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With a heavy heart, Heatley returns to the ice

ATLANTA -- Dany Heatley was back on the ice, his physical recovery complete. But he wore a constant reminder of that awful night on a patch above his heart.

No. 37.

Dan Snyder's number.

Heatley made an emotional return to the Atlanta Thrashers last night, less than four months after a car wreck killed his teammate and friend.

"It's great just being in the room between periods, just being on the bench," said Heatley, who celebrated when Jeff Cowan scored late in the third period to salvage a 1-1 tie with the St. Louis Blues.

"Now the first one's over. Maybe I can move on."

Heatley was a bit rusty and definitely running on fumes near the end of the game, but he also gave plenty of reasons for optimism.

He had four shots on goal -- as many as anyone on the ice -- and he got two excellent chances late in the first period while working on the power play.

Heatley fired one shot over the net, then watched in dismay as Reinhard Divis made a dazzling pad save after the Atlanta forward got loose in front of the net.

"It's a very positive first step," said Thrashers coach Bob Hartley, who had Heatley on the ice for nearly 23 minutes. "He had some real good chances on the power play. I put him in some tough situations at key moments in the game. I thought he did pretty good."

When Cowan scored with 2:24 left in regulation, Heatley led the celebration on the bench. With a gap-toothed smile, he tapped his stick on the boards and patted teammate Ilya Kovalchuk on the helmet.

Like all of his teammates, Heatley wore a patch with Snyder's number on his sweater. After the game, Heatley attended a news conference wearing a hat and warmup suit that also were adorned with No. 37.

"I think about him all the time," Heatley said. "He was a great guy, the perfect teammate. He was a guy who worked harder than anybody. That's what I take the most from him."

Heatley was driving Sept. 29 when his sports car slammed into a wall with Snyder in the passenger seat. Heatley broke his jaw, injured a shoulder, and tore ligaments in his knee. Snyder died six days later from massive brain injuries without regaining consciousness.

The near-sellout crowd at Philips Arena welcomed Heatley back with a raucous ovation. Among the signs: "We're With You Dany!"

Heatley was the next-to-last Thrashers player to take the ice before the game, but he didn't have to wait long to get back in. He was in the starting lineup, taking his familiar place on a line with Slava Kozlov and Shawn McEachern.

"I'm so happy to see him back," said Laura Gervais, a Thrashers season ticket-holder sporting a replica of the sweater that Heatley wore while winning the MVP award in last year's All-Star game.

On the opening faceoff, Heatley lined up next to St. Louis star Keith Tkachuk, who mumbled a few words of encouragement. Then it was down to business -- less than 30 seconds after the puck dropped, Heatley put a shoulder into Blues defenseman Bryce Salvador along the boards.

"It's nice to see him out there, taking his mind off things," Tkachuk said. "I told him he's a tremendous person and don't forget that."

Undoubtedly, getting back on the ice was a major step in Heatley's recovery process. During those few hours, at least, he's able to escape the memory of his Ferrari spinning out of control on a narrow, winding street.

Police estimated that Heatley was driving about 80 miles an hour -- far above the speed limit -- but prosecutors haven't decided whether to file charges.

Heatley's first game of the season gave an emotional lift to a struggling team. The Thrashers have managed only two wins in the last 15 games, severely damaging their playoff hopes.

Maybe Heatley can turn things around. After all, he was the ninth-leading scorer in the NHL last season with 89 points.

"It was a special night for all the players," Kozlov said. "Maybe he was tired, but he looked fine. I didn't see any difference from last year. Same old Dany."

Heatley's case is helped by two factors: He consumed only a small amount of alcohol before the wreck -- far below the legal limit -- and Snyder's family has forgiven the player. Snyder's parents, Graham and Luanne, hoped to be at Heatley's first game, but they were in Las Vegas visiting another of their son's friends. They did manage to talk with Heatley by phone and released a statement expressing their support.

"We're glad to see Dany back on the ice doing what he does best," the statement said. "We do plan to attend a Thrashers game in the near future. We're happy for him, are with him in spirit, and will be watching."

"I think he'll be OK," Kozlov said. "When you step on that ice, you don't think about anything -- just hockey. All your problems go away."

Heatley was eager to get going.

"Hockey has been a big part of my comeback," he said. "It helped me to heal a lot. I still have a long way to go, but hockey has made it easier."

As for Heatley's knee, no problems.

"I feel fine," he said, looking ahead to back-to-back games this weekend. "I'm ready to go."

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