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DESERONTO, Ontario -- The trip into Deseronto makes you feel as if you've entered a time capsule rather than a town, the perfect preservation of a place left behind. Dusty junk stores occasionally open unconvincingly dressed up as antique shops. Gossip is traded over the counter at a couple of greasy spoons.My first trip here four years ago led me to the most unsettling story I've worked on in 20 years of perching in press boxes and poking around hockey arenas in small-town Canada. The latest chapter in this saga will unfold Tuesday morning when David Frost, once the toast of Deseronto, walks into the courthouse in nearby Napanee to face four counts of sexual exploitation of teenagers and up to 10 years in prison. Frost, 41, has pleaded not guilty.
I started asking folks about Frost four years ago. That's when I first made the trek out to Deseronto, where events led to the criminal charges Frost faces. After visiting the town and writing the story in the summer of 2004, I took a needed shower. Even a shower didn't do the trick after conversations I had with Frost on the phone.
|David Frost, shown in 2006 leaving an Ontario court, was the target of Danton's failed murder-for-hire plot. Frost now faces charges he sexually exploited teenagers. His trial begins Tuesday.|
|Frost was released on $10,000 bail after appearing in an Ontario court in August 2006 on charges of sexual exploitation involving teenagers. He initially was charged with 12 counts. Eight of the charges have been dropped. Frost has pleaded not guilty.|
It's hard to say how much hockey Frost played, or if he played at all. There's no doubt he coached, though. And he was pretty successful, too. Only a few years out of high school he was coaching Tier II in Brampton, decent players barely younger than himself. His approach to the game didn't evolve. It was there from the start, equal parts physical intimidation and skill. When Frost's players gooned-up games, it only looked as if they were out of control. League officials didn't like it, but coaches and parents knew his players got better in his system. He was a coach on the rise but it ended badly when his players were busted drinking at a team party in the early '90s. Around a rink, players, coaches and, yeah, probably a few parents would tell you that the crime wasn't anything Frost did; the crime was getting caught.Strike one: It was the first time Frost ran afoul of the hockey establishment, a first offense. It's not a snooty game in Canada, in general, and in and around Toronto, in this case. There's no mistaking a local arena for a country club. It costs a big dollar to land a kid in a good program, but blue-collar parents dig deep if they have to. Still, a line is drawn between what's acceptable and what isn't, and Frost had crossed it. To get back into the game, he had to coach younger kids. He landed a job coaching Toronto Young Nats. It looked like a big drop from coaching junior, 19- and 20-year-olds, to coaching 13- and 14-year-olds. Fact is, though, he was coaching a lot of the top kids in Toronto minor hockey in that age group. Every year a kid or two who has played in the program makes the NHL. That Tier II team in Brampton was a dead end, a place where kids wound up, but the Young Nats were a destination, where players had a reasonable expectation of playing major junior, NCAA and even pro. With Frost calling the shots, the Young Nats won the Ontario championship. It wasn't enough for him to keep his job. Officials nabbed him for forging a parent's signature on a consent document. Maybe he could have beaten that, but some parents didn't approve of his coaching -- not the skill part, but the intimidation. According to league president John Gardiner, he verbally abused them; he brutalized the teens. At one point he dumped a garbage can on a kid's head. Legend has it the kid wearing the trash was the son of then-NHLPA chief Bob Goodenow, not that it stopped Goodenow from becoming Frost's close friend. Strike two: That's how Frost wound up in Deseronto, with the Quinte Hawks, a new team in the Metro Junior Hockey League. The minor hockey establishment didn't sanction MJHL and looked at it as an "outlaw league." For players not quite ready for major junior, it was a stepping stone, not the most desirable one, not the first choice, but a league where a kid could grow into a man's game. For coaches, though, it was pretty well regarded as the end of the road. One of the team's volunteer coaches, schoolteacher John Boultbee, quit early in the season after a dispute over gas money and pressing concerns with his job and family. The Hawks struggled early in the season and were looking for players and a coach. Frost had his opportunity. "Actually, the team was looking more for players than the coach, but when [the players, including Jefferson and Sheldon Keefe] came in, it was made clear Frost was part of the package," Boultbee said. They were Frost's one shot at hanging on in the business. As Gardiner said: "[Frost] had run out of places where he could coach."
Road crews and walleye fishermen are put up at the Bay View Inn, a charmless motel off the highway where no room has a view of the bay. Townies who find work are most likely to find it at the rope factory. The financial hub is out on the highway on the perimeter of the Tyendinaga Mohawk reserve, native-owned gas stations that sell tax-free smokes and Indian souvenirs to those just passing through. Same as always. Deseronto, pop. 1,900 and holding, looks like a town without secrets, a place where everybody knows if a neighbor let his dog out. In towns like this across Canada, what passes for a pulse is the sound of slap shots and bodychecks at the local arena and what passes for community spirit is cheering for the home team.
|Former pro hockey player Mike Danton pleaded guilty in July 2004 to attempting to hire a hit man to kill his agent, David Frost. Danton is still serving a 7 1/2-year sentence.|
It took only five minutes for word to get around town when Jefferson, Keefe and a couple of others from the Young Nats lugged their hockey bags into the arena. Heads would have turned. They all dressed the same, in the same red Young Nats jackets. They had the same haircuts, almost shaved at the side, with mini-mullet rat tails in the back, sort of hockey hard-core, straight edge with curved sticks. Tongues wagged about the living arrangements. Not about the kids who landed the townies' basement apartments and spare bedrooms, not about the few of them who lived close enough to go back to their families' homes after practices. No, they talked about Frost sharing a dingy suite at the Bay View Inn with three of his players: Keefe, who was 15; Larry Barron, who was 20; and Daryl Tiveron, who was 21. And they talked about the girls, high school "puck bunnies," who headed over to Room 22.
The birth certificates said they were boys and young men, but they partied harder than servicemen on shore leave, and the townsfolk closest to the Hawks were concerned. Norm Clark, a retired police chief, thought the team was out of control. And, according to Boultbee and others, so did Greg Royce, a teacher in Belleville who is now an NHL scout. Even though Frost completely called the shots, Royce was nominally the Hawks' head coach and Frost his assistant. Elena Phillips, a retired nurse who gave Jefferson a room and fed him just a couple of blocks from the arena, saw him come back from nights at the Bay View Inn bruised and unable to speak. According to some later accounts, the motel's owners saw Keefe sitting in the hallway, sobbing in his underwear, locked out of the apartment by Frost. All those who thought something was wrong felt like they didn't have enough to call the authorities, no hard evidence, just suspicions.
You might think that a long time had passed between the Quinte Hawks' 1996-97 season and the first trip I made there in 2004, but all those years after the team cleared out of town, the players' names were still above their stalls in what used to be the Hawks' dressing room: Jefferson, Keefe, Barron, Tiveron, Maracle, Paddon, Erskine and the rest. The room was sealed and preserved like a crypt. Back in 2004, I talked to two of the Hawks who had slept in their own beds: D.J. Maracle, a native from Deseronto, and Kelly Paddon, who would get a ride in from Belleville 30 minutes away.
Maracle swore by Frost, called it "the best year in my career." He also said Frost was the best coach he ever played for, high praise considering Maracle later played for a touring native team that was coached by Ted Nolan, once named the NHL's coach of the year. Maracle was Frost's type of player, a tough guy. "It was the first year I dropped the gloves, and I ended up with 22 fighting majors," Maracle says. Not 22 fights, mind you. There were fights in the warm-ups, line brawls, fights that carried over into the hallways and parking lots after players were thrown out, fights at practice, even fights on the bus, when the players stripped down and the bussie turned on the heater and the windows streamed up.
Paddon had nothing good to say about Frost. "David Frost is an animal," he told me. "A control freak. I was 16 at the time and I went along [because] I just thought that's what junior hockey is about." Paddon was a skilled player who was hoping to catch the eye of a scout from an NCAA school. Fighting wasn't part of his game and he was creeped out by the "cult around the coach." By midseason he wished he had never signed on with the Hawks. Still, like Maracle, he had heard stories about players, girls and booze at Frost's hotel but nothing that he thought was way out of bounds.
Maracle and Paddon told me they never made it over to the Bay View Inn. Completely believable. Maracle had a girlfriend and wasn't a party kid. Paddon couldn't get out of Deseronto fast enough after practice. They'd heard about the nights before at practice. It didn't rattle them. "It was just hockey," Paddon said. "Just part of what goes on around the game no matter where you are."
No matter, coaching a winning team earned "Frosty" a lot of slack. The team went a couple of months during the season without a loss. And in town, eight bucks to see a Hawks win and half a dozen fights was a bargain. A Faustian bargain, as it turned out.
It didn't even last the whole season. On the bench during a playoff game at the arena in Deseronto, Frost was venting at Daryl Tiveron, one of his roommates at the Bay View Inn. Frost thought he was playing soft. To drive home his point, he slugged Tiveron in the jaw. Everyone saw it, everyone including a couple of police officers. Strike three. The Hawks still had games to play but their season ended there. Frost was charged with assault. "How bad could it be if Daryl stuck by him?" Maracle said. "It wasn't him that pressed the charges. It was the police." Ultimately, Frost would take a no-jail-time plea, a slap on the wrist. His real punishment was that he was suspended as a coach. It might have been an "outlaw league," but not a criminal one. The Hawks bombed out in the playoffs. "Frost's players, the kids from Brampton, just shut it down after they hauled him away," Paddon told me. Everybody in Deseronto remembers the Quinte Hawks, but the team was there for only a season. The franchise was sold and packed off to Bancroft in the summer of '97. You can't find a trace of that Quinte Hawks team in town, just faint outlines where team pictures used to hang at the greasy spoons and empty sleeves of albums that were full of photos of the players and the coaches -- all taken away by police as evidence in a criminal investigation that started more than four years ago. The last thing to go -- the dressing room at the arena. It was unlocked, the Hawks' nameplates were trashed and everything was given a fresh coat of paint.
Frost had coached his last game, and maybe he knew it. He still looked for work in the Ontario junior league but never got an interview. He sent out résumés with a letter of reference from Goodenow -- or at least that's the way he presented it. Word about him slugging a kid was all over the grapevine. He couldn't let go, though. He still tracked his players when they made the move up to junior, still worked like a coach from his seat in the stands, still was a presence in their lives. When Sarnia traded Jefferson to the St. Michael's Majors, Keefe's team, the boys from Brampton were back together. A couple of other Frost acolytes, Ryan Barnes and Shawn Cation, were along for the ride. The same act followed -- Frost's players talked only to each other, not to teammates. They walked around with thousand-yard stares, looked for him in the crowd for him to give them hand signals while they tuned out the coach on the bench. Majors management claimed Jefferson stayed at the apartment of the team's goaltending coach, but Steve Jefferson, Mike's father, said his son stayed with Frost and the other players. The Majors' general manager, Reg Quinn, grew tired of the act at St. Mike's. The team was associated with a Toronto Catholic school and management decided it was better to lose without Frost and his players than to win with them. St. Mike's dealt the four players to the Barrie Colts, where they'd go on to a league championship.
|The New Jersey Devils drafted Danton in 2000 then later traded him to St. Louis, where he appeared in 68 games in 2003-04.|
If the case is dropped or Frost is acquitted, it's not the end of his legal troubles. Frost was charged with using Danton's credit card and signing his name to buy a tank of gas a few months back. Maybe some were surprised, but I wasn't. When I exchanged e-mails with Frost, he used an account set up in Danton's name and forwarded me correspondence that Danton's uncle, Jeff Jefferson, had sent to his nephew. Where Danton ends and Frost begins is entirely unclear. Some agents might have a client's power of attorney, but Frost seemed to wield another power entirely.
|Frost once coached the Young Nats and won the Ontario championship, but he ran afoul of parents and the coaching job didn't last.|
"Doug" and his family were not questioned by the authorities, but lots of neighbors, ones who offered the players room and board, were. And once they've been brought in and questioned and pushed for more detail, once they've told everything they know, well, they're spooked by a stranger's prying questions. Dennis Vick was the manager of the Deseronto arena when the Quinte Hawks played their last game in the spring of 1997. He retired a couple of years back. In 2004, when I first spoke to him, Vick preferred to talk about the game on the ice and was skeptical about the stories making the rounds about the scene in Room 22 at the Bay View Inn. He preferred to talk about what a great coach Frost would have become if things had turned out differently. He still believes it. "He knew how to read people," Vick says. "He pushed players and other people around, and I half expected them to haul off and hit him, but no one ever did. He knew how to intimidate. That won't help him now, though. Maybe he'll finally get what's coming to him." Vick says it's hard to say what others in Deseronto are thinking about Frost's trial. "It seems like everybody has talked to the police and to reporters," he says. "The trial's nothing that people in town are comfortable talking about, not even to each other. I'm not going to go to it. I'll read about it in the paper, but I'd sooner go over to the arena to see the junior team that's playing there now, the Deseronto Storm. The coach is Matt Barnhardt. D.J. Maracle and Matt were the two local kids who were on the Quinte Hawks." In Deseronto, for those like "Doug," it seems as if they just stood by when something criminal was going on. For others involved with the team, those like Vick, it's more like guilt by association. They're hoping the trial, even if Frost is acquitted, will clear their names, make it clear they didn't approve and weren't involved. In this luckless little town, they feel as if they've lost the lottery, again. It seems like there's a story every hockey season about an initiation gone wrong, gone weird. Last year, five players with the Saginaw Spirit juniors pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and battery and were put on probation for two years. They might have faced stiffer charges, but the family of the girl involved, a minor, didn't want to put her through the ordeal of a trial. But when people talk about Saginaw, that case isn't the first thing that comes to mind. No, David Frost managed to put Deseronto on the map, and the townies wish he hadn't.
|David Frost, far right, watches a Pembroke Lumber Kings CJHL hockey game in Ottawa, Ontario. The franchise is owned and coached by a former client, Sheldon Keefe.|
The one thing that sticks in my mind after talking with Frost and with dozens who know him: He wanted to be a coach, wanted it more desperately than anything else. He told me he used to sneak into Maple Leaf Gardens to watch Pat Burns coaching the Leafs. "I never played the game but neither did Pat Burns or Mike Keenan or Ken Hitchcock, and they all coached Stanley Cup winners," he said. "I'm not saying that I would have coached in the NHL, but I think I could have coached at the next level in major junior. I could have changed my approach some. But to coach, you have to get players to play for you, to go to the wall for you. I had always been able to do that." In the court in Napanee this week, Frost might find out if some of his players will be willing to go to the wall for him one last time. Gare Joyce first wrote about David Frost and Mike Danton for ESPN The Magazine in 2004. He is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.