AUDIE CORNISH, Host:
There are dramatic lives - and then there is the life of Mike Danton. Sports fans remember Danton as a former National Hockey League tough guy whose budding career came to a stunning end in 2004, when he went to prison. Danton pleaded guilty to trying to hire someone to carry out a murder. This past week, Mike Danton was back in the news, and the subject again was life and death. But as NPR's Tom Goldman reports, Danton, who's playing again, was on the right side of the story this time.
TOM GOLDMAN: By hockey standards, the hit was clean - but the end result wasn't. Marcus Bengtsson, a 21-year-old forward for the Swedish professional team IFK Ore, took the hit from an opponent in a game last week, and it sent him into the ice face first.
MIKE DANTON: I heard him start groaning, and I looked down and I was like, you OK? And he just went into convulsions and started shaking.
GOLDMAN: Mike Danton has been Bengtsson's teammate since late July. That's when Danton signed with IFK Ore - that, by the way, is the English pronunciation. It was Danton's first pro contract since he left the NHL in 2004. Seeing Bengtsson's condition, Danton flung away his gloves, stick and helmet, and dropped down beside him.
DANTON: His eyes started rolling back and, you know, his face went from normal tone to beet red, and then to pale white.
GOLDMAN: Bengtsson relaxed his clenched jaw enough for Danton to wedge his fingers inside - something Danton later was told he shouldn't have done, and he has the bite marks to confirm that. But by doing what he did, Danton discovered Bengtsson's tongue was back in his throat. He couldn't breathe.
DANTON: You know, I just put my fingers on his tongue and pulled it up a little bit.
GOLDMAN: Danton and others then rolled Bengtsson onto his side. Bengtsson's color returned, the convulsions subsided; he opened his eyes.
DANTON: I said to him, you OK?
GOLDMAN: Marcus said, yes.
DANTON: And I said, do you know where you are?
GOLDMAN: Yes, again.
DANTON: He's a big fan of Manchester United, so I gave one last test and I said well, Manchester United sucks, and he started laughing. And it was at that time I just, you know, I started crying; you know, I'm a big sap anyways. And, you know, I just realized that, you know, how close it was that I almost lost one of my friends.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC AT HOCKEY GAME)
GOLDMAN: The chanting, hockey-loving locals from Furudal, Sweden, home to IFK Ore, are grateful, Danton says, for what he did. So, too, is Marcus Bengtsson, who's alive and recovering from a concussion, in part because Mike Danton learned to help people while doing five and a half years for plotting to kill someone. Danton took a prison first-aid course; he talked to prison nurses about the drug-addicted inmates he'd often see having seizures. And, he says, he learned how to be cool under fire.
DANTON: I've dealt with so much turmoil that, you know, in situations of adversity and stress, I just deal with situations very well.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: He's a tough kid.
ANNOUNCER: Yes, he is. And so is - Mike Danton is a tough kid as well.
GOLDMAN: By the time he'd made it to the NHL, Mike Danton had dealt with a lifetime of turmoil. Physically and sexually abused as a kid, he says, by his biological father, he fell in with a youth coach in Canada who by some accounts, developed a Svengali-like control over Danton. According to the FBI, the coach was the target of Danton's murder-for-hire scheme. In the ESPN documentary "Stranger than Fiction," Danton says he hatched the plot because he was convinced someone wanted to kill him.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "STRANGER THAN FICTION")
DANTON: (as himself) You mix in pain medications, stimulants, uppers, downers, sleeping pills - stuff like that - with someone that has a ridiculous amount of paranoia and other psychological things going on in their head; it's a recipe for disaster.
GOLDMAN: The case took another strange twist when Danton revealed his intended victim wasn't his coach but his biological father. Danton declines to give any more detail. The plot never was carried out. Danton served his time. He says it was five and a half years of his life gone but at the same time, some of his most important years - which laid the foundation, he says, for who he is today. Danton took university correspondence courses in prison. Now, he's taking classes online, pursuing a double major in psychology and criminology. Learning to help himself and to help others, prison, Danton says, saved his life. And this week, he got to repay the debt. Tom Goldman, NPR News.
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