By first grade, Mike Jefferson knew his destiny. He'd be a hockey star. A Scud missile on skates. The Great One, redux.
It was the quintessential Canadian dream. In Brampton, Ontario, where Jefferson grew up, kids learn to skate figure eights before they can count. While American youths decked their walls with posters of Magic and Bird, Jefferson's room lionized the likes of Mario and Wayne.
His parents embraced their son's goal. You've heard of soccer moms? Up north, they have hockey dads. Stephen Jefferson taxied his son to and from games and hosted team parties in the family's basement, where the gang wolfed down puck-shaped cakes and played mini-hockey with tiny sticks and "balls" of cotton and tape.
"Those were great times," said Rich Williams, who played peewee hockey with Jefferson.
That was 10 years ago. Before Mike Jefferson became Mike Danton. Before he reached the NHL. Before his life began to unravel.
The former Ontario phenom is in the custody of law officers, apparently being transported to the St. Louis area to face charges of conspiracy to commit murder for hire. Danton is accused of attempting to hire a hit man to kill an acquaintance in his suburban St. Louis apartment. The alleged target? Danton's agent and former youth coach, a man named David Frost.
Danton, 23, a forward for the St. Louis Blues, and a friend, Katie Wolfmeyer, 19, were indicted in the bizarre case. She reportedly found Danton a trigger man, and the player made a deal with the man for a $10,000 hit. Make it look like a burglary gone awry, Danton supposedly told him, and take the $3,000 cash in a bedroom safe as a first payment.
While Danton is headed for arraignment, Wolfmeyer remains in her parents' custody, free on $100,000 bond. On Thursday, she pleaded innocent in federal court to charges that she was Danton's accomplice. Her trial is set for July 13.
Though his arrest may have shocked teammates and acquaintances, Danton had been headed down a curious path for years.
At 13, eight years before he would change his name from Jefferson to Danton, he seemed like any other hockey prodigy, those who knew him said.
"Mike was a hard-working wing who made the most of his chances and did everything for the team," said Williams, who played beside him on the Toronto Young Nationals. Players liked to congregate at the Jeffersons' modest two-story bungalow in a blue-collar enclave of North Brampton, he said.
Often present was the team's coach, Frost, whom the Jeffersons had asked two years earlier to mentor their son.
It was an association they would live to regret.
Under Frost's tutelage, Jefferson sharpened his focus, honed his game, achieved his dream.
He also abandoned his family, moved in with his handler and, some say, lost touch with reality.
From all appearances, Frost seemed to have Jefferson on a fast track to the pros as the youth skated in the small circle of Frost's hand-picked charges.
But Frost carried baggage of his own. He had been dismissed as a coach in two junior leagues - for falsifying documents and for promoting his team's ultra-violent play. In 1997, while coaching in a third junior league, Frost was arrested for assaulting one of his players during a playoff. He pleaded guilty and paid a $250 fine.
Moreover, Frost was gaining notoriety as a control freak, a manipulator of young hockey minds.
"The guy is a lunatic," Canadian junior coach Rob Ciccarelli told The Toronto Sun in 1999. "What worried me is he had a cult-like attraction for [Jefferson]. ... The kid totally did everything that Frost said. It was shocking."
Frost shrugged off the accusation. "I've heard the brainwash stuff, that I brainwash players," he told The Toronto Sun. "You know how crazy that is? If I was that smart, I would brainwash 20 of them and we would go win the Stanley Cup."
"At 14 or thereabouts, kids are awfully vulnerable," said Debra Steckler, a professor at Mary Washington College in Virginia who teaches sports psychology, adolescent development and the psychology of criminal behavior.
Teenagers are "establishing a sense of self," Steckler said, and are targets for "a charismatic leader who takes them under his wing and shows them the way. His way.
"That's exactly how cults are formed."
The Jeffersons ignored the red flags. That same year, Stephen Jefferson called Frost "the best thing to ever happen to my kid."
By 17, Mike Jefferson was captain of his junior team and a fury on ice. Penalties piled up for the 5-foot-9 center and his skating clique. Jefferson sucker-punched rivals, scratched faces, gouged eyes. Sometimes, a fracas spilled onto the parking lot outside the rink.
In November 1999, he drew a 10-game suspension for cross-checking a defenseman into the boards and then slugging him after he crumpled to the ice, dislodging three teeth.
Scouts noted Jefferson's moxie and heightened roughneck style and labeled him as a comer with an edge. But as he grew as a hockey player, he was changing as a person - and not for the better. Those who played with him at St. Michael's College School, in Toronto, called Jefferson aloof, detached and uncommunicative.
"I don't remember ever having more than a one-word conversation with Mike," said Jason Pinizzotto, a classmate in 1998-99. "As a team, we'd go to movies or bowl or play cards - everybody except Mike and the other three guys in Frost's group. It was weird."
During games, Pinizzotto said, Frost would sit in the stands and gesture to his Gang of Four, using hand signals to direct them on the ice.
Opponents marveled at Jefferson's robotic intensity.
"For 60 minutes, he never smiled, never relaxed," said Brian Kilrea, coach of the Ottawa 67's. After games, he said, Frost would gather his quartet and shepherd them out of the arena.
Hitting hard, winning
The harder they hit, the more games they won. In May 2000, Jefferson's team, the Barrie Colts, reached the Canadian Junior Memorial Cup finals. As he skated onto the ice, the crowd chanted profane epithets at the 19-year-old. Jefferson shrugged off the curses. "I love that kind of stuff," he said.
During the championship series, which Barrie lost, Jefferson maligned the opponent's top scorer, Brad Richards, predicting he would never cut it in the NHL. When Richards (now a star with the Tampa Bay Lightning) was named Most Valuable Player of the Memorial Cup, Jefferson refused to shake his hand.
"He looked away and just skated by," Richards told The Daily News of Halifax, Nova Scotia. "It just shows what kind of guy he is."
One month later, Jefferson was receiving congratulations himself as a fifth-round draft pick of the New Jersey Devils. He brought his bad-boy image to his first pro team, the Albany (N.Y.) River Rats of the American Hockey League.
"I'm coming in here with my reputation of being, like, a wacko," he told the Albany Times Union. "I've tried to make an impression that will last on everybody."
Thereafter, when reporters telephoned him for interviews, their calls were returned by Frost.
'Feisty' and 'fearless'
Jefferson made an impression in Worcester, Mass. There, during a break in a game, he sailed a shot into the stands, hitting a 10-year-old girl in the forehead. She survived. Jefferson's story? He meant to flip the puck to a referee. Having reviewed the tapes, league officials disagreed.
Fans also remember him in Hershey, Pa. There, during a brawl, he bit the left thumb of a Bears player, earning another suspension.
Calling him "feisty" and "fearless," New Jersey invited Jefferson to training camp in September 2001 but made him a final cut. His game needed tweaking, the club said. And he needed time to recover from a bruised abdomen suffered in preseason.
Jefferson disagreed and went AWOL. He and the Devils squabbled over the extent of his injury. Jefferson sought a second opinion from a doctor in California, near Frost's office. He told reporters the doctor found a 3-inch tear in his abdomen, and he refused to report to Albany. He'd been there, done that.
Jefferson sat out the whole season, without pay, lashing out from time to time at New Jersey general manager Lou Lamoriello. "I'm not drinking any more of Lou's Kool-Aid," he said, a bizarre reference to the 1978 Jonestown cult mass suicides.
Jefferson also tried, unsuccessfully, to land a role in the movie Austin Powers In Goldmember.
That summer (2002), he had a change of heart - and a change of name. Mike Jefferson became Mike Danton, a moniker he said he took from a youth he had met at hockey camp. Changing names, he said, severed ties with his family, whom he had refused to see for two years.
It also convinced the Devils that he sought a fresh start. This time, Danton survived camp and, in his second outing, scored his first NHL goal. He kept the puck.
Three games later, he was sent home during a road trip for grousing publicly about a lack of ice time.
Danton's teammates were bewildered.
"He was doing a good job for us," a player who requested anonymity told the Halifax Daily News. "What shocked us was how he reacted when he was taken out of the lineup. He was just being asked to sit out one game. He went nuts. He was walking the hall of the arena talking to his agent on his cell phone, and then he went to the media with his complaints.
"He's a different cat."
When he griped again, in November, Danton was demoted - a veteran of 19 NHL games. Again, he refused the ticket to Albany. Again, he was suspended and sat out the season. Meanwhile, New Jersey went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Though Danton forsook his family, his odd behavior weighed on the Jeffersons, especially Tom, his younger brother and a fledgling hockey star.
"When he was my age ... I'd watch him and I'd want to be like him," Tom Jefferson, then 15, told The Toronto Sun in 2002. "But the way he's acting, I don't want to be compared to him at all. I'm not proud of the way he treats us."
Tom Jefferson also distanced himself from his brother's agent. "I can't stand [Frost]," he said. "I want to prove to Dave Frost I can do it without him."
During his boycott, Danton continued to work out. He also trained in Ultimate Fighting, a no-holds-barred form of martial arts.
New home: St. Louis
Seven months after Danton's walkout, New Jersey found a buyer, unloading him to St. Louis during the 2003 NHL draft. Elated with the trade, Danton promised a new beginning for the second straight year.
"What happened with New Jersey is behind me, completely," he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Hardly. In January, before a Blues home game with the Devils, Danton had the St. Louis trainer return his keepsake puck to New Jersey's locker room.
The Devils stared at the puck and shook their heads.
"Nobody cares," center Scott Gomez told The Record of Bergen County, N.J.
The Blues lost the game, 4-1, as Danton missed two breakaway shots and received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
From there, his season sputtered. A shoulder injury sidelined Danton in March; later, he was benched for erratic play. Before he could complain, he was counseled by several teammates to keep his mouth shut and work harder. Which he did.
The wing finished the season playing on the third line and notched seven goals, five assists and 141 penalty minutes, fourth most among NHL rookies. He appeared in all five first-round Stanley Cup playoff games against San Jose and scored his first postseason goal.
After the swan song in California, authorities said, Danton used the phone to synchronize the hit, long distance, on the man reported to be his Svengali-like mentor and agent.
Frost, denying he was the target, stands by his man.
"I can tell you that the moment he arrives in St. Louis is the moment a psychologist arrives to help him," Frost told the Post-Dispatch last month.
"We [can] help him, and that is our goal."