of 35 miles per hour. Later, the fastest speed his lawyer would admit to was 58. Two other forensic experts put the car's speed at more than 80 miles per hour — numbers whose ultimate reliability might not have stood up to scrutiny at trial. The Ferrari's speed proved catastrophic. For some reason, Heatley swerved abruptly to his left. Unable to control the car, he braked and lost control. The car's right rear tire skidded out in front of the right front tire as the car crossed the double yellow line and careened off the road. It slammed into a wrought iron fence with brick pillars. Air bags deployed. The impact obliterated one of the 4,400-pound pillars.
The pillar ripped the car into two pieces, and Snyder was ejected 12 feet from the vehicle, as his seatbelt was shorn. Debris lay everywhere. Heatley suffered a multitude of injuries: a concussion, a broken jaw, torn knee ligaments, contusions to his chest. But none were as serious as those suffered by Snyder, who lay unconscious on the pavement with a five-to-six-inch laceration on his head. He would never regain consciousness.
* * *
Amid clouds of dust and gas, William Cassino made his way to the scene. The security guard's shift had begun at 10 p.m., and from his vantage point at the guard house at The Plantation at Lenox, the condominium development whose fence Heatley struck, he later recounted hearing a "boom, boom, boom" — the sound of the Ferrari slamming into three separate brick pillars. He also said he saw Snyder thrown from the car. As Cassino walked bewildered and panicked towards the scene, he grabbed a portable telephone and dialed 911 at 10:22 p.m. Confusion reigned.
"Yeah, I want to report a bad accident on 3033 Lenox Road," he said.
"Anybody injured?" the operator asked.
"Uh, yeah, it's a man out in the street."
"He's out in the street?"
"Yeah, he's in the street. He — he was on a motorcycle."
"Hold on for the ambulance. I got an officer on the way. Hold on for the ambulance."
"Okay. Oh, man."
"I got the accident on Lenox, y'all."
"Oh, man, these people are dead."
"Who's dead, sir?"
"They dead. They dead out in the street on Lenox. Hurry up."
A second operator came on line. "Fulton County 911, what's the address of the emergency? Hello?"
"Hey, Fulton, we need y'all to respond to ah ..."
"In a hurry, in a hurry," Cassino implored.
"Sir, calm down."
"Hello?" the second operator intervened.
Cassino called out to a bystander: "Hey, they need help. Quick, quick. They dead."
"At — he's at 3033 — sir? Sir?"
Cassino called out again, "Yeah, I got them on the phone now. Yeah, I got them. I got them on the line now."
The operator needed Cassino's attention. "Please speak to the ambulance, please."
The operator appeared confused. "Sir, what's going on?"
Cassino, who would later undergo therapy to get over what he saw, was in shock. "Oh, my goodness," he said.
"Sir?" the operator tried to get his attention.
"Tell me what's going on."
"I'm trying to keep the truck, the traffic from hitting them," he said.
"What's going on?" the operator asked.
"Um, they got ... they done had a wreck and the car done exploded and they done fell out."
"OK, there's a wreck?"
"The car exploded?"
Cassino was overheard talking to a bystander again. "Yeah, is he OK? He's moving? No."
"OK, sir, so he's not dead then?"
"Yeah, yeah, one is."
"One is dead?"
"But the other one moved?"
"Sir?" the operator again tried to get Cassino's attention.
"OK, tell me what happened."
"OK, they hit a wall in front of Plantation at Lenox. They need, they need an emergency vehicle here quick. The other one, badly."
"How many vehicles are involved?"
"Just one. Just one. They ran into a brick wall."
"Someone was thrown out of the vehicle?" the ambulance driver asked.
"You can't tell it. It's all smashed up."
"What kind of vehicle was it?"
"I don't know. You can't tell. It's all smashed up."
"OK. How many people are in the vehicle, do you know?"
"Ah, just two ... just two. Only two. The one laying in the middle of the street dead and the one on the curb."
"OK. Can you go out there to, to them and see if they're conscious and breathing?"
"No, one ... one is barely, but the other is dead."
"Sir, she [the second operator] needs you to go and just, I mean ... I know you say he's dead, but ..."
"Yeah, there's people out here with 'em now."
"OK, is anyone's hand in the vehicle?"
"Is someone's hands in the vehicle?"
"I don't know. You can't tell. The car is balled up. It's tore down. Ah, man."
"OK. Can you get close to the vehicle to see if the person in the vehicle is ..."
"You can't. You can't tell...."
"Nobody's in the vehicle?"
"No, no, no."
"So, there's a total of two people, correct?"
"There's two people, correct?"
"Yeah, there's two people."
"They're both out of the vehicle?"
The two operators addressed each other. "They're both ... they were thrown from the car. You got an emergency vehicle on the way?"
"Yeah, they're already on the way, but I need you to get close to them so that I can see what's going on with them."
"OK, one ... one is move ... he's not moving no more. And one is dead, OK?"
"One is moving?"
"Is it a male or a female?"
"Two fe — two males."
"OK, are they conscious? Are they awake?"
"No, no, no."
"How old does the person look?"
"Uh ... about thirty. About thirty. About thirty."
"And he is unconscious?"
"OK, can you see any obvious injuries on them, like bleeding or anything?"
"Huh? He's not conscious. I ... the emergency vehicles are here."
"They are there? OK, we can go ahead and let you go then. Hello?"
"Yeah, Fulton. Atlanta's en route."
The call ended. It was 10:33 p.m.
* * *
LuAnn Snyder talks about a preternatural connection she had with her son Dan, calling it a tangible physical presence. The first time Dr. Doug Adler of Grady Memorial Hospital called the Snyders' home in the heart of Ontario's Mennonite country, at 1:30 a.m., the phone rang five times and the answering machine picked up. The second time, the call woke up LuAnn Snyder, who sat up in bed and cried out, "Daniel!"
Dan's sister Erika had answered the phone, the news awakening terrible memories for her of a close friend's fatal car accident. LuAnn could hear Erika running through the house.
"Oh, my God, Mum," Erika said, as she handed her mother the phone.
"Your son has been in a bad accident — a very bad accident," Adler told LuAnn. "But he's alive."
He described the injuries and told her someone would be calling her for a presurgical consultation in 30 minutes. As she was asking Adler questions, a thought entered LuAnn's head. How could Dan have gotten into such a bad accident in his truck? She asked Adler.
"He wasn't in his truck," Adler said. "He was in a Ferrari."
LuAnn was speechless. Her heart plummeted. She knew he was with Dany Heatley. She fumbled for the words to ask if Heatley were alive.
"He's alive," Adler said. "He's OK. His injuries aren't as severe as your son's. He's conscious and alert. Your son is not."
LuAnn had trouble rousing her husband, Graham. She called her son Jake, who came over to the house. After waking up, Graham went over to his parents' home to inform them of the news, then gathered them for a vigil at his own home. By then, Jake was there, as was LuAnn's best friend, Marni. Several others were also present, including Graham's brother Jeff. The group nervously awaited news over the phone from almost 1,000 miles away. Graham, LuAnn, Jake and Erika made plans to take a 6:30 a.m. flight to Atlanta.
* * *
By the time Sergeant J.L. Hensal, an accident investigator with the Atlanta Police, arrived on the scene at 11:29 p.m., Heatley and Snyder had both been taken away, about 30 minutes prior, for treatment at Grady Memorial Hospital, about eight miles away. Hensal ordered that a blood sample be taken from Heatley at the hospital, under the Georgia Implied Consent Law, to determine whether Heatley was under the influence of alcohol. Snyder was admitted with a depressed skull fracture.
Hospital workers frantically attempted to contact Snyder's family members to obtain permission to operate. Doctors had trouble identifying Heatley and Snyder. LuAnn Snyder would later file a police report, as both men's driver's licences and some money had been stolen at the hospital. Nothing in Snyder's identification pointed towards his parents in Elmira. Randomly using Snyder's cell phone in the hope of contacting his parents, hospital workers reached the parents of one of Snyder's best friends, Ryan Christie, who played with Snyder for the Owen Sound Platers during their junior days in the Ontario Hockey League. Sherry Christie finally called the Snyders at 4 a.m. to ask why hospital workers had called her home — they could not inform her as to why they were calling. The following summer, Christie, who played with the Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL that season, would get married, and Snyder had been asked to be a member of the wedding party.
A few hours after Sherry Christie's call, the Snyders would meet up at the Toronto airport with Don Waddell, who had flown to the city for NHL general managers' meetings after the season-ticket holder event. He had just landed when he learned the news. At the same time, Heatley's parents, Murray and Karin, were alerted in Calgary, and in the early hours of the morning drove to the airport to be in Atlanta. Until they arrived, later in the morning of September 30, the Snyders and Heatleys had never previously met.
Excerpted from A Season of Loss, a Lifetime of Forgiveness by John Manasso, Kevin Connolly. Copyright © 2011 John Manasso. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
John Manasso has worked for 10 years as a reporter in Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Washington DC, and is a contributor to "The Hockey News." As the beat writer for the Atlanta Thrashers, he reported extensively about the events surrounding Dan Snyder's death. He lives in Decatur, Georgia.
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