Features

The System

"The System" Continued...

Issue: "Iraq: Terror without end," Oct. 2, 2004

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.

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