On Sunday they will return to the bucolic village of 7,000, located in Mennonite country a little more than an hour's drive from Toronto. This time, they return for a more hopeful purpose.
After their Saturday game in Buffalo, the Thrashers will bus to Elmira and practice at the new Woolwich Memorial Centre and its rink, named for Dan Snyder, who died at age 25 six days after he was a passenger in a car crash with star teammate Dany Heatley.
"I think it's important, because Dan, he was a member of our team," said Ilya Kovalchuk, one of only two Thrashers left on the roster who played with Snyder during the 2002-03 season, when the spunky forward scored 10 goals in 36 games. "He's still a member of our team. He's always going to be with us. When his name is there, it means we're there, too. For us, it's going to be a big deal to see the fans, to see the rink."
When their son and brother died so suddenly, the Snyder family made it their mission to build Woolwich Township a new community center, as their son had desired before his passing. Through five charity golf tournaments attended by NHL players like Heatley and broadcasters like Bob McKenzie, Ron MacLean and Darren Eliot, plus other efforts, the Snyders sought to raise $500,000. Instead, they raised $750,000 towards the $22 million project.
LuAnn Snyder, Dan's mother, said her son was outraged when he learned that a township study stated that it did not need a new rink until 2017. Dan played for the town's Junior B team, the Elmira Sugar Kings, and his father, Graham, now a member the Ontario Hockey Association's board of directors, had managed it. So Dan knew the need to replace the aging rink was urgent.
Now that the process is complete and the Sugar Kings can play before crowds of 2,000 with immaculate sight lines, LuAnn Snyder has mixed emotions.
"It was great (seeing his name) and a little emotional and yet it wasn't," she said. "Phew, there it is, finally. … It feels so good to walk into there and see everything that's come together."
The Snyders invited the Thrashers to attend the facility's Sept. 11 opening, but the team opened its training camp that weekend in Atlanta. General Manager Don Waddell said he requested from the NHL an early weekend date in Buffalo or Toronto so the team could make a trip to Elmira.
For the 1 p.m. ET public practice Sunday, Thrashers coach John Anderson will be hooked up to a microphone. At 2 p.m., the town will host a private luncheon for the players, along with the families of Thrashers players Bryan Little and Rich Peverley, who hail from nearby Cambridge and Guelph, respectively.
An autograph session will follow in which organizers hope to have almost 2,000 children participate. Perhaps some of those children will be the same ones who six years ago lined the streets from the Snyders' home to the Mennonite Church for the funeral, silently tapping their hockey sticks in a touching tribute to Snyder, as his family members and the team made the short walk.
Before he was the Thrashers' coach, Anderson had Snyder on his 2002 Chicago Wolves team that won the AHL's Calder Cup. Snyder had 17 points in 22 playoff games that season. Anderson said it was just "devastating" for so many of his players when Snyder passed in 2003.
"It really hurt a lot of guys," Anderson said. "Guys are guys. They don't say much, but you could visibly see that there was a shock."
The same was true of those Thrashers on the 2003-04 team. Left wing Slava Kozlov still keeps a photo of Snyder on his locker stall at Philips Arena.
"Every time when I go in the game, I see his face," Kozlov said.
The organization has not forgotten Snyder. In a conference room at the team's practice facility, a painting of Snyder hangs, as does his jersey and a framed photo of he and Heatley together, smiling, next to a New York Times column that praised the Snyders' forgiveness of Heatley. When Heatley faced vehicular homicide charges from the Fulton Count, Ga., district attorney, the Snyders played a key role in keeping Heatley out of jail, as they believed their son would have wanted. To this day, they continue to call the car crash "an accident."
"It was great (seeing his name) and a little emotional and yet it wasn't. Phew, there it is, finally. … It feels so good to walk into there and see everything that's come together." - LuAnn SnyderIn the Thrashers' final home game each season, the franchise gives an award in Snyder's name, presents a $15,000 check to a charity and brings the family back for the on-ice ceremony.
"It's the most important award that we give here from a player's standpoint," Waddell said, "because it recognizes a player who has to battle through some adversity to get where he has gotten and someone who is recognized by his teammates who is a team guy."
Kovalchuk was 20 when Snyder died and was shaken by the event. In the hours after her son died at Atlanta's Grady Hospital, LuAnn took her son's watch, which was broken in three places from the violent crash, and gave one piece to then-coach Bob Hartley, another to Kovalchuk and kept one for herself.
Kovalchuk said he still has the wristband link at his home. He only sees the Snyders occasionally, but enjoys the visits.
"They're great people," he said. "His mom, she's a great lady, very strong. She reminds me of my mom all the time. She's such a kind person. I always talk and say hello and wish good luck, so it's great."
Perhaps on Sunday Kovalchuk will meet Graham and LuAnn's first grandchild, Reed Daniel Snyder, whose middle name comes for his Uncle Dan. Reed, who will turn 1 the day after the practice, takes swimming lessons at the community center. He is a new positive in the family's life, as is their accomplishment of seeing the rink built that their son had wanted for the hometown of which he was so proud.
"Now they can come back for something good," LuAnn Snyder said of the Thrashers' visit. "To celebrate."