In a summer when more than 150 free agents went on the auction block on July 1, Brian McGrattan may have been one of the least likely players to find another NHL home.
Quietly, and away from the spotlight with the equally troubled Phoenix Coyotes, the 27-year-old enforcer struggled last season in more ways than one, failing at first to dress for games and then, according to members of the team's staff, missing practice. In December, McGrattan voluntarily entered the league's substance abuse and behavioural health (SABH) program, spending three months in a rehab facility before returning to the ice in mid-March.
His second game back, in a fight with Anaheim Ducks tough guy George Parros, McGrattan aggravated a chronic shoulder injury and was out for the season. Two weeks later, he had major shoulder surgery - setting up an off-season filled with months of rehabilitation of a different kind.
Despite McGrattan's seemingly long and difficult road back to the NHL, however, the Calgary Flames announced they had signed him to a $547,000 one-year, one-way contract on Saturday. And while he has been advised to not comment on his troubled season with the Coyotes, those around him are viewing this year as a fresh start after years fighting off-ice battles, both personal and injury wise.
"You know, I think he's dealt with [his issues]in as good a way as anyone could possibly expect," said McGrattan's agent, Dan Palango. "Brian is probably as fit and healthy and ready to play as he has ever been.
"I don't want to comment on the nature of the issues he was having. I don't think it's appropriate. He's progressed as well as any player has progressed in the SABH program - he's got a ringing endorsement from the doctors that were handling him - and it was probably the best decision he could have made."
Last season was McGrattan's fourth in the NHL, and he averaged just five minutes 31 seconds ice time per game while with the Coyotes. To this point in his career, which began after the NHL lockout with the Ottawa Senators, he has played a total of 148 games and has two goals, eight assists and 309 penalty minutes.
Considered one of the league's top heavyweights during his time in Ottawa, McGrattan has fought 39 times in his NHL career while averaging less than four minutes ice time a game.
It was that reputation as a pugilist that led to the Coyotes dealing a fifth-round pick for him in June of 2008, but according to Ulf Samuelsson, an assistant coach in Phoenix under head coach Wayne Gretzky, things quickly turned when McGrattan wasn't given much playing time to start the season.
"We were excited when he came, but he had some small injuries right away," Samuelsson said. "He was never able to come in with the big bang we were hoping for. Then things went south on a personal basis and before we knew it, we knew he was in trouble. And then he had to go away (to rehab)."
Despite the fact that his tenure in Phoenix amounted to five games and a lot of turmoil, Samuelsson said McGrattan had made an impact on his teammates and that they wanted to see him succeed.
"It didn't turn out the way we anticipated, but hopefully for Brian it was rock bottom here," Samuelsson said. "He's a great guy, he was good in the locker room and you know, we're all pulling for him."