Svengali on Ice

A sordid drama of family dysfunction, sexual abuse and the national game

The CBC is said to be perpetually in search of definitive Canadian stories. Perhaps it might consider the sorry tale of former NHL player Mike Danton as a topic for a movie of the week and tell Being Erica to go rest for a spell. If it needs a primer, it can consult Steve Simmons’s book The Lost Dream: The Story of Mike Danton, David Frost and a Broken Canadian Family, a tome brimming with the entire portfolio of human misery.

We meet Danton (born Mike Jefferson), a Toronto kid with borderline NHL talent who went to jail for attempting to murder his … um, here’s the tricky part. Danton says he wanted his natural father killed, but the hitman he engaged was shown a picture of Danton’s agent, the Svengali-like David Frost, as the victim instead. Danton had rejected his natural family for a life pursuing the NHL dream as defined by Frost, a character as ingenious as he is loathsome. Sounds like a defining story for the Corp. In the end, Danton got neither the dream nor a family to call his own from his hockey experience.

For anyone who has spent time in a frozen arena at an ungodly hour watching the little nippers skate around in their bulletproof equipment, the people surrounding Danton’s warped existence are unmistakable. There is the belligerent, ex-con father living out a misplaced dream through his kid. This would be Steve Jefferson, father of Mike. Simmons finds Jefferson ranting about giving ice time for kids with lesser talent in big games for ten-year-olds. Perspective is not this man’s strong point.

When Mike Jefferson began to show an aptitude for the game, that attracted another archetypal hockey character, David Frost, the handler/enabler/leech. A man nursing one of the more appalling inferiority complexes, Frost drew young people to his sideshow act by separating them from their support systems. In the case of Mike Jefferson this was not a difficult feat. Dad Steve had a problem with alcohol, a bad temper and a penchant for ending up in jail as a result of both. It took Frost, no paragon of virtue himself, a short time to convince the young man that his shortest route to the NHL was via Frost’s managerial skill.

After that it was a Cook’s Tour of low-life Ontario hockey operations with Frost and his other hockey chattel and what appears to have been a sexual pattern of some repulsiveness in which player and manager shared the same hapless “puck bunnies” in low-rent motel rooms. Frost’s idea of hazing Danton’s younger brother ended with the Ontario Provincial Police being called in over graphic photos of the younger Jefferson naked and bound to a chair. To grasp the bizarre nature of the relationship, it is only necessary to read transcripts of phone calls Frost made to Danton in prison in which Frost first asks whether he is safe, and then demands a loyalty oath, “Okay, do you love me?” When Danton whispers a muted, “I love you,” Frost barks back, “Say it.” The blood chills at such scenes.

Incongruously, the Harvard-educated executive director of the NHL Players’ Association Bob Goodenow appears to have acted as a coach/-assistant with Frost on various minor-league teams on which Goodenow’s own son Joey performed. Goodenow was so intimate with the Frost/Danton situation that he had shared dinner with Danton during the 2004 playoffs, in the days before Danton planned to have Frost bumped off at Danton’s apartment in St. Louis.

Goodenow declined to be interviewed for the book, so we might assume that he was only doing his best to extricate Danton and other Frost charges from the claws of their maestro. Simmons, however, is unsparing in showing how Frost was certified as an agent by Goodenow’s NHLPA despite a police record for hitting his players and a hockey organizational history of cheating, lying and misleading to get his way.

There were many along the way who tried to help Danton escape Frost’s clutches, but none could wrest him away from a Stockholm Syndrome of epic proportions. Perhaps most frustrating in his life was the Ontario Crown, which had opportunities to stop Frost. Whether through sexual interference or assault, there seemed ample charges on which to convict. But as Simmons demonstrates using lengthy court transcripts, the Crown bungled the case through innumerable delays.

After handing the case around to a series of hapless prosecutors, the Crown finally dragged Frost into court in Napanee, Ontario, on twelve counts of sexual exploitation of his young players. If you want a desultory peep into the back alleys of stardom, read Simmons’s trial transcripts of the 2006 case. Because the case hinged on exploitation of the boys, not the vulnerable girls discarded like so much Kleenex, the Crown failed the test of proof. The insouciant boys had no appetite for sending their old pal off to the crowbar hotel, and a spewing, wild-eyed Frost emerged with an acquittal, free to continue his ways.

Simmons, a Quebecor Press columnist, along with CBC’s The Fifth Estate, did the main journalism on the Frost story as it wove through its sordid circles of hell. In many ways they were the unseen hand that drove Frost’s paranoia, exposing him long before Danton ever decided to kill his mentor. As Simmons acknowledges, the “sympathetic” figures of his story, the Jeffersons, are decidedly unsympathetic. A captive of drunkenness and his own fatal attraction to hockey stardom, Steve Jefferson bawls and bitches throughout the book in a manner that is less than appealing. (Danton’s long–suffering mother and her second son, Tom, come off slightly better, seeing their letters returned and their love rejected by the exiled Mike.)

After doing five years in a U.S. prison for the botched hit on Frost, Danton (he changed his name to finalize the split with his natural family) is himself portrayed by Simmons as an impossible mix of contradictions. Victim, victimizer and pitiless ostracizer of his mother and brother to this day, he seems an emotional IED waiting to go off. Danton, who is currently trying to play hockey in Europe, also declined to be interviewed by Simmons. At times the book cries out for his explanation of what happened, but any sympathy for Danton’s motives is lost so long as he denies who was the true target victim of his crime (Frost) or until he reconciles with his mother.

One failing in the book is Simmons’s obsession with Vancouver general manager Mike Gillis, who for a brief time represented Danton and the other young men caught up in Frost’s tight cult of secrecy. He sought to wean them away from Frost. Figures such as New Jersey’s general manager Lou Lamoriello told Simmons that Gillis was exploited in that process by Frost, too. But Simmons instead implies Gillis had darker motives, although he is never specific about why he thinks Gillis’s removing himself from the intractable situation is so reprehensible.

Perhaps the real mystery of the Mike Danton tale (and the Theo Fleury tragedy, too) is why it does not happen more often in the world of millionaire hockey players and billionaire owners all straining at the leash to win the Stanley Cup. The story produces all the classic elements of modern tragedy: money, murder, fame, a family riven by a biblical fury of greed and jealousy. And a national sport that drives the people in Danton’s life to bend all norms of civilized behaviour if the end goal is the cup. Perhaps we should not be so surprised that things ended this way.