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A Devil And His Demon When New Jersey defenseman Ken Daneyko quit drinking, he regained his life

Feb. 08, 1999
Feb. 08, 1999

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Feb. 8, 1999

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A Devil And His Demon When New Jersey defenseman Ken Daneyko quit drinking, he regained his life

On Nov. 1, 1997, New Jersey Devils defenseman Ken Daneyko awoke
with a headache. It was a mild autumn morning, but he felt cold
and irremediably sad. At 33, Daneyko was a strong, successful
hockey player, wealthy beyond his richest boyhood dreams. His
wife, JonnaLyn, loved him deeply, and their toddling daughter,
Taylor, had a bright, wide-eyed smile. Yet as Daneyko lay in
bed, his head thrumming, the familiar dreadful feeling came upon
him. Is it all coming to an end? he thought. My family? My
career? Is this what I've brought upon myself? The evening
before, Daneyko had drunk only a few bottles of beer. It had
been four days since he had last spent all night at a bar.

This is an article from the Feb. 8, 1999 issue Original Layout

Daneyko roused himself slowly, dressed and drove from his house
in Roseland, N.J., to the players' parking lot at the
Continental Airlines Arena, his hockey home for more than 13
years. Daneyko sighed. Even in this state, going to the locker
room, donning a uniform and participating in a demanding workout
would have been easy enough; often he had driven off his blues
by doing exactly that. Instead Daneyko gathered all the strength
in his 6-foot, 215-pound body, strode into the office of Devils
president and general manager Lou Lamoriello and closed the door
behind him. "Lou," he said. "I have a problem. I need to take
care of it."

The admission came as no surprise to Lamoriello. Daneyko, a
hard-hitting defenseman with a jutting jaw and long-lost front
teeth, had been battling binge drinking for years. He had
recently made several short-lived attempts at sobriety. Before
long, though, he would be off the wagon and in a bar cracking
wise among some teammates, drinking without pause from dusk till
dawn. The binges--"I'd have one after the other after the
other," says Daneyko, "many more than I could count"--often came
in the middle of the season's grind, while JonnaLyn waited
patiently at home.

As he sat fidgeting opposite Lamoriello, Daneyko knew his wife
had grown weary of his insubstantial "never agains" and was
threatening to leave. He knew that the Devils had grown weary of
his inconsistent habits, even though he says he was always able
to gather himself to play well during games. "He was sitting
across from me, a man at his lowest end," says Lamoriello. "I
could see the desperation in his eyes. I told him I was behind
him, that we were going to do whatever he needed."

"Going to Lou was the hardest thing I've done," says Daneyko.
"The next day I was horrified. I wanted to back out."

It is rare for a player of Daneyko's dedication to invite an
interruption of his career, and rare for a general manager to
encourage one of his best defensemen to take an extended leave
during a season. Yet the next day, Daneyko, with Lamoriello's
full support, entered a treatment center in California. A few
days later the team made an announcement explaining Daneyko's
situation. Thus he became one of only a few players to openly
avail himself of the NHL's substance-abuse and behavioral-health
program, which was established in the 1995 collective bargaining
agreement.

Funded jointly by the players' association and the league, the
program allows players (and their families) to seek first-time
help without fear of punishment. This is one of the few ventures
in which union and management are united, and while there's no
telling how many people have sought refuge in the program
(confidentiality is a key principle), Daneyko says that in the
past year, he has learned of several players and family members
who have made calls to the program, for alcohol and other
substance-abuse problems. Whenever anyone asks, he tells them
that the program saved his career and, perhaps, his life.

Fourteen months after leaving the treatment center, Daneyko is
midway through the best season of his career. He's tied for the
Devils' lead with a +17 ratio. Though he has only one goal and
four assists, he has checked and pummeled the opposition with
his trademark ferocity and has committed few of the senseless,
costly penalties to which he was prone in seasons past. Daneyko
plays more than 20 minutes a game, kills penalties and is a
stabilizing force on the dominating Devils defense. "You see
this commitment from Dano that maybe wasn't there as much
before," says New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur. "The whole team
has benefited."

"He just goes and goes and goes," says Devils coach Robbie
Ftorek. "In the past he always gave you everything he had, but
some nights he just didn't have it. Now he has it every night."

Daneyko cautiously reminds himself, and others, that his battle
has just begun. His 15-month period of sobriety, however, has
been by far his longest since he began drinking at age 15,
shortly after leaving his Edmonton home to play juniors in
Saskatchewan. There and in his three seasons (1980-83) in the
Western Hockey league in Spokane and Seattle, the camaraderie of
his teammates was strengthened by nights together around a keg.
The players were young, inexperienced and far from home. "That's
a time in your life when a lot of players start drinking, and I
loved the whole scene," says Daneyko. "For me it was never sit
at home and get drunk. It was about being with the guys."

As Daneyko's career progressed--he joined the Devils in 1983-84
and by '86-87 had become a fixture in their lineup--so did the
drinking. He says he had two favorite drinks: "beer, and shots
of anything you put in front of me." On nights out with his
teammates, Daneyko, gabby and full of laughter, needed
increasingly more alcohol to achieve his sheen. Because he had a
strong, resilient body and a fierce love of hockey, he almost
never missed practice even when he was badly drained from boozy
nights. During the 1989-90 season he began a streak of 388
consecutive games played. "There were two things in my life,"
says Daneyko. "Hockey and drinking. I drank, and then I paid the
price to play."

In 1989 someone began paying the price with him. Daneyko met
JonnaLyn Panico the night before a game in New Jersey. "One day
about six months into our relationship, he invited me over,"
JonnaLyn recalls. "When I got to his place I knocked on the
door, but there was no answer. I knocked and knocked and
knocked. Still, nothing. Finally I went back home. A little
while later Kenny called to ask why I hadn't shown up. That's
when I first knew he had a problem."

Even after Ken and JonnaLyn were married in 1993, Ken's
addiction deepened. "He had a big heart, and he could be
tremendously loving, but an alcoholic is selfish," says
JonnaLyn. "More and more, I'd be waiting for him and he just
wouldn't come home. It got so I couldn't even trust him to go to
the supermarket."

By the time Taylor was born, on Dec. 5, 1994, Ken had turned 30,
and his drinking was exacting a greater physical toll. Even
sober, he spent much of his time off the ice lying on a couch.
He watched Taylor grow, but he had little strength to
participate in her life. Not long after an exhausting binge--two
weeks of celebration following the Devils' Stanley Cup victory
in 1995--Ken read a story about Mickey Mantle. In it Mantle
lamented that drinking had taken him away from his children in
their youth. "I carried the article around, and I read it over
and over," says Daneyko. "I knew I couldn't let that happen to
me."

That didn't mean he could stop drinking. Although he tried
numerous times to quit, his periods of abstinence were brief,
and while the nights of drinking were never joyless, the
mornings after proved profoundly so. JonnaLyn grew less and less
tolerant. On Oct. 28, 1997, Daneyko spent the night in a bar.
When he went out for beers a few nights later, his heart was not
in it. The next morning he awoke feeling low enough to change
his life.

"If I hadn't gone to Lou and forced myself into treatment, I
wouldn't have JonnaLyn now, and I probably wouldn't be playing
hockey," Daneyko says. "The weeks I spent at the center, I was
at the end of my rope, lonely. I was up at 6 a.m. and talking
with people about my deepest fears and insecurities until 7 p.m.
It's very emotional stuff that I wasn't used to talking
about--definitely more painful than being punched in the head in
a hockey game."

When Daneyko emerged from the program, shortly before Christmas,
he felt vulnerable, afraid. Is it going to happen all over
again? he wondered. At times he wanted nothing more than the
taste of cold beer on his tongue, the heat of a barroom on his
back. While JonnaLyn welcomed him home, she regarded him warily,
her love suddenly conditional. For more than a month--a
transitional period mandated by the treatment program--Ken and
Taylor and JonnaLyn worked steadily through the awkwardness.
They spent hours simply playing. They went on daylong outings.
They ate meals together. Instead of flopping on the couch, Ken
was hoisting Taylor in his arms. "For the first time we were a
family," says JonnaLyn. "Not that we did anything so special. It
was just by him being around."

In early February '98, Daneyko began skating again with the
Devils, and three weeks later he returned to the lineup. He went
to dinner with his teammates and did not drink. In the playoffs
he played effectively and hard. Not long after the Devils' season
ended in May, Ken and JonnaLyn went to the Bahamas for a romantic
vacation.

Above Daneyko's locker room stall his teammates have pasted a
sign reading INDY PACE CAR. Daneyko's body is leaner than in
years past, his torso tapered and his stomach firm, and he is
indeed playing with pacesetting steam. After a rigorous practice
recently, 24-year-old New Jersey forward Jay Pandolfo watched
Daneyko peel off his sweat-soaked jersey and said admiringly,
"Maybe he's 10 years older than I am, but the guy is dominating
out there. Dominating."

Ftorek reports that Daneyko is more coachable than ever, "calm
and measured on the bench, where he used to seem uncomfortable,
anxious." Last November, Lamoriello and Daneyko agreed to a
three-year contract worth close to $6 million. In December,
Daneyko played in his 935th game as a Devil, the most by any
player in team history.

"This isn't over, and it never will be," he says of his
alcoholism. "But I know I have my family, and I know I want to
celebrate another Cup--this time sober."

Before all that, though, Daneyko is eyeing the calendar and a
deeper reward: He and JonnaLyn are expecting their second child
any day.

COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLACOLOR PHOTO: MEL EVANS/THE RECORD Family first JonnaLyn and Taylor were the motivation for Daneyko to seek treatment.
"There were two things in my life," says Daneyko. "Hockey and
drinking."
"I know I want to celebrate another Stanley Cup--this time sober."