Monday, October 5, 2009

Six Years Ago Today

We bid farewell to Dan Snyder and his dream of making an NHL roster that had just come true. This is what I wrote that night as I sorted through all that I was feeling at the time.

Atlanta is not a hockey town. It’s not even a good sports town. Sure, the Braves are the best team in baseball, and the Falcons have the most exciting player in the NFL. As a city, Atlanta doesn’t support its teams well.

But each of our teams has its core base of fans. Those fans are rabid. Those fans are obsessed. Those fans are pure. To those fans, it isn’t a game that they’re watching, it’s a struggle on their behalf by men who spent their boyhoods dreaming of one day playing in front of such fans.

The Atlanta Thrashers set a record for attendance for an expansion team in 1999. That wasn’t because of an instant supply of fans; it was because the NHL was the new novelty ticket in town. Ticket sales have dwindled as the new car smell has been chased off by the pervasive odor that permeates the 10 feet surrounding a hockey equipment bag.

Attendance hasn’t lessened in the most important category, however. The people who are no longer to be found in Phillips Arena are the ones who thought that seeing a hockey game was just a different way to spend a Friday or Saturday night. They’re the ones who looked confused when the game ended after 3 periods instead of going on to a forth. They’re the ones who thought of the Thrashers as one homogenous entity.

The most important category, in which the Thrashers began with a small, but strong showing, has grown.
It’s grown slowly, but it’s grown steadily. That category is of pure fans. They are the fans who do
not see just a team, but a tightly bonded group of individual men who fought and struggled and sacrificed
to different degrees to be able to skate on that slab of artificially frozen ice in the middle of a man made
mountain filled with people who want nothing more than to watch for 60 minutes as these men battle for
victory on their behalf. These are the pure fans. The fans who can see past the colorful jerseys and the
inane “entertainment” spewed forth mindlessly from the jumbotron while waiting for a face off. These are the
fans who love the game, and love the players for the way that they play it.

I am one of those pure fans, and it is in that capacity that I intend to offer my memory, my eulogy
for Danny Snyder.

Being a pure fan of the Atlanta Thrashers wasn’t easy
for the first few years. Men with an abundance of
character such as Jeff Odgers, Dean Sylvester, and
Denny Lambert made it easier. They played with a
desire in their gut that was obvious to those of us
looking on from the stands. They cared about how they
played, not for the money and the incentives in their
contracts, but because there were people like us
watching who had traveled from our homes and paid to
be a part of their struggle for victory.

I can’t remember what night Dan Snyder made his debut
with the Atlanta Thrashers after being called up from
the Orlando Solar Bears of the IHL. What I do
remember is the feeling that I and all of the other
pure fans had when we saw Danny play.

Danny Snyder wasn’t supposed to be in the NHL. He
wasn’t even supposed to be in the IHL. He was too
small. He didn’t shoot the puck well enough. He
wasn’t cut out to be a pro hockey player.

Danny Snyder didn’t give half a**** about what he was
and wasn’t supposed to do or be. Like anyone who has
ever felt their cleats crunching the dirt of the
infield as they stepped on to a little league field,
or strained to lace up their skates or focused every
essence of themselves on making sure that the tape on
their Koho was just right, Danny Snyder grew up
playing the game he loved, and dreaming about becoming
a pro. Men like Dan Snyder dream such things all
their lives, and lesser men won’t have a clue as to
the real reasons why.

Men like Dan Snyder dream of being a professional
athlete in this society where such athletes are paid
more than they should to an exponential degree. But
they don’t dream of it for the money, like so many who
aspire to practice law or trade stocks.

Men like Dan Snyder dream of being a professional
athlete in this society where such athletes are
treated like royalty in the community, with attention
lavished upon them regardless of their social prowess
or ineptitude. But they don’t dream of it for the
free drinks and dates with any woman they want, like
so many who aspire to become stars in Hollywood or on
the stage.

No, Men like Dan Snyder dream of being a professional
athlete so that they can play for fans. Pure fans.
They dream of living for this sport that they love,
and excelling so that they can pay back their fans for
the support that they have been given. They want to
stride onto that ice and without speaking a word, tell
every true fan in the crowd that they care about their
passion, and will struggle and sacrifice to make it

In a game that, like so many in the Thrashers short
history, was a losing battle on the scoreboard, we as
fans received a victory when Danny Snyder first took
to the ice as an Atlanta Thrasher. He wasn’t supposed
to be there, but he worked every second he could
throughout his life to overcome his small stature by
replacing the missing inches and pounds with passion
for the game and the way he played it.

There are players that you watch and can see their
love of the game and their joy at playing it. Wayne
Gretzky was such a player. There are players that you
watch and can see their determination to be the best.
Scott Stevens is such a player.

Then there are players like Danny Snyder. When fan
watched Danny Snyder play, they saw an undersized
underdog fighting his way upstream to establish
himself worthy of a place in the highest hockey league
on Earth. When a pure fan watched Danny Snyder play,
they saw his heart. Danny Snyder played because he
loved the game, loved his team, and he loved being
able to validate the love of the pure fans through his
blood, sweat, and tears.

Danny Snyder was a normal, nice guy off the ice. I
can’t say that I really knew him; just that I’ve
shaken his hand a few times around the practice rink
or season ticket holder events while speaking
encouraging words about his play and that of the team.
But from what I saw, it was obvious that Danny Snyder
was different than most. He had a sense of purpose.
Some professional athletes seem to believe that they
are owed the attention that they receive because of
their skills. Others are bewildered at that
attention. Danny Snyder always seemed to understand
it, and accept it, not as being owed to him, but as
being the result of what he had worked toward all
those exhausting hours on the ice and in the weight
room. He knew that the fans didn’t owe him anything
because he knew how hard he had to work to get it.
And he wasn’t bewildered by it, because that was what
he had worked toward all along. He played for the
fans, and he did it well.

All of us who have ever been athletes, whether they
had the skills of Wayne Gretzky or John Smoltz, or if
they could barely lift a bat or hit the water if they
fell out of a plane over the Pacific, have known at
least a little of what drove Dan Snyder. In some, it
becomes clouded and corrupted by tangential dreams of
fame or fortune. Danny Snyder didn’t let anything
like that distract him. Fame and fortune were never
his dream. Skating on that NHL ice and playing in a
manner which showed his heart was his dream.

And he achieved it.

Danny Snyder would have spent this season as a
permanent member of the Atlanta Thrashers, rather than
as a transient bouncing back and forth between Atlanta
and Chicago. His work had come to fruition, and he
was ready to spend the entire season playing for those
pure fans who he won over the first time he strode
onto the ice in Phillips Arena and steamed shoulder
first into a man with 5 inches and 30 pounds of
leverage on him, just so he could keep him from
knocking the puck out of the zone.

Danny Snyder never seemed to think any part of the
game was routine or mundane or unimportant. He chased
down a loose puck in the neutral zone with 20 seconds
left in a game his team was losing by 4 goals as if by
reaching that puck before anyone else, he would earn
the right to raise the Stanley Cup. Why did he do it
that way? Because he was a special kind of player.
Because he wouldn’t understand why anyone would even
think to ask why he did it that way.

When a pure fan watched Dan Snyder play hockey, they
saw his heart. And when you saw Danny Snyder’s heart,
he became a part of your own.

The hockey Hall of Fame didn’t lose a future
commemorative display tonight. When our grandchildren
look at the book of NHL records, they won’t be missing
Danny Snyder’s name, because it was never going to be
there. But for all of us for whom Danny Snyder had
become part of our hearts, we have lost something that
hurts deeply, and won’t be filled again.

Dan Snyder didn’t deserve to die from injuries he
received in a car crash last Monday night. He didn’t
deserve to spend the past week in a coma, or to have
some guy he would never have recognized sitting up at
1:30 in the morning rambling aimlessly about him onto
a computer screen. Dan Snyder deserved to live his
dream to the fullest extent. He deserved a spot on
the Atlanta Thrashers roster, and he deserved a spot
in the heart of the pure fans in the stands.

Danny Snyder earned that spot on the roster, and he
earned that spot in our hearts. He will be missed
such that I cannot convey it in words here. Danny’s
parents have lost their son. Danny’s teammates have
lost a brother. Danny’s fans have lost a hero.
Hockey has lost – not a potential record breaking,
revolutionary talent – but a quiet soldier of
dedication and love of the game and of the fans. None
of those losses can be filled.

When you grip a softball bat to play in your work or
church league; when you lace up your cleats to play a
high school football game; when you pull your jersey
on over your shoulder and elbow pads prior to a game
against the Carolina Hurricanes; when you take your
son out to the back yard for his first game of catch,
remember Danny Snyder, and the reason he lived his
life and played his sport the way that he did. There
are no small plays; there are no unimportant games.
Miss Dan Snyder, and keep his heart as part of your


Daculafan said...

Just..Wow...very eloquent

Mortimer Peacock said...

We publish only the finest submissions here at the Chronicle.

More to the point: a great piece, Razor, and even though I know its primary purpose is to pay tribute to a fallen player, it's also a good rebuff to those who say people in these parts are somehow pre-destined to not "get" hockey.

Like this recent crop of "Thrashers to Winnipeg" miscreants.

Rawhide said...

Very, very well done indeed RCP!

GoPuckYourself said...

Send that to the hockey "journalists" in the northeast and Canada who say we don't "get" the game.

Well done.

TK said...

To echo those above me, well said Razor.

I'm guess I'm one of those who wasn't supposed to "get" hockey when it came back to Atlanta. I never played ice hockey but when I got moved back to Atlanta after college (the hockey hotbed of Ole Miss) I went to a few Thrashers games and was instantly hooked. I quickly realized that the core group of fans were by far the most passionate and "smart" fans of any team in the area (including UGA fans).

I went to more games in 06-07 like many people and even following year with Don behind the bench and the Hossa saga didn't stop me from coming to about 25 games that year. After that tumultuous season I figured I was already so invested in the team and enjoyed the game experience so much that I might as well plunk down the cash for season tickets. This is my second year with the tickets and I am really looking forward to the rest of this season.

A few of my friends couldn't believe I'd rather go to a hockey game then watch some football this Saturday, but all of my friends and family who have been to a game know how great the game is in person and now ask if anyone is using my other ticket.

But I guess I'm just some dumb Southerner who couldn't possibly "get it" when it comes to hockey.

Sorry for the long message, but Razor's message really struck a chord. It really is that good. I've been reading this site for almost a year probably and it's a daily read for me. Keep up the great work guys.