Nationals in coach's corner

BARRE CAMPBELL -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 1:15 PM ET

The players on Canada's sledge hockey team love their coach, and they have Jeff Snyder's back.

Usually in hockey, it's the coach who looks out for the players. But in this case, it's the players who pulled together for their coach.

"When you have those tough times in your life, you need things to be excited about to get up every day and be happy," said Snyder. "My players have given me that."

Snyder thought he might never again enter an arena to coach after the death of his nephew Dan Snyder, who worked his way into the NHL as an undrafted player and, against the odds, made the Atlanta Thrashers before a high-speed car crash involving teammate Dany Heatley claimed his life just over two years ago.

Jeff Snyder coached Dan in Junior B for the home-town Elmira Sugar Kings, and against him as bench boss of the Kitchener Rangers when Dan earned a spot with Owen Sound after being chosen as a seventh-round OHL pick. Not only did Dan Snyder make the team, but was also the captain for two seasons.

Jeff Snyder, who was close to his nephew, joined the national sledge team a few months before the accident, but thought about giving up the game after the fatal car crash.

"When you see a 25-year-old get killed, it's difficult," he said. "We were really tight. We were good friends."

A group of the sledge players travelled to the small southwestern Ontario town of Elmira for the funeral, where their coach delivered a eulogy.

"That's what friends do," said Paul Rosen of Toronto, a goalie with the sledge hockey team. "He helped us become more professional, and we helped him through a difficult time."

Their presence at the funeral helped change Snyder's mind about his future in hockey.

"They made me realize that I had a team to coach," he said. "They made me feel good, and that I was wanted."

Herve Lord of Ottawa, a longtime sledge hockey veteran, said it was the least they could do.

"When he came back to the team, he told us that he sees us struggling every day with disabilities, yet we come to the rink and give it 110%, and that we gave him the boost that he needed."

USED DAN AS INSPIRATION

Before the accident, Snyder would speak to the players about his nephew's long journey to the NHL as a way to inspire them to accomplish their goals.

"He always found his way to make the team. And when he was on the team, he worked his way up," said Snyder, whose team is playing three exhibition games against the U.S. squad this weekend at the Bell Sensplex.

"From a coach's perspective, he was a guy you loved on the team because he was a real team guy who always wanted to get better."

This time of year is especially difficult for the Snyder family.

The accident happened in Atlanta two years ago on the final day of September, and Dan Snyder, true to his on-ice form, battled for his life before dying five days later.

This year, the start of NHL training camp and the beginning of the regular season had Jeff Snyder thinking about his nephew.

So did the trade in August between the Senators and Thrashers that brought Heatley to Ottawa.

"There's constant reminders that you have to deal with, so it's not that big a deal coming here," said Snyder, whose team has regular practices in Ottawa -- a place considered "middle ground" for players who travel from the Toronto area and Quebec.

"It's certainly different seeing (Dany) in an Ottawa jersey than in an Atlanta jersey."

At the funeral, the Snyder family forgave Heatley for the accident, displaying a remarkable amount of grace in their darkest hour. Jeff Snyder admits there are times he wonders about that compassion.

"But Dan and Dany were friends, and Dan would want us to treat him like that."

And Snyder knows he's got a group of players who'll back him up on that.

barre.campbell@ott.sunpub.com


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