HALIFAX, N.S. – Mike Danton showed little rust in his first hockey game in almost six years Wednesday night, scoring once, making and receiving big hits, and showing the hustle and skill that took him to the NHL.
The 29-year-old forward made his CIS hockey debut with the Saint Mary’s Huskies during a 4-1 defeat to the Acadia Axemen.
“Scoring the goal was a huge monkey off my back,” Danton told a small group of reporters who gathered outside the locker room moments after the game.
“You guys have put me on the front page for the past two weeks, so it was good to get that one away.”
Danton’s NHL career ended abruptly when he was arrested in April 2004 in a murder-for-hire plot in the United States.
The former St. Louis Blue and New Jersey Devil was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and served five years, three months before he was released and returned to Canada last March.
Danton’s return to the game generated a great deal of debate about whether there is room in the university game for an older, former NHLer with a criminal record.
During a news conference shortly after his arrival on the Halifax campus, he said he wanted to start over, put the past behind and return to the game he loves.
Wearing No. 24, Danton jumped over the boards for his first shift about two minutes into the game, threw a big hit behind the Acadia net and narrowly missed setting up a goal.
“I’m an energy player,” he said. “I’m not a guy that’s going to be a go-to offensive guy getting two, three or four goals a game – I play physical.
“My concern was, that as the game went on, was I going to be able to sustain that kind of energy?”
Danton took a regular shift – and some hard hits from the Acadia players – in his first game since April 15, 2004, but those shifts became noticeably shorter in the final period.
A crowd of about 2,000, more than double the usual attendance for a weeknight varsity game in Halifax, gave him a standing ovation after he scored on a short pass from linemate Cam Fergus about 11 minutes into the third period.
“The standing ovation and the cheers, that’s just something I’m used to since I’ve been here because everyone’s been so supportive,” Danton said, his shaved head glistening with sweat.
Danton acknowledged the crowd by raising his stick as he skated back to the bench surrounded by jubilant teammates.
It’s been almost six years since he last heard that kind of roar. His arrest came only a few hours after St. Louis was knocked out of the 2004 NHL playoffs.
The prosecution in the case in the U.S. said the target of the murder plot was David Frost, Danton’s agent at the time. However, Danton, in a convoluted exchange at the National Parole Board last year, suggested the intended victim was his father.
The target of the plot was not identified in the agreed-to facts that were part of the court record when Danton pleaded guilty.
Born Mike Jefferson in Brampton, Ont., Danton played with the OHL’s Barrie Colts and was selected 135th overall by the New Jersey Devils in the 2000 NHL draft.
He changed his surname to Danton while with the Devils after becoming estranged from his family.
He scored nine times in 87 NHL games before his arrest.