It was some time in September, 2002.
The Atlanta Thrashers were in the midst of training camp, and a kid by the name of Dan Snyder, a nobody from Elmira, Ontario, was starting to get under some of the other guys’ skin.
In a 3-on-2 drill at the team’s practice facility in Duluth, GA, Snyder crushed 10-year veteran Chris Tamer into the boards, almost destroying the defenseman’s elbow.
Tamer took exception to this. After all, this was supposed to be a harmless practice, and no one should be going out of their way to take out a teammate during camp.
Snyder got an earful, that’s for sure, but he didn’t let up. If anything, he became even more of a pest as camp dragged on.
Dan wouldn’t make the opening night roster, but he would get called up mid-season from Chicago (AHL) and play his first NHL game that year. When Snyder returned to the locker room, Tamer approached the rookie and said “I’m glad you’re on my side now” and shook his hand.
September 29, 2003 was a Monday.
As was my ritual back then, I woke up for school, put on mismatched clothes, poured myself a giant bowl of cereal and turned on SportsCenter. That morning, while shoving an over-sized spoonful of Rice Krispies into my mouth, I saw the word “Thrashers” scroll across ESPN’s Bottom Line out of the corner of my eye.
I was only 11 back then, and I wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, but I immediately knew something was up. ESPN didn’t ever talk about the Thrashers, so why now? Did Don Waddell make a trade? Was Kovalchuk hurt? Did they finally sign a good defenseman?
I hadn’t a clue in the world.
I didn’t feel like waiting for that news to cycle back, so I rushed to our family computer — a 1998 Packard Bell — and logged onto my precious AOL account.
I hopped onto AtlantaThrashers.com and saw a picture of Dan Snyder and Dany Heatley on the front. The words below the image will remain with me forever.
Dany Heatley and Dan Snyder were involved in a car accident late last night, and both were taken to Grady Hospital for treatment. We’ll have more information when it’s available.
I didn’t know how to react, and I kind of just stared at the computer screen until my mom yelled at me to get ready. So I grabbed my backpack, threw on my Braves hat and got in the car. While I remember that morning like it was yesterday, the next few days are nothing but a blur.
About 13 hours earlier, the Thrashers held their annual season ticket holders’ party. Management gave their spiel about how the franchise was moving in the right direction; fans got to ask their repetitive questions; and players signed hundreds of autographs, only about 40 percent of which were sold on eBay.
The slate was wiped clean for a new year, and the optimism was contagious. Smiles all around.
Soon after the meet-and-greet ended, Heatley and Snyder left Philips Arena to grab some food and head home. (Snyder didn’t have his own place yet and was living with Heatley at the time).
Unfortunately, they would never make it home.
Police said Heatley was driving his Ferrari 360 Modena far above the 35 MPH speed limit on a narrow, two-lane road when he lost control, spun off the pavement and smashed into a brick and wrought iron fence. The car immediately split in half. The players were thrown out of the car and on to the road.
Heatley would be OK. He broke his jaw, bruised a lung and tore some ligaments in his knee — serious injuries, but not permanent ones. Doctors knew it would take some time for him to mend, but he would make a full recovery.
Synder’s situation, however, was much worse. He smashed his head upon being thrown from the car and fractured his skull. He was sent into a coma, and there was no telling whether or not he would ever wake up again.
All we could do was wait.
October 5, 2003 was a Sunday.
I hadn’t slept well since news broke of the accident, and in the days before the Internet provided us instant updates, I was constantly struggling to get the latest news on Snyder’s condition.
That night my beloved Braves were playing in the decisive Game 5 of the National League Divisional Series against the Chicago Cubs. Chicago would win, 5-1, eliminating Atlanta. The Falcons had lost that day too: a drubbing at the hands of the Minnesota Vikings. Given the circumstances, I decided to give myself a break and go to bed early.
The next day I woke up for school, a week after hearing the news of the car accident. I turned on SportsCenter again, and immediately saw the following message on the Bottom Line:
ATLANTA THRASHER DAN SNYDER DIES FROM INJURIES SUFFERED IN A SEPTEMBER 29TH CAR ACCIDENT.
My heart sank into my stomach. For a few minutes I didn’t believe it, until the same message cycled back for a second time. And then a third time. And a fourth.
I didn’t cry that day, but what I felt was far worse than just sadness: I felt empty, helpless and emotionally paralyzed — all sensations (or lack thereof) that were brand new to me.
I’ve never told anyone this, but after seeing the news I faked sick and stayed home that day. (Mom, if you’re reading this, I’m really, really, sorry, but I had my reasons). Rather than attending class I sat in my parents’ bed and watched Home Alone 2 and Dunston Checks In — my two favorite comedies at the time — and did what I could to take my mind off the tragedy.
But even the antics of Macauley Culkin and a trouble-making orangutan couldn’t provide the comfort I needed. It was then I realized there was no antidote for this feeling, no quick fix. That realization was one of the most harrowing experiences of my life, and what I consider to be the beginning of my fall from innocence.
October 9, 2003 was a Thursday.
The Thrashers had to play their season opener at Philips Arena that night. The Columbus Blue Jackets were in town, and in a state of mourning there was no telling how Atlanta would fare.
The game was a close one. Both teams played sloppy — as expected — and the score was tied 1-1 heading into the third period.
With just a few minutes left in regulation, Chris Tamer, of all people, fired a slap shot past Marc Danis and into the Columbus net. I don’t remember what the announcer said right then and there; I just remember the sound of him yelling, the goal horn blasting in the background and the look on Tamer’s face as he lifted his eyes to the arena rafters.
And I lost it.
I started sobbing, and I couldn’t control myself. I had cried plenty of times in my life up until this point, but never before had I been completely overcome by my emotions.
That score would hold, and the Thrashers would win 2-1. After everything we had been through over the last 10 days, we finally had something to smile about again.
Tamer, who had
When people say hockey is just a game, I think back to that goal and remember how it made me feel, and how many nights that memory got me through.
“Just a game.” Yeah, right.
Through his unparalleled work ethic, Snyder was able to realize his dream and become an NHL player, albeit for just 49 games. He would have had a great career — I’m sure of that. He was too driven to fail.
Dan’s memory remains with me to this day, and has inspired me to do great things over the course of my short life.
Whenever I feel like giving up, I remember how he fought his way up from being a nobody with the Owen Sound Platers to a bona fide NHLer.
Whenever someone tells me I can’t do something, I think about all the times coaches and scouts told Dan he didn’t have what it takes to make it as a pro.
Whenever I feel like my life is harder than it should be, I remember how fortunate I am to be alive, and how quickly that gift can be taken away.
There are lots tragic stories out there, many of which are more heartbreaking than Dan’s. But his story is the one that continues to resonate with me to this day, now 10 years later.
Hopefully, that will never change.
Rest in peace, Dan. The Thrashers may be no more, but we all still miss you deeply.