- in Calgary –
Despite Canada’s heartbreaking loss on Tuesday night at the Saddledome, the world junior hockey championships have been a celebratory affair here in Alberta and across the land. They conclude today with Canada in the afternoon bronze medal game, rather than the evening gold medal main event.
When held here, the world juniors celebrate Canadian junior hockey, even as we meet tomorrow’s NHL players from around the world. There is plenty to admire, and feel-good stories abound during the championship fortnight. But it also invites us to look more closely at our junior-hockey culture.
That was brought home by reading Steve Simmons’ recently published book, The Lost Dream: The Story of Mike Danton, David Frost, and a Broken Canadian Family. Simmons is one of Canada’s most experienced sportswriters, and his book brings to a conclusion more than a decade of reporting about the Mike Jefferson and David Frost affair.
Frost coached Jefferson in junior hockey in the 1990s. The former was apparently a good hockey coach with serious flaws in character, while the latter was a somewhat troubled kid. Jefferson made it to the NHL, changed his surname to Danton after estranging himself from his family, and played for the St. Louis Blues. In 2004, he was arrested and charged with hiring a hit-man to kill Frost. Danton served five years in prison and is now playing professional hockey in Sweden.
In the aftermath of Danton’s imprisonment, Frost was charged with multiple counts of sexual exploitation from his time as coach of the Quinte Hawks, which played in Napanee, Ont., in 1996-1997. Frost lived in nearby Deseronto at the Bay View Inn with some of his players. While acquitted of all charges in a bizarre trial in 2008, the proceedings revealed a level of manipulation and debauchery that was truly revolting – if not, in the judge’s estimation, criminal.
A young woman testified at trial that she, at age 16, had been coerced into group sex with her hockey-player boyfriend, also 16, and Frost, then 29. Ian LaRoque, assistant captain on the Hawks at the time, testified that such deviance was common in that milieu.
The Frost-Danton saga itself is extreme and unrepresentative of junior hockey. Yet at the same time, it does lift a veil on the dark places of that culture. Even if there had not been red flags flying about Frost, what was he doing living in a motel with teenagers?
Indeed, aside from the deeply troubled Frost-Danton relationship, Simmons describes a junior hockey culture that develops hockey skills, but neglects – or even actively retards – academic achievement and character development. That is not breaking news to close observers of junior hockey, where adolescent boys often move away from home into environments where they are exposed to malign influences.
The world junior championships coincide each year with the culmination of the American college football season. That’s the other model for developing young athletes – on high school and college teams. Football and basketball go that route; hockey has the junior system, though it now is being challenged by the American college system.
Big-time college sports are not without problems, but tying athletic development to high schools and universities is superior. Yes, scholastic shenanigans are not rare, but at least academic achievement is addressed, something rather important for the vast majority of players in all sports who do not rise to the professional ranks. Keeping development focused on university sports also means that completing high school, and remaining at home with one’s own family to do so, becomes a requirement.
College sports programs also exist in a larger environment where young men have more opportunities to develop their personalities. Junior hockey can be a rather isolating experience, precisely at a time when boys becoming men should be broadening their horizons. Isolation also can provide cover for the dark side of elite sports. Colleges are not immune from that, but immersed in a broader environment, it is at least more likely that others are watching.
It would be wrong to read Canadian junior hockey exclusively through the lens of the Simmons book. He is examining a particular story and makes no claims about junior hockey as a whole. Yet precisely because the Frost-Danton saga was so outrageous it attracts our attention. The boys whose on-ice athleticism thrills us during the world juniors also deserve to have public attention paid to what they’re exposed to the other 50 weeks of the year.