A fighting chance, that’s all Brian McGrattan ever wanted in the game of hockey.
McGrattan fought hard to accomplish his dream to play in the National Hockey League.
The longtime enforcer squared off against the NHL’s best during his career, but McGrattan’s greatest victory was won off the ice when he conquered addiction.
The veteran of 317 NHL games is fighting the good fight now to ensure the game’s next generation of the brightest stars don’t have to experience the same hardships he went through in the pro ranks.
“I started playing pro hockey at twenty-one. When I broke in it was a different game on and off ice,” confessed McGrattan who currently works with the Calgary Flames in their Player Development Department.
“When I broke in, I came into a drinking culture.”
“It didn’t matter if the bus rides were three, five or seven hours, we had three or four cases of beer on the bus, and beers after the game.”
What happens on the road stays on the road.
Unfortunately, McGrattan’s drinking became all consuming.
“I got sidetracked a little bit by the culture because I thought it was normal to drink and be drunk all the time and be with the guys.”
“Slowly the good times were catching up with me.”
“The good times slowly turned into dark times,” admitted McGrattan.
“I would be drinking alone by myself locked in a room for three or four days in a row.”
“Here I am at the pinnacle of my career, drinking alone.”
“I was twenty-seven years old when I went into treatment, but it was something that plagued me and really hindered my career as the drinking enhanced.”
“At that age, I had to make a choice.”
“That choice could have gone two ways, keep going down the path of destruction and slowly die or turn your life around and make something of it.”
McGrattan made the choice to better himself and players in the Calgary Flames organization are better for it today.
Hockey culture and the code of silence was ever present during McGrattan’s darkest days.
“That was hardest part.”
“You’re in that culture, there was no player development back then, there was no body in between you, the Coach and General Manager that you could reach out to and talk to and ask for help.”
“The only two people were your Head Coach and your General Manager and you’re so afraid of your career,” confessed McGrattan.
How could a professional hockey player who’s so tough and the heart and soul of the hockey team, surrounded by his brothers in arms and his “hockey family” feel so hopeless and alone?
“You’re afraid of your career because they are going to look at you as a problem.”
“Oh we will get rid of this guy, and get another guy in here.”
McGrattan was ready to confront his toughest opponent yet, himself and his crippling addiction.
“It got to the point where I didn’t care anymore.”
“I said these people can judge me as much as they want, I’m going to make a change in my life here and I’ll work on my reputation after.”
McGrattan’s courage to stand up, courage to break the mental health stigma surrounding addiction, but more importantly the courage to ask for help at that point of his career and within the era of the game is truly inspirational.
The kid from Hamilton, Ontario that fought his way to the bright lights of the NHL was quickly realizing there was more to life than hockey and that life after the game could be equally or even more rewarding.
Nevertheless, his passion and love for the game still burned bright.
The dream was still alive.
“It was still tough.”
“My next couple contracts were tough because that was the question, is this guy a problem?”
Unfortunately for McGrattan changing people’s perception of the past drastically influenced the present and future.
Now just imagine changing the minds of old school hockey people.
Can you say culture shock?
As they say time is the greatest healer.
The veteran enforcer was starting to see the light at the end of tunnel.
Once thought as a liability, McGrattan started to witness and experience a major shift in philosophy considering his role and place in the game.
“Slowly those questions weren’t there anymore, and I put myself in a good position later on in my career where teams wanted to have me because of the influence I had in the community and on my teammates, young guys in the minors and prospects.”
“It eventually turned into a well needed job within the organization,” McGrattan said.
“It’s taking time to break stigma’s around hockey and sports for people that have struggled with addiction, mental health and that we can be positive influences on our colleagues, teammates and people in the community.”
With current NHLer Bobby Ryan returning to the Ottawa Senators after going through the league’s treatment program, McGrattan definitely sees a marked improvement in how the NHL and NHLPA are handling these issues.
“I think they have and obviously I think there is still room for growth,” McGrattan said confidently.
“I know Bobby a little bit, I was in Anaheim a couple of times while he was there.”
“Good job on him and hopefully he continues down the path of healing and good job by the Ottawa Senators for taking care of their player and their person.”
“Hopefully, he comes back and proves a lot people wrong more with his on ice play and with his impact that he can possibly have on his teammates and the people in community.”
“Hopefully people can look at him and say if Bobby Ryan did it, so can I.”
Those on the outside looking in see the NHL lifestyle as glamorous, but McGrattan has experienced the other side.
How difficult is it being on the road in today’s NHL?
“It is challenging, especially now.”
“The road trips are long, and you’re by yourself a lot especially in the NHL because you don’t have a roommate anymore.”
“You get your own room, you’re on
a ten or a twelve day road trip going to all these different cities it can get lonely.”
“I find a big problem today is the cell phones and iPads,” admitted McGrattan.
“I would like to see a no cell phone or iPad rule in the room.”
“I truly believe it takes away from human to human contact.”
“We can disappear on those things. We lose that touch with our friends and teammates.”
McGrattan believes social media in today’s society is tricky.
“Once it’s out there, it’s out there.”
“You have to be very careful on social media like we have seen earlier this year with a lot of things that have come out.”
“Social media is also a really good platform to promote yourself and the positive things you do in the community and the things you do with charities.”
“If it’s anything grey area I would highly recommend to just keep that stuff to yourself,” stressed McGrattan.
What’s the biggest piece of advice McGrattan would give to young players across the NHL and within the Flames organization from a mental health perspective and playing perspective?
“I would say just be yourself.”
“A lot of teams now are open to people who are themselves and it doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are and what struggles you have been through.”
“We want good people in our organization and people that are going to represent our jersey well and represent our community well.”
Brian McGrattan’s passion for the game and willingness to give back and the fight the good fight will undoubtedly impact the Calgary Flames organization for years to come.