Saturday, August 22, 2009

How Heatley Can Salvage His Reputation

If Dany Heatley thought he could put to rest the controversy surrounding his request for the Ottawa Senators to trade him by holding a pre-emptive conference call with reporters before Hockey Canada's Olympic orientation camp, his words proved the idea wrong.
I'm not quite sure what the collected hockey scribes of North America -- particularly those in Canadian cities who feel so aggrieved by his trade request and subsequent invocation of his no-trade clause to the Oilers (Edmonton and Ottawa most specifically) -- expected to hear from Heatley when he finally ended his months-long silence. If it was not obvious before, it should be now that the reason Heatley remained silent was for the same reason that his agent Stacey McAlpine cut short the conference call that was supposed to last an hour but, from reports, took between 15 and 25 minutes.
That is, Heatley's reasons for the trade request were petty and any elucidation of those reasons -- even if they were made by a champion orator, which Heatley absolutely is not -- would ring hollow and fall flat, which, by every press account that I read, they did.
For August, the quietest of months when it comes to hockey press coverage, a good deal of commentary came out of the conference call. It ranged from mean-spirited to insightful. I believe ESPN.com's Scott Burnside had one of the best columns as did the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Jeff Schultz.
Almost any analysis of Heatley has to go back to the car accident that resulted in the death of his friend and teammate Dan Snyder. Both Burnside and Schultz, who covered Heatley during his days with the Atlanta Thrashers, understood this and traced Heatley's meandering career to his apparent failure to deal with what happened in Atlanta almost six years ago now.
The best analysis, I thought, hit on the idea that Heatley has devolved into a somewhat sad figure because of this and because of his failure to understand it.
In a column that was otherwise vengeful, as he was writing for a readership that was spurned by Heatley (Edmonton) for his refusal to accept a trade to that city, Terry Jones of the Edmonton Sun summed up that pitiable sentiment perfectly when he wrote: "The sad thing is that just listening to him you can tell he doesn't get it."
That's it. He doesn't get it. But there is a way for him to get it, but he would have to do a figurative 180-degree turn to salvage his reputation.
He could hold another press conference and say that he is dropping his trade request and that he wants to remain in Ottawa. He could say that he is willing to work with coach Cory Clouston and will work on those parts of his game for which Clouston so mildly chastised him in the press (mainly, a better effort on the defensive end of the game).
He could say that he was upset that Clouston reduced his ice time and altered his role on the power play and that he dealt with it the wrong way.
After all, Ottawa's new winger Alexei Kovalev has said he wants Heatley to return to the team and captain Daniel Alfredsson also appeared to signal that he would welcome Heatley back. While most of Heatley's teammates are probably more confused by his request than angry, they would no doubt accept him back if -- and it's a huge "if" -- he puts forth a big effort, sublimates his ego to the team and returns to the production levels that made him the first NHL player in seven seasons to record back-to-back 50-goal seasons.
More problematic would be an Ottawa press corps that has vilified Heatley for his request. The fans would do their booing at first, but if Heatley were truly contrite and then produced, they would do what fans do and support him.
There's virtually no other way for him to salvage his reputation. Should he get his presumed wish and get himself traded to San Jose, he would still get smacked around in the Canadian press, which, frankly for a Canadian-born player like Heatley, matters most unless he earned himself a Conn Smythe Trophy in leading the Sharks to a first ever Stanley Cup.
But that is a long shot. Not that Heatley lacks the talent -- quite to the contrary, he possesses it in abundance. More to the point, right now it appears that he lacks the focus.
And there is one final psychological point at work here. (The whole affair is a fascinating look into Heatley's psyche, if nothing else.) To what degree does some as famous as Heatley is in his native country -- or anyone for that matter -- want to be a pariah of this degree?
With the media, Heatley is anything but confrontational, the kind of personality trait that could cause one to overlook the ravings of the press corps and get on with his life. Just a look at Heatley's life this summer has illustrated the sort of discomfort he will have to live with if he does not change his mind: He chose not to attend the wedding of one of his closest friends and teammates, Jason Spezza, most likely to avoid having to speak to the media and also pulled out at the last minute from a conference for children in Toronto for apparently the same reason.
Does Heatley really want to become a sort of shut-in? He can set himself free by renouncing his choice. But it's a difficult thing to admit one is wrong, especially when everyone around you tells you that you are not.
In the end, we will soon learn what is more important to him: his reputation, which stands in tatters, or his will to play for his team of choice. Certainly it appears that playing for Canada in international competitions does matter to him, as he is Canada's all-time leading scorer in world championships.
If Burnside is right and Heatley's self-sullying of his reputation causes Hockey Canada to refuse to take him for the 2010 Olympics, which will be held in the same province, British Columbia, where Heatley makes his offseason home, that could be the one factor that could cause him to alter his course.
But perhaps not. Which factor will be the greater pull for Heatley?
We'll soon know.

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