Even in acquittal, Frost verdict tarnishes hockey

It was a troubling story but not a good case, so the verdict that came out of a courtroom in Napanee, Ontario, was about what you'd expect.

Justice Geoff Griffin found former hockey coach and agent David Frost not guilty of sexual exploitation of minors, charges that date back to Frost's stint coaching the Quinte Hawks, a low-junior team in a small town in eastern Ontario, more than a decade ago.

Frost got off. The game of hockey didn't. Griffin said the case "exposed a dark and very unhealthy side of hockey [that is] extremely offensive and must be denounced."

Frost was never a big name in the game. He never coached as high as major-junior; and at its peak, his NHL client list had two names on it. Only when the feds charged one of those NHL players, a journeyman named Mike Danton, with conspiring to kill Frost four years ago did the coach/agent gain notoriety.

Or, in his case, infamy.

It was clear that the relationship between Danton and Frost was not a normal player-agent arrangement. It turned out that Frost had exercised complete control of Danton's life, going back to the days when Frost coached him on the Quinte team. Danton and other players who bought into Frost's program were the closest thing to a cult as you'd find in hockey; but because Danton pleaded guilty, the background to that story was buried.

But around the time Danton headed off to prison, the Ontario Provincial Police started investigating Frost. He might not have been known to hockey fans, but he was known to the police after he took a plea to a charge of assault for slugging one of the Quinte Hawks on the bench during a game. It was last game he ever coached.

In the current case, two former girlfriends of Quinte players told police investigators about group sex at the apartment that Frost, then in his late 20s, shared with three of the teenaged Hawks in Deseronto, Ontario.

At Frost's trial a few weeks ago, they told Griffin that Frost had not only ordered his players to have sex with the girls, but watched them have sex; that he instructed them on how to have sex as if he was diagramming plays in the locker room; and that at times, he was even more directly involved. One woman said her former boyfriend could only have sex with her if Frost did, too -- or the player had to get permission from Frost to have sex with her alone.

It was troubling testimony, and they gave it, even though Griffin denied a prosecution motion to protect their identities.

But it wasn't enough to convict Frost.

It was he said/she said from the start.

Frost's defense attorney, Marie Henein, challenged the women's testimony, suggesting they had come forward years after the fact and colluded with made-up stories.

Frost wasn't called to testify. A couple of his former players took the stand in his defense and provided what passed for reasonable doubt. (Griffin ruled that the former players' names could not be published because they were minors at the time.)

Griffin ruled that he was "not prepared ... to conclude that the level of control was as extreme and all-pervasive" as the prosecution tried to make it seem.

So Frost is a free man in the eyes of the law. He can apply for coaching jobs or try to build a client list. But he will almost certainly still be persona non grata in hockey. Three years ago he resigned as an agent before the NHL Players' Association could decertify him and drop him from its list of approved agents.

Good luck to him.

Four years ago, before Danton went to trial, I asked one of the Hawks, D.J. Maracle, what went on in the apartment Frost shared with his players. Maracle said there was nothing that went on with the Hawks that he didn't see in other towns and with other teams.

I didn't doubt he was telling the truth. I don't doubt it now.

I've been around other teams and heard stories from players. There have been cases that made it to court and resulted in convictions. Graham James, for example, won awards and was considered one of the top junior coaches in Canada until he was charged and convicted of sexually assaulting two of his players with the Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League.

For every case that goes to trial, there are others that show lots of smoke but not enough fire for prosecutors to take to court.

Hockey has a culture separate and distinct from what you find in, say, football, basketball or baseball. It's lousy with perverse and degrading initiation rituals. Maybe that's because teenage hockey players, some as young as 14 or 15, often live away from home and don't have the support, supervision and checks and balances that family life offers. Maybe it's because there is usually little or no school involvement in their hockey programs. Or maybe it's simply because 22 teenagers often end up being supervised by only one or two adults.

To their credit, many junior hockey executives are trying to safeguard teenage players. Coaches are screened. Background checks are made. If players are living away from home, teams are trying to keep parents in the loop.

Still, David Frost's story, like Graham James' before him, is the worst kind of publicity the game could get. If there's pressure on teams to be more mindful of the emotional health and welfare of teenage players because of this awful publicity, then some good will have come out of this sordid case.

You wonder if the parents of the Quinte Hawks were completely in the dark about what the judge called "a dark and very unhealthy side of hockey." If they were, no one should be again.

Gare Joyce first wrote about David Frost and Mike Danton for ESPN The Magazine in 2004. He is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.