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That echoed the message Stienburg was getting from his father, Malcolm, a prison chaplain and at one time a top-ranking officer on the national parole board. "My dad said, Remember how you were brought up, son," recalls the coach. "He was like, If you take this kid, cover up, because you'll take some shots. But if you don't take him, don't let him rehabilitate, you'll have second thoughts."
Stienburg explained to Danton that if he ever saw Frost in the arena, Danton would be off the team. Danton assured him that that would not happen. "He acknowledged very well that Frost can't be in his life," says Stienburg. "He does have a bit of an issue with the fact that as awful as [Frost] was in so many ways, he still gave the kid an upbringing. But Mike knows David is not good for him. He knows that."
Danton selected St. Mary's (enrollment: 8,500) mostly for hockey. But it didn't hurt that he would be getting away from Ontario—where he felt the Toronto media had often portrayed him unfavorably—and relocating to a more socially progressive Maritime province. Both the player and the coach were prepared for some blowback. Stienburg claims, though, that for every critical call, letter or e-mail he received there were 10 that supported his decision. "People realized he didn't want a handout; he wanted to go back to school," says Stienburg, who soon mounted a sign in his office: IF YOU DON'T LIKE YOUR LIFE, CHANGE IT.
Skepticism ceased last season when Danton scored a goal in his first game and then helped the Huskies win their first Canadian Interuniversity Sport title. Despite his NHL credentials Danton served only as a defensive stopper. Still, he brought savvy, industriousness and an infusion of energy. "O.K., maybe he's not a 25-goal scorer," says St. Mary's forward Cam Fergus. "Still, if the puck goes into the corner, chances are he's coming out with it." Teammates were surprised by his humility. They once asked Danton how, having flown charter and skated in the big arenas of the NHL, he could abide by the modest conditions of Canadian college hockey. "Trust me," he said, "this is a lot closer to the NHL than it is to jail."
"Dants" was instantly popular in the locker room. He still gets razzed about his age and his absence of hair and even, on occasion, his criminal past; he in turn dispenses grief over his teammates' zits and failings with coeds. Until Jan. 22, Danton was on parole, one provision of which prohibited him from consuming alcohol. At team functions he sipped Red Bull and water while his teammates drank adult beverages. "I missed hockey," he says, "but I also just missed being on a team."
He quickly became a familiar face at St. Mary's, and concern over his past dissipated. When Danton goes to the library's atrium, he's greeted near the front desk by a girl wearing a Muslim head scarf and then by a knot of guys in UFC shirts. He organizes study groups. Other students say that the buzz on campus quickly went from, Pssst, there's Mike Danton, to, Hey, what's up, Mike?
When he talks about his childhood, his crime, even his prison sentence, Danton speaks with a sort of clinical detachment, almost as if describing another person. But he pauses to collect himself when he talks about his classmates and the St. Mary's community. "You hear so much negative about kids today," he says. "These people made a decision to accept me—a convicted felon [who] hired someone to kill another person. Why? Because they got to know me and realized I wasn't a monster. And they did it at age 18 or 19. To me, that's amazing." He pauses and smiles, revealing a gap in his upper bridge. "Look at me, getting all gushy." Another pause. "Acceptance is a warm feeling."
With some clarity of mind and years of detachment what, finally, does he make of his bizarre saga? Conversant as Danton is with the vocabulary, he is reluctant to throw around terms like suppression and repression and sublimation. His more mundane explanation: "I was a dumbass." He believes that his unhappy childhood was a factor. "Do I wish I had more guidance, that things might have gone differently if the first 10 years of my life were different? Yeah."
Ultimately, though, Danton resists playing the victim card. "I was the one who screwed up," he says. "I committed a crime, and I have no problem holding myself accountable... . There were a lot of psychological factors, and I just had a breakdown. Looking back, you see all the triggers, all the telltales. If it hadn't been [the murder plot], it would have been something else. I would have tried drugs or tried to kill myself. Yeah, I was messed up."
He tries not to talk about the Frost family, not least because "they have two kids, and they've been put through so much." But there's little doubt to whom he's referring when he says things like, "I couldn't make decisions for myself. I relied on other people... . I was a 23-year-old infant who wasn't in the right mind frame to be an adult, much less an NHL player." Danton's take: That someone could have ended up dead speaks volumes about his mental instability.