Flames’ McGrattan has put substance abuse issues behind him as he gains fans’ and teammates’ admiration
Calgary’s teddy bear tough guy has also demonstrated an unlikely scoring touch as of late
The opportunity is coming, Brian McGrattan can feel it.
One of these games, if the situation arises, Calgary Flames head coach Bob Hartley is finally going to use the gritty right-winger in his list of shootout candidates.
At least, he hopes so.
“He always looks at me and says, ‘Bob. When am I going first?’ ” said Hartley, laughing when describing the lighthearted antics one of his team’s most popular players and scorers, as of late. “He takes the pressure away from being in shootouts. Some guys are shaking, thinking I might just call their name. He’s standing up: ‘Am I the first guy?’
“I’ll surprise him, one day he’s going to go.”
And wouldn’t that go over well?
A fan favourite, the Scotiabank Saddledome went ballistic when McGrattan scored the Flames’ second goal in Monday’s third period to add to a late comeback against the Los Angeles Kings.
The 32-year-old Hamilton native scored in his second consecutive game, tallying his third goal this season (59 games played) and ninth National Hockey League marker in 292 career games. He’d potted Calgary’s lone goal — one for the ages, a slapshot dump-in allowed by Eddie Lack — in a 2-1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday.
No, the man they call ‘Big Ern’ doesn’t score often. But when he does — during a practice or a game — it is celebrated wholeheartedly.
“When a guy like that scores . . . he sacrifices his body, his face, his fists for the guys time and time again and doesn’t get enough credit for it,” said Flames centre Joe Colborne. “So when he does get a chance to score and he scores two in a row like he did.
“There are few moments in hockey that get someone jacked up as much as that. Everyone’s just grinning. Like, we’re SO pumped for him. It’s pretty special when he gets the accolades he deserves on a more regular basis.”
With tattoos, scruffy beard, and serious stare, the six-foot-four, 235-pounder looks like one tough hombre. He plays like it, too, as one of the league’s most established tough guys over 12 seasons of professional hockey and has 10 fights to his name this year.
Yet, he’s one of the good guys — on and off the ice.
“I’m so proud of him,” Hartley said. “No. 1, when you talk about Brian McGrattan and all those tough guys. People think they are goons or bums . . . for the most part, they’re unbelievable guys. They’re big teddy bears. They’re being loved and well-respected by their teammates.”
For good reason, too. Their job isn’t easy.
Which is why Hartley tries to work with McGrattan to be more than a stereotype, watching tape on his defensive reads or helping him develop his offensive game.
“I’m very proud of him because he takes care of himself,” Hartley said. “He’s a great guy. You look at his past and he’s had some real tough days. What he’s doing right now, his biggest fight is not on the ice. It’s off the ice. He’s winning that fight in an unbelievable way. For me, I have the utmost respect for him.”
Those tough days came when he was battling substance abuse. Now, a partner with the NHL’s substance abuse program, he simply focuses on taking things one day at a time and doing the best he can every day — off the ice, in practices, games. Whether he’s sitting or playing five minutes a night.
“I’ve said it before, I had a pretty dark time in my life,” he said. “I kind of reached rock-bottom. The hard work I put into myself and my personal life, it’s paid off in a lot of other ways that has really humbled me. I do as much work as I can in the community.
“I try to do some work with some treatment centres here to kind of keep me back and keep me humble and not let me forget who I really am.”
Back on Jan. 18, McGrattan provided the voice of reason during a hallway altercation at Rogers Arena with John Tortorella and kept the Vancouver Canucks’ head coach out of their dressing room as well as stopped Flames goalie coach Clint Malarchuk from going after Tortorella. A big example of things have changed in McGrattan’s world.
Behind the scenes this year, the team’s elder statesman is a positive influence on this rebuilding group. He shows that accepting your role — especially a role like his — is part of the gig. Sense of humour, too, is one of his traits.
“Sometimes you’re not in the lineup for four or five games and you have to bring the same positive attitude,” McGrattan said. “You have to set an example for young guys. It’s taken a lot of learning to get where I’m at.
“I try to enjoy every day, especially every day in this league. We’re all blessed to be here. We’ve put a lifetime of work into what we do. Unfortunately, you can’t do it forever and enjoy every day you’re here.”
Colborne had met McGrattan during his time in the American Hockey League’s Providence Bruins. A personality you’d never forget.
“He’s the loudest human you’ll ever meet,” said Colborne, laughing. “But he just has the ability, when guys come in or get called up, immediately they’re getting ripped on by Grats. But that’s how you welcome guys in.
“Makes you feel like you’ve been here forever.”
McGrattan’s influence is easy to see.
“He means a lot,” Hartley said. “Not only to our players. To everyone. To our trainers. To the coaches. He’s always happy. Here’s a guy that touched the bottom of the barrel. He found the joy of life, not only in his profession. I know he’s been a tremendous support to the Stajan family (who are dealing with a tragedy). He’s been tremendous for everyone on this team, even in the community. He’s fun.”
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