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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.
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 defense-man 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."