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Saturday, July 12, 2014

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A disturbing look at hockey family’s breakup

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Steve Simmons

Watching Tom Jefferson on late night TV talking about the physical and psychological abuse he endured at age 13 was almost as difficult as reading about it first.

In the summer of 2000, Tom accompanied his older brother, Mike, to a summer getaway with Mike’s hockey coach and a bunch of older players. The venue was the cottage of Mike’s junior coach, David Frost, and the description of the goings-on is cringe inducing, to say the least.

Veteran sports journalist Steve Simmons describes the event in a totally engrossing and quite disturbing new book, The Lost Dream: The Story of Mike Danton, David Frost and a Broken Canadian Family (Viking Canada).

In two weeks, Tom’s life was changed forever. He admits to Simmons he no longer trusts anyone, he’s always antsy and feels his life was ruined.

If that’s what could happen to a youngster exposed for only two weeks to the environment fashioned by Frost, what about someone who was immersed in it for years?

Tom’s older brother, Mike, was under Frost’s spell for years and, like a member of a cult, can’t seem to let it go.

Danton, who changed his name from Jefferson to sever all ties to his family, was convicted in the United States for hiring someone to kill Frost, his former coach and agent. Though he spent five years in jail for the offence, Danton subsequently contended it was really his father, Steve, he had contracted to have killed – even though Steve was not in the United States at the time and the “hit man” was given a photo of Frost to identify the victim.

Simmons traces the Danton saga from his days as a hardworking teen hockey star in Brampton, Ont., and Toronto to his inclusion in a talented clique of hockey players held by some strange power in Frost’s sway.

Readers will be exposed to the world of minor hockey and the progression of players all the way to the NHL.

Drafted by the New Jersey Devils, Danton was traded to St. Louis and was in the midst of a playoff run in 2004 when he was frantically trying to arrange Frost’s murder.

Particularly revealing in the book is the close-knit, almost incestuous, relationships between prominent hockey personalities. Frost, for instance, was married to a woman whose father was the former director of NHL officiating. Bob Goodenow, who went on to head the National Hockey League Players’ Association, was Frost’s unofficial assistant coach with the Young Nationals and was instrumental in getting him certified as a player agent – even after Jefferson’s weeks in hell were revealed.

Mike Gillis, for whom Frost worked as a “bird dog,” finding players, was brought on to serve as Danton’s agent. He’s now the general manager of the Vancouver Canucks.

Bill Wirtz, the late owner of the Chicago Blackhawks, wrote a letter to the NHL and the players’ association asking how someone like Frost could be certified as an agent after being vetted by the players’ organization.

Sheldon Keefe, who as a young man was part of the Frost entourage, now coaches a successful Tier II junior team in Pembroke. And so on…

While the description of minor hockey and the pro ranks is revealing, Simmons is most effective in describing the way Danton’s infatuation with Frost broke up the Jefferson family, causing immense pain and a sense of loss.

The story is about more than hockey and abuse of players, Simmons said. “It’s about control and how a guy ‘kidnapped’ a kid.”

Steve, Sue and Tom Jefferson are primary sources for the book; Simmons admits Danton refused to speak to him.

The family, particularly Steve, got caught up in the pursuit of the NHL dream and let pass incidents that should have ended their son’s association with Frost.

“I think the mother saw everything, but wasn’t a strong enough person to do what she needed to do,” Simmons said. “She probably can’t get through a day without crying.”

Does the hockey world share some of the blame for allowing Frost to rise to prominence while exercising unnatural control over his players? At St. Michael’s Majors, for instance, management saw that Frost was creating a poisonous atmosphere on the team, controlling the play on the ice of four of his Brampton-area players. Feeling they were losing control of the team, management traded Frost’s players elsewhere.

“Can you blame them?” asks Simmons. “They were doing the best for their own interests.”

 Ultimately, it’s up to parents to be their son’s most aggressive advocate, he said. “If you’re a parent with a child in high level sport, it’s your responsibility to know the coach and what is going on.

“That’s true in other sports, too. You have to know who is the coach, what’s he doing with your child and is your child changing.”

What happened to the Jefferson family, the estrangement of Frost’s wife from her parents, “is not natural,” said Simmons, “That’s not hockey. That’s the weirdness of this group.”

So what has become of the book’s protagonists?

Tom Jefferson lives with his parents in Brampton – their attempts at contacting Danton have been repeatedly rebuffed. Frost has taken his wife’s maiden name and splits his time between California and Ontario. Danton, after being released from prison, studied psychology at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax and played on the school’s varsity hockey team. He’s now in Sweden, playing third-division hockey, the lowest level of the pro sport.

And, according to Simmons’ sources, he’s still in contact with Frost.

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