Lack of explanation yields little insight
It all ended with a whimper, the quiet, sad conclusion to a young life gone terribly awry.
If anyone was hoping, waiting for Mike Danton to scream injustice yesterday before he was sentenced in East St. Louis for a fumbled murder-for-hire plot, wondering if he'd spell out why he wanted to have his agent killed or perhaps curious to see if he talked about his estranged family as part of the reason he preferred to be incarcerated in a Canadian jail, they were disappointed.
Danton said nothing. The judge, before handing down a 7½-year sentence, asked the former St. Louis Blues forward if he would like to address the court.
The former Mike Jefferson declined.
"I do not believe in over 18 years on the bench I have been faced with a case as bizarre as this one," U.S. District Court judge William Stiehl said. "The exact reasons you felt you needed to engage in a murder plot remain mystery to me."
We all want to know just as badly as the judge, of course, but it appears Danton will forever deny us that answer. We are left to speculate upon this unusual, dangerous character, and with regard to sports, we are left to ponder whether somehow his involvement in the culture of hockey pushed him towards this tragic conclusion.
His connection with his controversial agent, David Frost, remains the subject of much intrigue, but few hard facts have been established other than Danton's unyielding loyalty to Frost -- despite the fact Frost was the target of his assassination plot -- and unwillingness to re-unite with his Toronto-area family.
In the end, Danton simply had nothing to say.
This was, of course, the first act of a series of events, some legal processes, some not, that could reasonably be grouped collectively as hockey's year on trial.
As with the Danton proceeding, there is some hope that at the conclusion of this terrible year for the sport there will be created the basis for a greater understanding of the industry and the athletes who toil within its confines.
But there's no guarantee.
Four years ago, Marty McSorley faced criminal charges for his stick attack on Donald Brashear of the Vancouver Canucks, and there was anticipation at that time the trial would shed light on the dark inner workings of the NHL good culture.
It never did. McSorley was convicted of assault and sentenced to 18 months of probation, but the NHL avoided a nasty viewing of its dirty laundry and close scrutiny of violence in the league.
"The court today said that its focus was solely on the charge against Mr. McSorley. This was not a trial of the game or the NHL," a relieved NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said.
The McSorley trial, at its conclusion, was as silent on the sport as was Danton in court yesterday about his bizarre plot.
But what lies ahead for the game?
• Criminal charges facing Dany Heatley.
Heatley will go before an Atlanta court later this month in the latest stage of charges he faces for being the driver in a high-speed car accident last fall that killed Atlanta Thrashers teammate Dan Snyder.
Before the accident, Heatley was viewed as one of the brightest stars in the sport, and last spring he was named the most valuable player at the world championships for the gold-medal winning Canadian side.
Indeed, he has been warmly accepted back into the Canadian hockey community, and despite having charges, including vehicular homicide, laid against him in July, he was invited to play for Canada at the World Cup. Earlier this week, he suffered a serious eye injury while playing in the Swiss elite league.
Heatley's future, both physically and legally, is uncertain. His case also has been a telling insight into the willingness of the hockey community to look sympathetically upon star athletes when they fall afoul of the law. In Heatley's case, some have painted him as a hero for rebounding from the car accident that killed his friend rather than the architect of a stupid, very avoidable, car wreck.
To date, Heatley has not publicly explained what happened that night.
• Assault charges facing Montreal Canadiens prospect Alexander Perezhogin.
In August, the Russian, then a member of the Hamilton Bulldogs, was charged with assault causing bodily harm in connection with a stick swinging incident last April during an AHL game in which Perezhogin struck Garrett Stafford of the Cleveland Barons in the head, badly injuring Stafford.
Last week, Stafford returned to Hamilton with the Cleveland Barons for an AHL game. Perezhogin, despite being under suspension by the AHL for this season, is playing in the Russian league for Omsk Avangard and has three goals and six assists in nine games.
This stands out as one of the most vicious stick attacks in the history of North American pro hockey. Yet Perezhogin has simply returned home to play, and it will be interesting how he is viewed by the NHL should he attempt to crack the Montreal lineup in the future.
So far, Perezhogin hasn't explained why he decided to strike Stafford with his stick.
• The up-coming trial of Todd Bertuzzi.
On Jan. 17, Bertuzzi will go on trial for the celebrated incident last March in which he sucker-punched Steve Moore of the Colorado Avalanche from behind, breaking Moore's neck. Like the McSorley trial, there is great anticipation that the NHL will be called on the carpet, at least symbolically, to explain the culture of violence that so often gives the sport a black eye.
Bertuzzi, meanwhile, is the biggest NHL star to ever be charged for his role in an on-ice incident.
It's believed Bertuzzi hunted Moore down that night in an attempt to avenge a hit by Moore on Bertuzzi's Vancouver Canucks teammate, Markus Naslund, in an earlier game between the two clubs.
That said, Bertuzzi has so far declined to explain the reasons why he attacked Moore.
• The NHL lockout.
For weeks, there has been stony silence between the NHL and the NHL Players' Association as they contemplate the future of the league's economic structure. In turn, those negotiations, when they resume, will have much to say about what the overall league will look like when it returns.
Both sides have had much to say publicly, but not to each other. In many ways, the troubled industry of the NHL is on trial, with the league claiming to have lost $273 million last year while the players have stubbornly rejected the imposition of a salary cap to restrain salaries.
In the worst case scenario, the two sides will strike an 11th-hour compromise that will do nothing to impact the major difficulties encountered by the NHL in recent years.
Neither side has so far said how they intend to break the logjam or put the game in a position for mutual profitability in the future.
As with the legal troubles swirling about individual players, the sport of hockey's year on trial has just begun.
Yet, instead of explanations, the overwhelming sound we hear is silence.
Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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