Search

"I'm Glad I Went to Prison"

Feb. 28, 2011
Feb. 28, 2011

Table of Contents
Feb. 28, 2011

LEADING OFF
Inside: THE WEEK IN SPORTS
DUNK CONTEST
MIKE DANTON
Departments

"I'm Glad I Went to Prison"

Nearly seven years after he tried to arrange a murder, former NHL player Mike Danton is studying psychology and finally piecing his life together

A water main has burst near St. Mary's University, a small Catholic college a few blocks from downtown Halifax. This happens with some frequency, especially during the harsh Nova Scotia winters, and means that students, faculty and the occasional nun must sidestep puddles as they walk across the tree-lined campus. It also means that once again the gym will lose its supply of hot water, so the skating rink can't be flooded. As a result, the hockey team will have to curtail its afternoon practice.

This is an article from the Feb. 28, 2011 issue

The news, delivered to the players as they prepare for the session, triggers a machine-gun spray of expletives in the Huskies' dressing room, a cube as cramped as it is malodorous. It is another perceived indignity to the team, the defending Canadian college champs, whose home venue is far shabbier than the other area rinks, including the ones in Cole Harbour where Sidney Crosby developed his extravagant skills. The St. Mary's team could use the ice time. It's winning games this season (the Huskies finished 18-9-1 and earned a bye through the first round of the Canadian Interuniversity playoffs, which began last week) but winning ugly, with lines that still lack synergy.

The oldest player, though, is ambivalent about the session's abrupt end. Mike Danton, a compactly built 5'9" forward, had hoped that a strong practice would help halt his slump—"For whatever reason I can't find the back of the net," he complains—and boost his conditioning, which slipped while he battled a head cold. Then again, the sooner practice is over, the sooner the 30-year-old Danton can start studying.

So it is that after briefly weaving up and down the soft ice with other members of his "shutdown" line, Danton showers, throws on a hoodie and a HOCKEY BOY ball cap and gathers a backpack so heavy it should be outfitted with a set of wheels. He's off to the Patrick Power Library, where, teammates joke, he spends so much time he should be paying rent. When it closes at 11 p.m. he will walk to the sparse off-campus apartment he shares with a teammate and, with eyes at half-mast, study some more.

Danton, a second-year student, is the Canadian equivalent of an Academic All-America. But that doesn't do justice to his scholastic record. He's taken 11 courses at St. Mary's. His lowest grade is an A--, and his GPA is a hair under 4.0. His course schedule in the previous semester included geography, research methods, social behavior and memory. His grades, respectively: A, A--, A, A+. "If I'd done this 10 years ago, I would have been partying and sliding by with teachers who were hockey fans—youth wasted on the young, you know," he says while sitting on a couch in the lobby of the library. "Now I've established a routine, and I've discovered that I really like the process of learning and thinking critically."

Danton's major is psychology. He's reading Jung, Piaget and Freud—"I think Freud's the one who needed psychoanalysis," he says—studying the mysteries of the human mind. "It's amazing how important the brain is, how it controls so much," he says. "We do this because of that, that because of this. Just fascinating."

He entered school with vague ambitions of returning to his previous career, that of a grinding forward in the NHL. Although he still would one day like to play professional hockey again, now his long-term goal is to earn a Ph.D. in psychology. His professors say that's no pipe dream. "He's an absolutely outstanding student. He handed in a paper that I can freely say is one of the best I've gotten in my years of teaching," says St. Mary's psychology professor Lucie Kocum, who taught Danton's research methods course. "He has a self-exacting approach, but he brings this exuberance to class."

Is it too simplistic, Danton is asked, to assume that he's enthralled with psychology because of everything he's been through?

"Yeah," he says. "But if I were you, I'd put it in the story anyway. I mean, how can you not?"

Mike Danton recalls clearly the moment he hit rock bottom. In April 2004 the fourth-line center for the St. Louis Blues sat crying on the upper bunk of a Santa Clara (Calif.) County jail cell. He was 23 years old and had been charged with a felony less than two weeks earlier. The internal chaos born from his disjointed and dysfunctional childhood had erupted in spectacular fashion. "And now I'm thinking, I'm f-----, I'm never going to be able to play hockey again. And then it's like, Who's going to give me a chance to be their husband, to get close to their family?"

On a wall opposite his bunk he scrawled the names of people he loved. Then he meticulously tore two-inch-wide strands from a towel he'd been given. He tied them into a noose, wreathed it around his neck and knotted the free end to the top of the bunk. Sobbing, he inhaled and jumped off the bed, figuring it was a better alternative to the bleak future now confronting him. It would be a brutally simple end to a story that had become impossibly complex.

Danton was born Mike Jefferson and grew up in the Toronto suburb of Brampton, the son of Steve and Sue Jefferson, who made their living operating a coffee concession at construction sites. Mike wasn't big, but he was a hell of a young hockey player, a rugged, energetic mucker who seemed to know where the puck was going before anyone else on the ice. From the time he was 11, Danton's junior coach was David Frost.

Even before Mike's abundant talent was apparent, he had decided to devote his life to hockey. It was less what he did than who he was. The speed and the hitting were intoxicating, and he took particular pleasure in outskating (and later, outfighting) bigger opponents. Besides, he says, it beat being at home. Since his arrest Mike has repeatedly claimed that he was physically and emotionally abused, though there is no record he ever made such allegations before. It's a charge his parents have always vigorously denied, as they did to SI last week. By his early teen years Mike had left home and moved in with Frost and his wife, Bridget. He considered the couple to be his surrogate parents.

Frost's junior teams—led by Mike Jefferson; a second future NHL forward, Sheldon Keefe; and Joe Goodenow, son of former NHL Players' Association head Bob Goodenow—were cocky and combative, a reflection of their coach. In 1997, Frost pleaded guilty to a charge of hitting one of his own players. After a 2004 altercation between Frost and a Central A Junior Hockey League official at a game in Ottawa, the league's commissioner banned Frost and reportedly distributed his photo to arena personnel.

Frost, though, inspired fierce loyalty and closeness among his players, particularly Mike Jefferson, who sat with his coach on bus rides and communicated with him on the ice through an elaborate system of hand gestures. In the 2005 documentary Rogue Agent, aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Company, Frost is depicted as a manipulative Svengali who held his team's star under a spell. Sue Jefferson has claimed that Frost was so controlling he would permit her to see her son only for an hour on Christmas. Steve Jefferson later told the Toronto Globe and Mail that Frost "stole Michael from us, [and has taken] Michael's mind from him."

Apart from maintaining what some felt was an inappropriate closeness with Mike Jefferson, Frost was accused of hosting alcohol-fueled sex parties at a motel in Deseronto, Ont. In a criminal case brought in 2006, he was charged with multiple counts of sexual exploitation stemming from several parties that occurred in 1996--97 while Danton was a member of the Junior A Quinte Hawks. According to the allegations, Frost encouraged, and then watched, sexual acts between his players and girls under the age of 17. (He was acquitted of all charges in 2008, in part because two of the former players appeared as witnesses for the defense and denied that any sexual exploitation had ever occurred.)

For all the dissonance in his life, Mike's hockey career was a steady progression of success. In May 2000 he led the Barrie (Ont.) Colts to the finals of the Memorial Cup, Canada's junior-hockey club championship. The Devils drafted him in the fifth round one month later. His agent of record: David Frost. It was around that time that Jefferson formally changed his surname to Danton—the name of a former teammate that Mike thought sounded "cool"—a further attempt to disassociate himself from his family. He reported to the Albany (N.Y.) River Rats of the AHL and kept climbing hockey's org chart.

By the '02--03 season Danton was in the NHL, making more than $500,000. In June '03 he was traded to the Blues, one of the league's class organizations. "He had a smallish build, but he was strong, he had some speed, good hands, and we knew he'd battle," recalls Larry Pleau, then the general manager in St. Louis. "We knew there was some baggage—there were rumors about his agent—but we were happy to have him."

On the ice and in the dressing room Danton was fine. When he left the arena he was often miserable. "I had a big problem with being alone," he says. "I had no one I could count on and who cared for me the way I wanted them to." His solution was to avoid sleep. He'd go to strip clubs, drink immodestly, take up female companionship and stay up until sunrise. He'd crash for a few hours and maybe steal a nap in the afternoon.

According to the complaint filed in the Southern District of Illinois on April 16, 2004, a figure later identified as an "individual from Canada" was, according to Danton, coming to St. Louis to murder him over money owed. Danton tried to have the man killed. On two separate occasions he offered $10,000 for the murder of the "individual from Canada," and asked that the crime be made to look like a botched robbery. An East St. Louis strip-club bouncer declined his offer; Danton next used an intermediary to approach another man about the job. The potential hit man, however, was Justin Levi Jones, a 19-year-old police dispatcher from Columbia, Ill., who promptly notified the FBI.

On April 16, the night the Sharks eliminated St. Louis from the '04 Stanley Cup playoffs, Danton was arrested by FBI agents at the San Jose airport, charged with what police documents termed a "murder-for-hire" plot. The person prosecutors contend he was accused of scheming to have killed? David Frost, who was then staying in Danton's apartment. (In the CBC documentary both men who were approached to carry out the killing confirmed Frost was the target.) "We were all just shocked," says Pleau. "I mean, shocked."

Danton refused to provide a motive or admit he was targeting Frost. (In 2009 he would tell Canada's national parole board that he was trying to murder his father, who he believed was trying to kill him.) But authorities released to the media a series of collect calls Danton made to Frost in the days after his arrest. In one, Frost told Danton to say that years of abuse by his parents had led him to commit the crime; in another Frost asked if there was any reason he should still fear for his safety—to which Danton replied no. When Frost pressed his protégé to explain why he wanted him dead, Danton rambled incoherently. "I don't know," he said. "Everything the same. I was just, I didn't know. I was just ... obviously everything started coming down at the same time."

The most dramatic exchange came at the end of a call shortly after Danton was taken into custody.

"Do you love me?" Frost asked in a gravelly tone.

"Yes," Danton replied meekly.

"Say it."

"I love you."

"Do you?"

"Yeah."

Danton entered a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois in which he admitted to trying to arrange a murder and was sentenced to 90 months in federal prison. (The Denver Post would later reveal that the lawyer representing Danton was a convicted felon and never licensed to practice.) Even the judge felt compelled to remark at Danton's sentencing, "In over 18 years on the bench I have [never] been faced with a case as bizarre as this one."

When Danton jumped off that jailhouse bunk bed with a terry-cloth noose around his neck, it was no halfhearted suicide attempt. "I absolutely wanted to die," he says.

But the strands of towel ripped, unable to support his 190 pounds. Danton landed on the ground and stared at the names he'd written on the wall, tears puddling next to him. He took his survival as a sign. "I'm not religious, but I realized that if I was supposed to die that day, I would have," he says. "From that moment on I was like, I have to better myself. I didn't like the person I was, and I had to be someone different."

The first step was intensive therapy. The NHLPA provided Danton with counseling services. Ron Dicker, a St. Louis--based psychologist, visited regularly when Danton was incarcerated in the Midwest, and assigned him readings and self-improvement exercises. As Danton moved from one federal facility to another, the psychotherapy continued by phone. Says Danton, "I'm simplifying a pretty complex situation, but it came down to this: You can't love others until you love yourself. You can't trust others until you trust yourself. You can't fully respect others until you respect yourself. He got me to understand myself."

It was a painful process, Danton stresses, made all the more difficult by his incarceration. But eventually Danton didn't merely get to know himself; he grew rather fond of that person. He was transferred frequently among jails—not uncommon in the federal system—and in Fort Dix, N.J., he spent seven months in solitary confinement for, he says, abusing his library privileges. (The prison did not respond to calls seeking comment.) He struggled with being alone. Danton passed the time by reading ("everything from James Patterson to Fyodor Dostoyevsky") and writing and thinking. He also took correspondence courses through Queen's University in Ontario. He grew frustrated by his inability to ask questions or discuss the material with a professor. A decade after dropping out of school, he embraced learning.

"I know this is going to sound nuts, but I'm glad I went to prison," Danton says. "I don't like the length of time I went there for. But I'm fortunate for the opportunity, because the negative-slash-downward spiral that would have happened would have been 10 times worse. It saved me in a way."

Danton spent his last few months of confinement in a Canadian jail, thanks to the country's transfer treaty with the United States. Canadian authorities reduced his sentence to 65 months. As his release date neared in the fall of '09, he pondered his future. He was broke, lap dances and then legal fees having consumed his NHL money. He dreamed of returning to the league, but he hadn't skated in more than five years. Danton had nowhere to go. He was still estranged from his biological family—who recently announced a deal with Penguin to publish a book telling their side of the story—and had essentially cut ties with Frost, who, after so much unflattering media attention, had taken an alias and moved to California. (Though his family alleges Frost is still part of his life, Danton declines to elaborate on the record. "Nobody's business," he says.)

Danton did, though, have his newfound self-confidence and his newfound love of learning. His passion for hockey still blazed. And despite having played in the NHL, he was eligible to compete at a Canadian university. So at age 28, fresh off a prison sentence, he set about applying to college.

Trevor Stienburg thought it was a joke. Like most Canadians he had followed Danton's rise and fall. Probably closer than most, in fact. Stienburg had been a first-round pick in the 1984 NHL draft, a dynamic winger with a swift slap shot and a commensurately quick temper. His body, unfortunately, was in a constant state of rebellion, and he played only 71 games over parts of four seasons for the Quebec Nordiques. Otherwise he lived a life out of Slapshot, pinballing around the minors. In 1997, three years after hanging up his skates, Stienburg landed the coaching job at St. Mary's. His take on Danton was, How the hell could he scrap his way to the game's highest level and then, once inside the kingdom, piss away his career?

Shortly after Stienburg got a letter from Danton in late 2009 expressing interest in joining the Huskies, he gathered his players. "I told them, 'You're never going to believe who wants to play here: Mike friggin' Danton,'" he says. "I laughed and sent them back on the ice."

But many of the players had already spoken to Danton, who had been seeking them out in an effort to learn about the St. Mary's program. The captain at the time, forward Marc Rancourt, drafted a letter to Stienburg, signed by the entire team. It read in part, "We have all made mistakes. Perhaps not to the extent of his, but still serious enough that we had to ask for forgiveness or a second chance... . We have a unique opportunity here to provide Mike with a second chance that he has not only earned, but is entitled to."

That echoed the message Stienburg was getting from his father, Malcolm, a prison chaplain and at one time a top-ranking officer on the national parole board. "My dad said, Remember how you were brought up, son," recalls the coach. "He was like, If you take this kid, cover up, because you'll take some shots. But if you don't take him, don't let him rehabilitate, you'll have second thoughts."

Stienburg explained to Danton that if he ever saw Frost in the arena, Danton would be off the team. Danton assured him that that would not happen. "He acknowledged very well that Frost can't be in his life," says Stienburg. "He does have a bit of an issue with the fact that as awful as [Frost] was in so many ways, he still gave the kid an upbringing. But Mike knows David is not good for him. He knows that."

Danton selected St. Mary's (enrollment: 8,500) mostly for hockey. But it didn't hurt that he would be getting away from Ontario—where he felt the Toronto media had often portrayed him unfavorably—and relocating to a more socially progressive Maritime province. Both the player and the coach were prepared for some blowback. Stienburg claims, though, that for every critical call, letter or e-mail he received there were 10 that supported his decision. "People realized he didn't want a handout; he wanted to go back to school," says Stienburg, who soon mounted a sign in his office: IF YOU DON'T LIKE YOUR LIFE, CHANGE IT.

Skepticism ceased last season when Danton scored a goal in his first game and then helped the Huskies win their first Canadian Interuniversity Sport title. Despite his NHL credentials Danton served only as a defensive stopper. Still, he brought savvy, industriousness and an infusion of energy. "O.K., maybe he's not a 25-goal scorer," says St. Mary's forward Cam Fergus. "Still, if the puck goes into the corner, chances are he's coming out with it." Teammates were surprised by his humility. They once asked Danton how, having flown charter and skated in the big arenas of the NHL, he could abide by the modest conditions of Canadian college hockey. "Trust me," he said, "this is a lot closer to the NHL than it is to jail."

"Dants" was instantly popular in the locker room. He still gets razzed about his age and his absence of hair and even, on occasion, his criminal past; he in turn dispenses grief over his teammates' zits and failings with coeds. Until Jan. 22, Danton was on parole, one provision of which prohibited him from consuming alcohol. At team functions he sipped Red Bull and water while his teammates drank adult beverages. "I missed hockey," he says, "but I also just missed being on a team."

He quickly became a familiar face at St. Mary's, and concern over his past dissipated. When Danton goes to the library's atrium, he's greeted near the front desk by a girl wearing a Muslim head scarf and then by a knot of guys in UFC shirts. He organizes study groups. Other students say that the buzz on campus quickly went from, Pssst, there's Mike Danton, to, Hey, what's up, Mike?

When he talks about his childhood, his crime, even his prison sentence, Danton speaks with a sort of clinical detachment, almost as if describing another person. But he pauses to collect himself when he talks about his classmates and the St. Mary's community. "You hear so much negative about kids today," he says. "These people made a decision to accept me—a convicted felon [who] hired someone to kill another person. Why? Because they got to know me and realized I wasn't a monster. And they did it at age 18 or 19. To me, that's amazing." He pauses and smiles, revealing a gap in his upper bridge. "Look at me, getting all gushy." Another pause. "Acceptance is a warm feeling."

With some clarity of mind and years of detachment what, finally, does he make of his bizarre saga? Conversant as Danton is with the vocabulary, he is reluctant to throw around terms like suppression and repression and sublimation. His more mundane explanation: "I was a dumbass." He believes that his unhappy childhood was a factor. "Do I wish I had more guidance, that things might have gone differently if the first 10 years of my life were different? Yeah."

Ultimately, though, Danton resists playing the victim card. "I was the one who screwed up," he says. "I committed a crime, and I have no problem holding myself accountable... . There were a lot of psychological factors, and I just had a breakdown. Looking back, you see all the triggers, all the telltales. If it hadn't been [the murder plot], it would have been something else. I would have tried drugs or tried to kill myself. Yeah, I was messed up."

He tries not to talk about the Frost family, not least because "they have two kids, and they've been put through so much." But there's little doubt to whom he's referring when he says things like, "I couldn't make decisions for myself. I relied on other people... . I was a 23-year-old infant who wasn't in the right mind frame to be an adult, much less an NHL player." Danton's take: That someone could have ended up dead speaks volumes about his mental instability.

Danton admits that his first 30 years could be a psychologist's lifework. "It's fascinating to me," he says. "I can understand why it's interesting [to outsiders]." But he's less interested in becoming a therapist and "dealing with darkness" than in working with athletes to help them elevate their performance when it matters most. "As humble as I can make this sound, I've played at the highest level; I made a pretty big mistake that cost me; I have a lot of knowledge of being an underdog and rising to the occasion," he says. "With some more knowledge and training, I think I can help other athletes."

He balances the hope of again playing high-level professional hockey with the reality. He's more concerned with keeping up his grade point average than his scoring average. Already he's torn between getting an advanced degree after graduation and getting a job. "I don't need much to live on," he says, "but I've basically had no income for seven years."

When he considers his future, he starts shaking his head, staring out the window of the library toward the ocean a few blocks away. "You know what I really want? To have a family, have kids, be a great dad," he says. "Just the usual, normal stuff, you know?"

DANTON TORE TWO-INCH STRANDS FROM A TOWEL, TIED THEM INTO A NOOSE, WREATHED IT AROUND HIS NECK AND KNOTTED THE FREE END TO THE TOP OF HIS BUNK.
"I COULDN'T MAKE DECISIONS," DANTON SAYS. "I WAS A 23-YEAR-OLD INFANT WHO WASN'T IN THE RIGHT MIND FRAME TO BE AN ADULT, MUCH LESS AN NHL PLAYER."
PHOTOPhotograph by DARREN CARROLLSCHOOL COLORS With a GPA slightly under 4.0, Danton, who has scored just three goals this year, has impressed more people at St. Mary's with his classwork than with his hockey.PHOTOTIM PARKER/REUTERSGAME OVER Danton last saw action in the NHL during the Blues' first-round loss to the Sharks in the 2004 playoffs (left); the morning after St. Louis was eliminated, police arrested him at the San Jose airport.PHOTOCLINTON COUNTY JAIL/AP[See caption above]PHOTOBERNARD WEIL/TORONTO STARBROKEN BONDS Danton (near right, in 2000 when his surname was still Jefferson) claimed he was trying to arrange the murder of his father, Steve Jefferson (left). But authorities said he was targeting Frost (far right), his junior coach, professional agent and, from Danton's perspective, surrogate father.PHOTODOUG CRAWFORD/BARRIE EXAMINER/CP[See caption above]PHOTOMIKE CARROCCETTO/ZUMA PRESS[See caption above]PHOTODARRENCARROLLST. ELSEWHERE Before arriving in Halifax, Danton (foreground) corresponded with the Huskies, who gave him their support.