By Nathan White
His three years as a pro hockey player don’t matter.
His five years in jail don’t matter.
All that matters to Mike Danton is moving on with his life – and that includes playing hockey at a high level again.
The 29-year-old finally suited up for the Saint Mary’s Huskies, skating in three Canadian Interuniversity Sport games in four nights last week. Danton, who served more than five years in prison for conspiracy to commit murder, said he savors being back on the ice.
“I find comfort in little things,” Danton said after his first road game, a 3-1 loss to the defending national champion New Brunswick Varsity Reds Friday. “Just being able to skate again, throw a big hit or take a big hit, it doesn’t really matter to me if it gets me into the game.
“I’m just happy to be able to play the game I love again and grateful that Saint Mary’s gave me the opportunity.”
Danton’s presence helped UNB to its first sellout of the season despite slippery conditions that cancelled school and backed up traffic. But he said he wasn’t nervous about exposing himself to hostile fans on the road.
“Just anxiousness,” Danton said with a laugh. “I’ve been through enough in my life where nerves really doesn’t come into it anymore.”
The crowd of 3,742 really wasn’t that hard on him. There were a few cheers when UNB defenseman Bretton Stamler nailed him along the boards in the first period and some mild razzing in the second when Stamler flipped him over in front of the UNB net. Pretty tepid stuff.
“Everybody deserves a second chance,” said Doug Lingley, 62, a long-time fan who echoed the prevailing sentiment among the crowd. “I don’t think he’s going to cause any more problems here or any problems anyplace else. Let him play hockey, that’s what he’s here for, and to get an education.”
Added Ryan Eaton, 31, who came to his first game of the year to see Danton: “He did his time, served his debt to society. Good for Saint Mary’s for taking him on and giving him a chance to better himself. It’s nice to see him back on the ice. If the rules don’t have anything against it, let him play.”
Danton showed good speed, a hard nose and soft hands playing on the Huskies’ second line and on the power play. He mistimed a couple attempts at big hits and didn’t have a great scoring chance to speak of after scoring in his debut, a 4-1 home loss to the Acadia Axemen Wednesday.
Danton’s most notable play Friday was a hooking call early in the second period that led to a UNB goal and a skate of shame back to the Saint Mary’s bench. If you didn’t know the back story, Danton would just be another anonymous visiting player in a dark jersey, helmet and visor.
“I’m surprised his conditioning is as good as it is,” said Danton’s new coach, ex-NHLer Trevor Stienburg. “To handle as much ice as he did after that long off, I’m not sure many guys could do it.”
Stienburg said Danton is fitting in well with the team and can help the third-place squad as it makes a run to repeat as Atlantic University Sport champions. Opponents, meanwhile, think Danton’s presence could be good for the Atlantic conference.
“The league out here is pretty good and I think it might not get the recognition that it should,” said UNB left winger John Scott Dickson. “If he’s going to bring people into the stands, that makes me happy.”
Reds coach Gardiner MacDougall, meanwhile, said Danton will be a “measuring stick,” whether for players looking to make it to the next level or for defensemen taking him on one-on-one.
Danton, meanwhile, has no idea what the future holds.
“I think if anybody in the league had an opportunity to play pro, they would take that opportunity,” he said. “But as of right now, and as of next September, I’m here with Saint Mary’s, committed to school first and hockey second.”