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Five years since life was turned upside down Add to ...

They may never call him "Captain Canada" - but they will certainly call on him.

Come the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010, Dany Heatley is as good a bet as any to be the hero who helps Canada regain the treasured gold medal in men's hockey - an incredible journey for a young man who, only five years ago, was at the centre of a tragic accident that cost a close friend his life and might have cost Heatley his career.

That sad shadow - some based on fact, some on innuendo and some on falsehood - has largely lifted, and though the Ottawa Senators' forward remains media shy and reluctant to talk about any of it, his postaccident accomplishments have come to speak for themselves.

In the three world championships in which he has played, he was the leading Canadian scorer in the first and tournament most valuable player in the next two. After his extraordinary performance in last spring's championship, held in Halifax and Quebec City, he stands today, at only 27, as this country's career scoring leader in world play.

The German-born Heatley - his father, Murray, had gone to Freiburg to play professional hockey and married Karin, from Berlin - grew up in Calgary and followed his father's trail to U.S. college hockey before first wearing Canada's colours in the 2000 world junior championships. He has never since turned down a chance to play for his country.

"You forget sometimes how crazy this country can get about Team Canada," he says. "It doesn't matter if you're from Montreal or Toronto or Calgary, they're all pulling for you. I love playing for Canada - I just love it."

It seemed, right up until five years ago, that Dany Heatley was leading a charmed life. He loved school and his coaches and teachers adored him.

"When parent-teacher interviews came around," Murray Heatley said, "there was never any need to go, but we used to go anyway - just to get our tires pumped!"

He was a late bloomer in hockey - one summer growing six inches - and chose the scholarship route over major junior, which friends told him was a mistake.

It turned out not to be. He grew and his shot became his signature - a quick snap shot he seems able to get off from any position - and at 18, he was the No. 2 draft pick in the NHL entry draft. In his first year with the Atlanta Thrashers, he was voted the NHL's top rookie.

The next season, he was the sensation of the all-star game in Sunrise, Fla., where he became the youngest player ever to score four goals in the game. They gave him a truck, which he promptly gave away to a friend. They gave him a crystal MVP trophy, which he promptly left behind in the interview room. The red-haired kid with the gap-toothed smile seemed too good to be true.

"Did the league find someone transcendent," one U.S. publication asked, "someone who can break out of a provincial pocket and make all of North America notice, as Gretzky and Lemieux did?"

"He is only going to good things for our league," fellow all-star Jeremy Roenick marvelled on national television. "He's a better person than he is hockey player."

Life, it seemed, could not be better. There was, however, one massive distraction that same all-star weekend. A little farther up the Florida coast, they were waiting for the space shuttle Columbia - only to have it blow up on entry, killing all seven astronauts.

Before what was shaping up to be Dany Heatley's year was out, his own world would blow up in tragedy.

On Monday, Sept. 29, 2003, Heatley and his good friend and Thrashers teammate Dan Snyder left a team function in suburban Buckhead, Ga., and headed down twisting Lenox Road in Heatley's black Ferrari convertible when something terrible happened.

No one knows exactly what. Heatley has no memory at all of what left his car a wreck and his friend spilled out onto the hard pavement.

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