BRANDON, Manitoba - Take all the time, money, achievement, sacrifice, dreams, heartbreak, and vicarious parental glory an American community expends on football, baseball, and basketball. Stuff it into one bowl, and sweeten with Wayne Gretzky, Stanley Cups, and Olympic gold. That's hockey in Canada, eh?
That's why Canadians have paid close attention to a criminal trial involving two NHL players. In July, St. Louis Blues forward Mike Danton pleaded guilty of conspiring to hire a hit man to kill David Frost, a notorious, Svengali-like character who'd been his coach since age 11 and then his agent. The world of professional sports often seems surreal (Kobe Bryant, anyone?), but this case seems unusually odd: Why would a father turn his young teen's life over to such a coach? The search for answers begins in Brandon, a mid-size river valley town in southwestern Manitoba.
A tall, rangy forward for the Man.-Sask. Panthers swoops toward the goal from the right side and collars a rebound, but a Cypress Timberwolves defenseman is shoving him toward the blue line, so he can't turn and shoot. Instead, he slips the puck between the legs of another defender charging from the side, dodges the check and then slides the puck over to the top of the left circle where a waiting teammate one-times a rocket on net. But the Timberwolves goalie, having drifted out to cut down the angle, nabs the shot and hangs on to force a face-off.
It's an impressive display of skill and power, like nailing a runner at home with a throw from centerfield, or a backdoor pass that leads to a dunk. But the players, coaches, and handful of parents inside the 5,000-seat Keystone Center arena are accustomed to such moves from 12- and 13-year-olds, so the teams change shifts with hardly a glove-touch. It's a strangely quiet, businesslike atmosphere at the AAA Challenge. The largest summer youth hockey tournament west of Toronto draws 110 teams from across Canada and the United States for three weeks every July.
Summer hockey is an integral part of The System. A partly government-funded organization called Hockey Canada rules the country's sprawling, confusing network of provincial and regional youth leagues, divisions, and classes. It has 560,000 players plus thousands of volunteer coaches, officials, and team moms. However The System, which is strictly unofficial, is smaller. It's the top leagues and players in each age group in each region, and the people who run them.
Most hockey dads will admit that their son's chances of making the NHL or even top-level junior or college hockey are not good. But they also know that it's a quixotic fantasy outside The System. A player who is not "tiered" (playing for a top team) by age 10 or 11 can kiss his already wildly improbable NHL dream goodbye. One parent says that when he considers pulling his 12-year-old from The System for a 3-on-3 rec league, "a part of me goes, Am I robbing my kid of a chance?"
Hockey's central place in Canadian culture feeds The System. Over 4 million Canadians in a country of about 30 million either play, volunteer, or watch as fans. So parents put up with or even demand 40- or 60-game seasons running from August to May, followed by summer tournaments. Aluminum sticks-$300; quality skates-$400; league registration -$500; chasing your child's NHL dream-$4,000-$10,000 per year after age 12 for the elite programs, depending on travel. Major credit cards accepted.
TYLER AND ALEX PLANTE OF BRANDON are a couple of princes of The System. The Brandon Wheat Kings of the prestigious Western Hockey League drafted Tyler, now 17, two years ago. (The WHL is a "major junior" league for 16- to 20-year-olds. Most of the best prospects with NHL aspirations enter the Western, Ontario, or Quebec major junior leagues.) Tyler, a goalie, starred on Brandon's national champion AAA midget team last year. In provincial league play he collected 88 penalty minutes; the next most-penalized goalie had four. "They came into my crease, and I shoved 'em out," he says with a shrug and an impish grin. The Wheat Kings have already ordered his goalie pads for this season.
Alex, 15, is a 6'3" defenseman with a ready smile and an arena seat from Montreal's legendary (and now demolished) Forum in his bedroom. Observers say he's a smooth skater who understands the game and "has physical presence," hockey jargon for "is a tough body-checker." The Calgary Hitmen made him the first pick of the second round this spring, the highest a Brandon product has ever gone in the major junior draft.
Until tryouts in August, the princes slept late and trained three days out of five with a personal strength coach ($35/hour-long session). Jim Frederickson has 40 hockey clients, ranging in age from 11 to 22. He has them on a specialized weight program aimed at hockey muscles and the older players' no-carb diets. Both princes are still wiry but they've gained muscle and knocked five points off their percentage of body fat in a month. "If you don't do the extra mental and physical things to give you an edge, you probably won't make it to the upper levels," their father, Cam, says.
Their mom, Valerie, is relieved Tyler can live at home for his first WHL season. Most junior players live with billeting families but next year, if Alex makes the Hitmen, he will stay with relatives in Calgary, a 14-hour drive west. Otherwise, she's not sure she would let him go at that age. "That's always been my issue," she says. Mr. Plante, who spent his 15-year pro hockey career playing in Europe and American minor leagues, looks a little uncomfortable during this discussion. This is, after all, Alex's shot at the big time. "When you have an opportunity, you should do what you can to make it happen," he says.
Once in the major juniors, Tyler and Alex will earn a couple of hundred bucks a month playing an 80-game schedule featuring famously long bus rides across four provinces and a couple of states, all while keeping up their high-school grades, supposedly. They can be sold or traded at any time, at which time they would move to a new city and a new billet.
THE SYSTEM IS NOW PROFESSIONALIZED down to age 14. Kids face staggering pressure to perform lest they lose their big chance, and they are rushed through The System far too quickly, according to Johnny Misley, Hockey Canada's V.P. of hockey operations. "I think we're at a crossroads at the elite level. The professionalization of amateur levels is ruining the system." Hockey Canada is pondering a series of rule changes, like limiting the number of 16-year-olds who can play junior to one per team, that officials hope will slow the process.
Already agents troll for prospects as young as age 10, hoping to corral a stable of hot prospects and ride their jersey-tails to NHL riches. Consider the sad saga of St. Louis Blues forward Mike Danton. He grew up Michael Jefferson in Brampton, Ont. His dad, Stephen, wanting 11-year-old Mike in the best league available, sent him to Toronto under the care of ambitious, abrasive David Frost. This is not uncommon, and some parents move so their child can play in a better league.
Over the next few years Mr. Frost gathered a handful of talented players who followed him from team to team, even as he was banned from various Ontario youth leagues for unruly teams, allegations of hazing, and other problems. He also became known for obsessive control over his chosen few, isolating them from their families and having them spend nights at his residence.
Three of his players are now estranged from their families. Two years ago Mike changed his name to Danton, alleging parental abuse. Mr. Frost, meanwhile, changed his role from coach to agent. One other Frost disciple plays in the NHL, Sheldon Keefe of the Lightning.
Earlier this spring Mr. Danton asked a girlfriend to help him hire someone to kill a guy in his East St. Louis apartment and make it look like a robbery. She contacted an acquaintance who, they discovered after the sting, was a police dispatcher. Mr. Danton will be sentenced in October; he faces seven to 10 years. Mr. Frost has angrily denied he was the target, and Mr. Danton, prior to his pleading guilty, from behind bars continued to attack his parents and defend the man he tried to murder.
The carefully worded affidavit FBI investigators filed for the charges stated that when Mr. Danton confronted Mr. Frost via phone, Mr. Danton "broke down and sobbed. . . . Danton did not want to allow the acquaintance to leave him, and therefore decided to have him murdered." Mr. Danton's prosecutors have advised reporters against presuming Mr. Frost and Mr. Danton had a sexual relationship.
"I blame myself," Stephen Jefferson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Because I closed my eyes just for the dream of the game . . . I sold my soul to the devil."
Sexual abuse or no, Mr. Danton's case is uncomfortably similar to the Sheldon Kennedy scandal, which rocked Canadian hockey to its core. In 1996 Mr. Kennedy of the Boston Bruins revealed that his long-time coach had homosexually molested him hundreds of times in the 1980s, from the time he was 13 through his stint on the WHL's Swift Current Broncos. Graham James served three years in prison and is now coaching in Spain.
"This is a culture where men buy, sell, and trade boys," points out Laura Robinson, author of Crossing the Line: Violence and Sexual Assault in Canada's National Sport. Coaches and agents can make or break a player's dreams: "What better place for a predator to be?" She believes abuse is pervasive but those in The System doubt it's that bad. Since Mr. James's conviction, most years a handful of sexual abuse charges involving hockey and youth have been filed around the country.
Hockey Canada's mandatory Speak Out program, developed in the wake of the James scandal, teaches volunteers the signs of sexual and other abuse, and provides a hotline to report suspicious behavior, hazing rituals, and the like.
Put it all together and Cheryl Kehler of Steinbach, in the province's southeast corner, is wondering how long she wants to let Ryan, 12, continue playing hockey. Ryan is a short, slim, speedy center who collected 53 points (goals plus assists) in 35 games last season. The Kehlers flood their backyard every winter to make a rink, complete with boards and a Canadian flag. He has wire-rim glasses and a faded black cap stitched with "Steinbach Millers Pee-Wee Champs 2004" that he wears only when awake.
Her husband Mike, family and youth pastor at Steinbach's Mennonite Brethren church, is conflicted. He played junior hockey in British Columbia in the late '70s and knows about the promiscuity and alcohol abuse that permeates junior hockey. "Had I not lived with my coach in a Christian environment, I'm not sure where I'd have been," he muses. But Mrs. Kehler says he pushes Ryan pretty hard.
Mrs. Kehler is sure of this much: Ryan will "absolutely not" enter the junior draft. She did not grow up in a sports family. "Hockey is not the be-all and end-all of where I want my kids to end up," she says. "I have a real fear of where hockey will take them. What about values and morals? What are they reaching for?"
"I think it has a lot to do with the type of person you're talking about," Mr. Plante says. Kids with a strong family background can handle the pressure, the life away from home, and the 10-hour post-game bus rides on school nights. The game teaches important lessons about discipline and maturity. It's not just an investment in their hockey future, it's an investment in their future. Both the Wheat Kings and the Hitmen have team chaplains if the boys need spiritual guidance (see sidebar). "The majority of people involved in hockey have the kids' best interests at heart," he says. "I personally believe that the positives far outweigh the negatives."
Alex is ready to go: "It's all about hockey right now."