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."