Hockey nomad Mike Danton building a new life in the shadow of his past
By Dan Marrazza
The summer of 2014 has been a rewarding one for pro hockey players. But Mike Danton, the former Devils and St. Louis forward whose NHL career ended 10 years ago when he was arrested for attempting to arrange a murder (prosecutors said that Danton's target was David Frost, his agent and former junior hockey coach; Danton has claimed that his estranged father, Steve Jefferson, was his target) wasn't looking for big money when he re-signed with KH Sanok in Poland’s Polska Liga Hokejowa for the 2014–15 season.
Five years removed from a 65-month prison sentence, Danton was simply seeking a guaranteed contract in a secure, comfortable location. That he got one is no small feat considering the nomadic journey he's been on since his improbable return to the game. He has played college hockey in Nova Scotia (from 2009 to ’11) and in pro leagues in Sweden, Austria, Slovakia, Kazakhstan and Romania. He twice hoped to sign with a team in England, but his visa was denied each time, most recently in 2012.
“When I played in Poland last season, it was the only place I’ve played where there haven’t been any problems with some type of aspect in the game, whether it be salary, or living conditions, or travel, or something like that,” says Danton. “I’ve run into problems in the past where money runs out and they say, ‘Sorry, but we can’t afford to pay you, and we have no money left.’ That stuff doesn’t happen [in Poland]. I’m in a good city with a good group of guys. We won the championship last year.”
SI.com recently caught up with Danton, who's now 33, to talk about his life today. He was last in the news in September 2011, when he helped to save the life of a Swedish league teammate who went into convulsions after striking his head on the ice during a game. Danton is still shadowed by his dark past, but he's not running from it. He's now the father of a two-year-old son, and is close to earning a degree in criminology and psychology from St. Mary’s University in Halifax. Even though his career has entered its twilight, well out of the NHL spotlight, he harbors dreams of a comeback but is planning for his future.
SI: How did you end up in Poland?
Danton: The team had been interested [in me] the last couple of years. One agent who deals with that league approached me and asked if I would be interested. I jumped at the opportunity because I had to get out of Kazakhstan.
Danton: Everything. There were scorpions in the dressing room. The grocery [stores] would overcharge you. The team [Beibarys Atyrau] didn’t want you eating ketchup, drinking pop or having chocolate. It was weird, man. They wanted you to have everything plain. We were at a team meal once [at a restaurant], and they brought us chicken and pasta, and the chicken had a little red sauce on it. No sooner did they put the plates down [than] one of the coaches said something in Russian and the waiters took the food away and brought it back plain. We came down the steps at our place one morning and there was a severed horse’s leg—horse is a delicacy over there. Things like that. [My girlfriend] was uncomfortable, especially when I would go on a road trip. So I sent her and our little guy [Tanner] back to Canada.
SI: You found a horse’s leg outside your apartment? Where was the rest of the horse?
SI: How did you negotiate your contract in Poland for next season?
Danton: The team basically said: “What will it take to keep you here?” I told them: “You asked me the lowest that I could play here for, and this is it.” It’s decent. It’s not an NHL contract, obviously. But they take care of you and your living expenses, your car, and get you a flight over. Meals on game days are paid for, and it’s relatively cheap to live there. I had a really good experience there.
SI: What is the quality of play in the Polish league?
Danton: The league is not the NHL, and it’s not the AHL. But it’s definitely comparable to some decent leagues [in North America], and it’s really improved over the last three or four years. Teams are allowed eight imports. You can import eight North Americans if you want. Or four Czechs and four Slovaks. Or four Slovaks and four Canadians. Whatever the case may be. This gives the league a pretty good international flavor.
SI: How about the Polish players? How do they stack up?
Danton: They are very hardworking and determined, defensive-minded players. They’re fairly gritty, and a lot of them have good skill as well.
Danton: The gate [2,500 to 5,000 per game] went up and the spectators increased with the playoffs, of course. We played two really good teams in the playoffs, and the final was pretty heated because [GKS Tychy’s] fans and players hated me, which obviously appeals to me.
SI: You were known for playing a pretty chippy style in the NHL. Are you still the same type of player?
Danton: I’ve always had that physical, tough element to my game. In junior hockey, I’d put up 80 to 90 points a year but still have high penalty minutes. I think I’ve brought that aspect to my Polish team. They’ve never had a player in that league, from what I was told, who would antagonize the fans, the players and play physically, start brawls in warm-ups. And [other teams] didn’t know how to handle it. In the end, this was a big part of what helped us [win the championship].”
SI: Your criminal background is pretty well documented. How familiar are European fans and players with it? Do they try to antagonize you based on your past?
Danton: They know. I’ve had to put up with the same stupid jokes for the last four or five years. Anything about jail or being gay. During one game [in Tychy, Poland] a guy filled a cup with urine and threw it on me as I was going through the tunnel. They said it was just beer, and that’s what the local beer smells and tastes like. But I know what piss smells like, and it was definitely not beer. It was just very classless. That’s too far. I’m obviously doing my job because I’m really pissing them off.
SI: How do you respond when things like this happen?
SI: You have a presence on Facebook and Twitter. Do you ignore nasty messages?
Danton: It depends. I let a lot of stuff go because people are saying things that are just off the rocker. I don’t want to give someone the time of day because he’s got 13 followers and wants me to get him more.
SI: Has a fan completely crossed the line with you?
Danton: A couple months after my little guy was born, a friend took a picture [of Tanner] and tweeted it to me with an, “Oh, Daddy, I miss you,” or something like that, and, “I hope to see you soon.” Some idiot copied the picture and tweeted: “This is what a prison baby looks like.” Then some went to the previous four or five girls that I had tweeted at, and were trying to figure out who the mother was. Those type of things are personal, and it’s family, and you’re not supposed to chirp a two-month old. To me, this is extremely over the line. I get disappointed more than anything.
SI: How is fatherhood treating you?
Danton: I love it. It’s tiring sometimes. It definitely changes things. I’ve wanted a family more than anything my entire life. It’s extremely rewarding. It’s a lot of work.
SI: How are you going to handle things when Tanner gets old enough to know your history?
Danton: Nancy and I have talked about this. You can’t hide your kids from it because there’s this thing called the Internet. I’m going to have to be, like, “Listen, bud. Dad’s got something to tell you. I want you to hear it from me, and you’re going to read a whole ton of stuff and 99.9% of it is bull. And I’m going to give it you straight.” He’s going to know it’s the truth because I’m going to be giving him nothing but the truth every step of his life.
SI: How did you and your girlfriend meet? Did you address your past when you started dating?
Danton: We met when I went to school with her sister at St. Mary’s. We’ve been together almost five years. Nancy had already graduated, and I tried to pick her up in a bar. I was on parole and couldn’t drink. She wanted nothing to do with me. She said she didn’t want to be with any hockey players. I was taken aback. Her sister came up to me in school and said that she had heard that I was trying to pick up her sister. I tried to get her to say a couple nice words about me, and persistence overcame resistance. Nancy did know my background. It didn’t really deter her in any way, but she did have some questions. I just gave her honest answers.
SI: How long do you hope to continue to play?
Danton: I don’t know. Growing up, I hated hockey. I was just playing because I was expected to play it. I wasn’t even having fun when I was playing in the NHL. The last couple years, especially in Europe, I’ve been having a lot of fun. One of the things keeping me in Poland is that I have a Polish background. I can play on the [Polish] national team, and they could qualify for the Olympics in three years. If I can get on the national team and play in the Olympics, it would be pretty interesting. That’s definitely in the back of my mind.
SI: What do you plan on doing when your playing days are finished?
Danton: I’m five courses shy of my undergrad [degree]. I’d like to graduate this year. My long-term goal, I’m not sure. I’d like to stay in hockey somehow. I’d like to possibly coach. I’ve also thought of child or sports psychology. But for that I think I need a doctorate. I have a lot of things cooking. I’m going to write a book, so that will take up a fair amount of my time. Once school is taken care of, I’ll start working on it. I could also see myself teaching. It’s a cliché, but I think the sky’s the limit.
SI: Any thought of making the United States part of your future in any way? Right now, you aren’t technically even allowed in the U.S.
Danton: I’m working with a team in the NHL that’s trying to get me [to the U.S.]. I’ve got their immigration lawyers pursuing paperwork for me. They’re trying to make that process a quick one, and something that can possibly open some doors in the future.
"I just wish people would take time, get to know me, and make decisions after that. If you still think I’m the crazy, psycho-killer guy, that’ll be your opinion. The type of person I am today is different from 10 years ago."
SI: What had to change for you to get on the right track?
Danton: Looking back on the last 10 years, I chuckle sometimes. It’s been a ride. From someone who was playing in the NHL making hundreds of thousands of dollars per year and could buy whatever he wanted, to almost six years in prison for murder for hire, coming out and going to university as a 29-year-old and winning a national championship, going on to pursue a professional career in Europe, starting a family, what can you say about that? The way I look at it is, well, what are you going to do, come out and look for sympathy and cry about it and look for handouts? That’s not me. Tank is empty, so I have to do something with my life. Now I’ve got the family I’ve always wanted, I’m still playing pro hockey, I’ve almost got my first degree and I couldn’t be happier.
SI: You’ve been through enough to know that there will always be some people who don’t believe what you say, think you’re a bad guy and that you don’t deserve good fortune.
Danton: This is why I want to write my book. There have been two books about me that I’ve had nothing to do with. I want to be able to say: “This is my version of the events, the true version. Don’t make an opinion until you hear my side.”
SI: What is the biggest misperception about you?
Danton: That I’m actually a bad guy, and a violent, crazy, psycho-killer person, when I’m the complete opposite. I just wish people would take time, get to know me, and make decisions after that. If you still think I’m the crazy, psycho-killer guy, that’ll be your opinion. The type of person I am today is different from 10 years ago. Now I recognize the good and the bad.
SI: Do you ever think of how much more money you’d be making if you never wound up in jail and stayed in the NHL?
Danton: Everybody makes mistakes, and people are like, “Mike, you’ve given up millions of dollars and now you’re playing for peanuts, and living paycheck to paycheck, with bills and debt, just like everybody else.” Right now, I’m happy with my life and with myself. Ten years ago, I wasn’t. Prison afforded me the opportunity to work on myself, and my life. Now there’s nowhere to go but up. I’m grateful for the opportunity that I’ve got.