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A Devil and His Demon
Kostya Kennedy
February 08, 1999
When New Jersey defenseman Ken Daneyko quit drinking, he regained his life
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February 08, 1999

A Devil And His Demon

When New Jersey defenseman Ken Daneyko quit drinking, he regained his life

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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.

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