Dany Heatley: Risk and reward

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 6, 2011 - 11:21 PM

Tragedy and controversy have followed the Wild sniper, but he looks positively to the future.

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New Wild forward Dany Heatley wants to put a difficult season behind him. “I’ve got to get back to the 40, 50 range,” he told a friend, referring to goals.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune file

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As Dany Heatley sits, sweat dripping from his curly hair, he looks around the locker room with a playful grin. Heatley is always chirping, always tossing barbs. So you just know he's waiting for his next target to walk through the door. His smile grows wider as Niklas Backstrom enters. "Boy, was I good today, eh, Backy?" Heatley says with a wink.

Backstrom removes his mask and fires back, "Just trying to give you confidence, Heater, but what happened to you in the second half of practice?"

Heatley laughs hard.

Like prizefighters, the Wild's new sniper and the Wild goaltender go jab for jab the next three minutes.

It has been three months since Heatley was blindsided by the trade that sent him from San Jose to Minnesota for Martin Havlat. But watch Heatley on the ice, in the locker room, and it is clear that initial disappointment has dissipated as the easygoing hockey player gets accustomed to life again in the Midwest.

"How about them Badgers?" Heatley, a former University of Wisconsin star, howled after the football team blew out Nebraska on Saturday. "No. 4 in the nation on our way to a national title."

OK, if you're a Gophers diehard, Heatley's love of getting into "some Badger-Gopher feuds" may quickly grow old.

But he is happy, laughing and relaxed, and that's what's most important.

Fair reputation or not, this is Dany Heatley's: He has asked off two teams (Atlanta and Ottawa) and refused to go to a third (Edmonton), so when Heatley smiles, that's a good thing.

"I'm telling you, though, the Minnesota fans have nothing to worry about with Heater," said former Sharks teammate Ryane Clowe. "He's looking forward to playing in Minnesota, and Minnesota will be good for him."

Sniper numbers

As the Wild's season is set to open Saturday against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Heatley seems excited about putting a difficult season behind him and resurrecting his reputation as one of the league's most dangerous goal scorers.

"I just never got into a rhythm last year. It was a bad year all the way through," Heatley said.

Since Heatley burst onto the scene in 2001, he's made the lives of goalies like Backstrom miserable. His 325 goals are third-most in the league over that time, and his 128 power-play goals and 58 game-winning goals are first.

He has an innate nose for the net and possesses one of the game's most explosive shots from the hash marks in -- and simply loves to shoot the puck.

Just look at Heatley the second a drill ends in practice. As players skate to huddle around the coach, Heatley finds the nearest puck and shoots it from wherever he is -- usually dead-center into the middle of the cage.

But last year, two years after demanding Ottawa trade him, Heatley scored 26 goals and only three in the playoffs. An All-Star-like season for most players who have worn a Wild uniform, but this is, again, a two-time 50-goal scorer.

"I don't think I've seen him this upset about his goals in I don't know how long," said Jay Reimers, Heatley's best friend and former roommate at Wisconsin, who almost did a "cartwheel" when Heatley informed him July 3 that he was traded to the Wild by texting him two words: "Roommates again?"

"Every conversation I have with him, he says, 'I'm not scoring 26 goals next year. That's not the plan. I've got to get back to the 40, 50 range.' "

For a fan base longing for somebody to provide the game-breaking ability lost in 2009 when Marian Gaborik left for Broadway, that's music to the ears.

Heatley detractors say he can't get up and down the ice anymore, citing declining production the past four years. Supporters point out he's only 30, two years removed from scoring 39 goals, is eager to be the "go-to" guy again and is motivated by being traded.

Which player is the Wild getting? Heatley, of course, says the latter.

"I hate talking like that, like, 'I'm so motivated,' " Heatley said. "You ever watch [HBO's] "24/7" where the boxer's like, 'I'm so motivated, I'm in the best shape of my life?' and then the champ knocks him out in the first round.

"But yeah, inside me, there's definitely that. You want to prove to everybody, and to your new teammates, and to your new city and fans, that you're the same player you always were."

Suddenly, tragedy

No player in the NHL is as dissected, picked at and prodded as Dany Heatley is.

"I haven't really done myself any favors staying under the radar," Heatley said. "Two very public trades. The Atlanta one was for a different reason than the reason in Ottawa, obviously."

Heatley wanted to leave Atlanta after the 2004-05 lockout for very personal reasons.

He was drafted second overall by the Thrashers in 2000 and came out of Wisconsin to lead all rookies with 67 points. His 26 goals were second to teammate Ilya Kovalchuk among rookies, good enough to earn Rookie of the Year honors.

With his gap-toothed smile, he was one of the NHL's brightest yong stars.

In 2002, a poll of NHL coaches tabbed him the player they'd most like to build a franchise around. In the 2003 All-Star Game, amid a 41-goal, 89-point sophomore season, Heatley was named MVP after scoring four goals and a shootout goal.

That summer, Heatley signed endorsement deals with Dunkin' Donuts, Coca-Cola and Upper Deck. His face was to be on the EA Sports' NHL 2004 video game. On Sept. 16, 2003, the Hockey News dubbed him "The New Face of the NHL."

Thirteen days later, Heatley crashed his Ferrari while speeding down a suburban Atlanta road. He broke his jaw and suffered a concussion, a shoulder injury, bruised lung and kidneys and a torn ACL and MCL.

He was lucky. His friend and teammate, Dan Snyder, was ejected from the vehicle. Snyder never regained consciousness and died six days later.

The fallout

"It was something I think about every day of my life, and it's something that I'll never forget," Heatley said. "It changes you a lot. It makes you think a lot differently.

"You live your life, but there's usually something every day that might remind you of it."

Reimers took a half-year off his pro career to spend time with Heatley.

"You just look at him, and you know," said Reimers, who retired in 2006 after three minor league seasons. "It's not like he's depressed or anything, but you can look in his eyes and tell when he's thinking about it. He talks about it a fair amount, but not in great detail.

"He's done a pretty good job of learning how to deal with it, but it's something that weighs on his mind quite a bit."

There's a lasting image of Heatley at Snyder's funeral, on crutches, with a cast on his right leg, crying in the arms of teammate Andy Sutton.

"You've got to understand," said Sutton, now playing in Edmonton, "we're not talking about strangers that happened to be together. These two guys were roommates, they were best of friends.

"That's a heavy load that no one should have to bear. We all shed a lot of tears. We loved Snydes and we loved Dany."

After the memorial service Snyder's father, Graham, told reporters, "Forgiveness is also a part of being human and we know there is nothing to gain from harboring resentment or anger towards others. We are here to support [Heatley] through this difficult time and know that he, too, is hurting so much."

True to the family's word, after Heatley was charged with vehicular homicide, the Snyders supported Heatley during every step of the legal process. He pleaded guilty to four charges and was granted leniency by the judge because that's what Snyder's family wanted. Heatley was sentenced to three years of probation and community service.

"The Snyder family, what they did for Dany, that's what saved him, and he's grateful every day," Reimers said. "I mean that family, wow, they did pretty much everything to make this almost livable for Dany to deal with it."

Ottawa odyssey

Emotionally scarred, Heatley asked Atlanta General Manager Don Waddell if he could move on during the lockout, a lockout during which Heatley suffered a serious eye injury when struck with a puck while playing in Switzerland.

"That was a scary time," Heatley said. "The lights went out for probably two, three weeks, a month. There was some worry there at the start that I'd ever play again."

Heatley was traded to Ottawa for Marian Hossa, and despite his left eye being permanently dilated, he says his vision is unencumbered.

Heatley scored 50 goals and eclipsed 100 points his first two seasons with the Senators, helping Ottawa to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007.

He scored 41 goals and 82 points the next year, then things took a turn for the worse. Senators GM Bryan Murray said Heatley demanded to be traded because of differences with then-coach Cory Clouston.

"It created a lot of hype and hoopla that probably didn't need to be there," Heatley remembered. "I'll just say it was poorly handled by them. I think millions of players have asked for trades and that one seemed to strike a chord. But I don't regret any of the decisions that I made to move on."

Ottawa tried to deal Heatley to Edmonton, but he refused the trade. Two months later, he went to San Jose in a one-sided deal.

Heatley's second road game with the Wild will be a trip to Ottawa on Tuesday. It'll be only his second game there since the controversial trade.

Last time, some fans burned his jersey, some threw them on the ice.

Moving ahead

The criticism Heatley gets isn't fun for his family (his dad, Murray, used to play for the Minnesota Fighting Saints) or his friends, such as Reimers, who says Heatley's "got a big heart and has been like a brother to me since the first day we met. He's the same kid -- just with more expensive shoes."

But Heatley's got an interesting perspective on the flak he takes.

"I like Brett Favre. Like I'm one of the guys who'd love him to come back again. I don't want to compare myself to Brett Favre, but there are Packer fans that hate Brett Favre, and the guy starred there for 12 years," Heatley said. "That's absurd to me, but that's just the way sports is.

"Fans just form opinions of what they read or what people say. But if you ask any teammate I've ever played with, they'd say I'm a great teammate and friend. That's all I care about."

Many rave about the real Dany Heatley, the one who secretly takes care of trainers, who was the first to pull Zack Phillips aside when he was returned to juniors, who has a great sense of humor.

Whether it's quoting movies like "Dumb and Dumber" and "Slap Shot," jamming to the Dave Matthews Band or talking about his first loves -- the Badgers and "the Pack," Heatley is somebody who loves the game and loves to poke fun around the rink.

And he loves scoring goals.

"It's in his DNA," Sutton said. "That's what he does. It's his makeup. He's got some great players to play with here, so if he stays healthy, he's going to score a lot of goals for the Wild."

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