Greatness, Murder, and the Last Days: Dany Heatley's Rise and Fall from NHL Stardom

Banished to minor league purgatory, can one of hockey's great snipers find his game again? Will the NHL even care if he does?

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Feb 5 2015, 1:35pm

Photo via Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

As the boos rained down at the Gila River Arena in Glendale, Arizona, Dany Heatley stared across the ice at Arizona Coyotes goaltender Devan Dubnyk. With the game tied 1-1, the then 33 year old slowly skated to center ice as the first Anaheim Duck of the penalty shootout.

Heatley had one job to do. It was a job he'd done 372 times over more than a decade in the National Hockey League: put the puck in the back of the net.

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Heatley made one quick fake and tried to go five-hole, but Dubnyk shut the door. Heatley, a surprise choice for the shootout given his lack of point production this season, skated back to the bench with nothing to show for his efforts.

It was yet another missed opportunity for the former Calder Trophy winner, Olympic Gold medalist, and back-to-back 50-goal scorer. The missed shot in this shootout may end up being Heatley's last in the NHL.

Heatley, now 34, signed to Anaheim with lofty expectations. He was supposed to thrive playing left wing on the Ducks' already dangerous top line with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, but "The Heater" didn't exactly live up to his nickname—he posted no points in just six games played. He was placed on waivers two days after the shootout with Phoenix, and assigned to the Ducks' farm team, the Norfolk Admirals.

Few are expecting the Ducks to call Heatley back up to the club, which is leading its division and fighting for the top seed in the Western Conference. Even Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau is hoping someone else takes a chance on Heatley, who has played on five different NHL squads.

"I'm sure that when he goes down there and he plays and he plays regularly and he gets 18 minutes, then he shows what he can do," says Boudreau. "Then there'll probably be an awful lot of teams interested at that point."

Heatley initially agreed to speak with VICE Sports over the phone shortly after his demotion, but then pulled out of the interview. So I caught up with him at a Norfolk Admirals road game at the Floyd L. Maines Veterans Memorial Arena, home to the Binghamton Senators

Heatley isn't especially sad or maligned about the situation he finds himself in now. Instead, he appears confused: he's still doing everything he did as a 50-goal scorer eight years ago, but it's not working. At least it isn't for Norfolk.

Heatley sets up shop at the Senators blue-line, waiting for a pass. Once the puck comes his way, he dekes out an opponent, squeaks by another, and winds up for his legendary shot. It deflects off a stick and the threat is over. He spits on his way to the bench.

"[The AHL] is obviously a much younger league and obviously not as good of a league," he says after after a 5-3 Admirals victory. Heatley registered just two shots and has put up just three points in 16 games.

Heatley entered the NHL as a vaunted prospect . He was drafted 2nd overall in 2000 by the Atlanta Thrashers and was a pure sniper in every sense of the word. His mission was simple and singular: score goals.

"A guy like Heatley with his abilities doesn't come around very often," says Sean McEachern, a teammate of Heatley's in Atlanta.

It was a different league back then: star power was paramount as the NHL clamored for viewers south of the 49th parallel. Heatley's abilities, one-dimensional as they may have been, were exactly what the league needed. So was his enthusiasm. His sly, gap-toothed grin became a signature.

"He was like a puppy," says former teammate Ray Ferraro, who roomed with Heatley during his first NHL road trip. "He was really energetic and very excited.

"He came to practice after he finished his season in Wisconsin and came on a road trip with us," Ferraro continues. "He came on the ice and we realized we didn't have anybody that could shoot the puck like he could. And this was the year before he even turned pro."

After a 2002-03 sophomore season that saw him emerge as a bonafide goal-scoring superstar, Heatley began to settle in to the grind of an 82-game NHL season.

"He quietly went about his business," says former Thrashers teammate J.P. Vigier. "He was never the life of the dressing room."

But before his third season with Atlanta, Heatley's life changed irrevocably. Speeding in a Ferrari 360 Modena with teammate Dan Snyder in the passenger seat, he lost control and a horrific crash tossed both him and Snyder from the vehicle.

Heatley sustained injuries, but it was Snyder who died six days later. Heatley pleaded guilty to second-degree vehicular homicide, speeding, failing to maintain a lane, and driving too fast for conditions.

McEachern says Heatley and Snyder were "good friends."

Heatley avoided trial and jail time by reaching a plea deal. He served three years probation and all throughout the tragedy his character was supported by the Snyder family. But after the 2003-04 season, Atlanta sent Heatley to Ottawa for Marian Hossa.

Many who have coached Heatley speak highly of him and his love of the game, but during his time in Ottawa, some suspect the accident still weighed on Heatley and may have isolated him from his team.

"How could it not?" asks Curtis Hunt, who served as a Senators assistant coach during Heatley's last year in Ottawa. "I never saw much of that from Dany, but when you're alone with your thoughts it's bound to get to you.

"I know he protected everyone around him from that as much as he could," he says.

Heatley snaps a shot with Ottawa. Photo by John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Heatley had the best years of his career in Ottawa. He scored 50 goals in 2005-06, then again in 2006-07. The only player since then to put up consecutive 50-goal seasons is Washington's Alex Ovechkin.

But after the 2008-09 season, he sought a trade after what he perceived as a reduction in his on-ice role. The Senators worked out a deal with the Edmonton Oilers, but Heatley refused the change of scenery, insulting Edmonton's proud and stubborn fans in the process. Instead, he went to to San Jose, and from there to Minnesota, before finally winding up in Anaheim.

Heatley's ego and his past caught up with him along the way, and he became something of a perpetual NHL punching bag. Dan Snyder's father, Graham, who had been a major supporter even after the death of his son, went so far as to question Heatley's "team attitude" after the Ottawa-Edmonton trade debacle. Snyder's parents respectfully declined an interview request, stating in an email that they "don't really feel there is much we could contribute."

Heatley has since become the subject of satirical voiced-over Youtube clips, a Twitter parody account that sports 181,000 followers, and a half-assed clothing line that celebrates his accomplishments from eight years ago—the last time he scored 50 goals.

But it isn't Heatley's reputation that has undone his career, it's his diminishing performance on the ice. The shot that made him a superstar became a crutch as Heatley struggled in other aspects of the game. When he wasn't playing alongside great playmakers like Jason Spezza in Ottawa or Joe Thornton in San Jose, Heatley struggled.

"He didn't have a great one-timer, he didn't have a great snapshot, but what was spectacular was that he wanted to score and he always wanted to shoot," says former Ottawa Senators assistant coach Greg Carvel.

"In his last year we had concerns as a staff that his skating was becoming a detriment. Dany was a guy that had gotten by on ability for a long time and perhaps if he made more of an effort with his physical conditioning over his career he might have been able to continue playing at that level for a longer period of time."

"Dany became so reliant on his shot," agrees Ferraro, who now works as an in-game analyst on TSN.

The shot is present in Binghamton, but opposing goaltender Peter Mannino sees it coming from a mile away and slaps it aside easily. The crowd of 3,167 roars in approval, keenly aware of whose stick the shot came off of.

Still, he is a touch too slow. Perhaps still hampered by early-season injuries, he rarely shows any killer instinct in his stride.

""I played well in the pre-season but after my injuries I probably tried to come back a little too early," admits Heatley.

In the AHL, Heatley towers over opponents and teammates a decade his junior. After one whistle, he directs 22-year-old linemate Joseph Cramarossa to a different spot around the face-off circle. Cramarossa obliges; it becomes clear that Heatley still believes he can manipulate the game.

But Heatley won't be taking on a pronounced leadership role anytime soon.

"They're kind of warming up to me the more I'm here," he says of the younger Admirals "I've never been a 'rah rah' guy in the room. But I speak when something needs be said."

The question for Heatley now is not whether his once-feared shot can carry him back into the NHL, but whether some team will see a player who can contribute in a league that has come to rely increasingly on metrics that go beyond the scoresheet—namely, possession. Single-tool players are becoming a rarity.

When asked about adjustments he's had to make to his game since arriving in Norfolk, Heatley pauses, sighs, and then brushes off the question, instead detailing how he's had to adjust to the schedule of the league.

"I'm just trying to find my game again," he says.

You could argue that Heatley simply hasn't gotten the bounces a scorer needs, that luck will get back on his side soon enough. But there's nothing different about Heatley's game these days. He hasn't changed, and the sport around him has.