Monday, October 20, 2003

Thrashers find inspiration from tragedy

Unbeaten while mourning Snyder, fretting for Heatley

The Associated Press

ATLANTA - Pasi Nurminen sat at his locker in the corner of the Atlanta Thrashers locker room, a pinch of smokeless tobacco under his lip, a reflective look in his eyes.

"Sure, it's in my head," Nurminen said. "I'm playing for both of those guys. I don't think it's ever going away."

Indeed, the car wreck that killed one teammate and injured another remains a vivid part of everyday life for the Thrashers. They're still mourning Dan Snyder. They're still worried for Dany Heatley. They're still coping with an open wound on everyone's psyche.

But somehow, from the aching depths of tragedy, the Thrashers have found inspiration. Five games into the season, they are in first place and have to yet to be beaten - the longest stretch without a loss in the franchise's modest history.

In memory of No. 37

Every game, the Thrashers take the ice wearing Snyder's No. 37 over their hearts, which reminds everyone to skate a little faster, hit a little harder, hustle a little more. "I don't know if it's helping us now," Nurminen said. "But everybody came together after that (wreck)."

The Thrashers began the season with an emotional burden that few teams have had to endure.

Less than two weeks before the opener, Heatley was speeding along a narrow, winding Atlanta road in his black Ferrari. Snyder was in the passenger seat.

According to police, Heatley was going about 80 mph - more than twice the legal speed limit. He lost control, the car spun off the road, struck a wall and split in two. Both players were flung into the road.

Heatley broke his jaw, injured a shoulder, tore up a knee and faces a long, arduous rehabilitation - not to mention felony criminal charges. He was the lucky one. Snyder suffered massive head injuries, succumbing six days later without ever regaining consciousness.

At the urging of Snyder's family, the Thrashers played their first game, albeit with heavy hearts, and pulled off an emotional 2-1 victory over Columbus. The very next day, the entire team - Heatley included - traveled to Canada to attend their teammate's funeral.

Commitment to defense

The Thrashers have heeded coach Bob Hartley's pleas to focus on defense. Atlanta, which gave up more goals than any team in the league a year ago, has surrendered just eight this season.

"Our players deserve credit," Hartley said. "They're focused, they're paying attention to detail, and they're getting rewarded for their efforts. I'm very proud of my guys. They're good people."

They're also showing plenty of spunk. Saturday night, the Thrashers routed Chicago 7-2 and responded to every cheap shot the Blackhawks dished out.

Tommi Santala was punched in the face. Ilya Kovalchuk was speared and then cross-checked from behind. Nurminen was plowed over in the crease. Each time, a bunch of Thrashers jumped in to defend their teammates.

"We stick up for each other and everybody battles together," Marc Savard said. "It just feels like if we compete every night, we're going to have a chance to win."

Hartley knew his team couldn't win if the defense didn't get better. The Thrashers improved considerably after he took over midway through last season, but they still gave up 284 goals - 29 more than any other team in the league.

It helps that everyone - even Kovalchuk - is showing a commitment to defense. The talented Russian used to linger around center ice, hoping to create scoring chances for himself. Now, he'll stick with his man all the way back to the defensive zone, helping cut down on the other teams' scoring chances.

Of course, a team can get by on emotion for only so long. With Heatley expected to miss most or all of the season, the Thrashers will be hard-pressed to reach the playoffs for the first time in the team's five-year history.

But things are looking up. The healing has begun.

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Thrashers find inspiration from tragedy

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