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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.
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?"