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Hockey From the fire to the Flames: Brian McGrattan shares his path from NHL enforcer to mentor - and sobriety

Adirondack Flames' Brian McGrattan is seen during AHL action versus the Hamilton Bulldogs in Hamilton, Ont., on March 4, 2015.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Brian McGrattan had been drinking and using cocaine for five days. He locked himself in his bedroom at home in Phoenix. Around him, the walls were closing in.

“I felt defeated,” the former NHL player says. “I was beaten and broken and ready to die.”

He called a member of the training staff of the Phoenix Coyotes and told him he was sick and would be unable to attend practice. Then he made desperate calls to his mother and his agent.

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“In my only minute of clarity, I told them I needed help," McGrattan says. “What scared me was that I didn’t care if I didn’t live anymore. I needed to get my life on track."

It was Dec. 4, 2008, and he has been clean and sober since. For the past year and a half, he has been the director of player assistance for the Calgary Flames. He is a member of the team’s development staff, and counsels players on any number of issues.

He is 37 and is tattooed as one of the Sons of Anarchy. He is 6 foot 4 and looks like he was chiselled out of the Rockies. His nose is slightly bent like a prize fighter, a reminder of his former role as one of the game’s toughest hombres.

He holds an AHL record with 551 penalty minutes in a single season. In 317 NHL games, he scored 10 goals, had 17 assists and accrued 609 minutes in penalties. As a rookie with the Ottawa Senators, he scored his first goal against Martin Brodeur and earned instant notoriety by knocking out the fearsome Tie Domi with one punch.

He could seemingly conquer anything. Anything but addiction.

“Asking for help created a life for me," McGrattan says he sits in the Scotiabank Saddledome this week before a Flames practice. They lead the Colorado Avalanche 1-0 in their first-round playoff series, with the second game on Saturday night. "It seems like a simple thing, but for some people it is the hardest.”

Brian McGrattan now serves as a counsellor for the Calgary Flames.

Jeff McIntosh

He grew up in Hamilton and was a hockey star in his youth. At 19, he was on the verge of signing an NHL contract with the Los Angeles Kings when he suffered a serious knee injury. They suddenly lost interest and he returned to play in the OHL.

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He was traded four times in one season and issues he was having off the ice began to escalate.

The Senators called him two weeks before training camp in 2002 and he spent the next three years playing for their AHL affiliate in Binghamton, N.Y. He honed his skills as a fighter and in three seasons went from having 173 minutes in penalties to 551.

“I was a savage,” McGrattan says. ”I began to think that the crazier I was off the ice the crazier I would be on it. I figured if I acted that way nobody would ever have a second thought about it."

After games, he would rush back to his room. Two tubs of beer would be waiting.

“Away from the rink, the things I was doing, I just thought were part of the normal culture," McGrattan says.

He played the first of three seasons in Ottawa beginning in 2005. Management made one attempt at an intervention. It worked for nearly a year and then he began to drink again.

His performance on the ice suffered badly, but the Coyotes traded for him in 2008 anyway. He played five games and was scratched a lot as the spiral downward continued. Eventually, he found himself drunk and high and locked in a room at home and made those phone calls that likely saved his life.

He told the Coyotes that he was uncertain if he would ever play again and spent 5½ months in alcohol and drug rehab and then five weeks in a sober living home. He began to work out again and mulled a return to hockey. He had coffee one morning with Don Maloney, the Coyotes general manager.

“He couldn’t believe how great I looked,” McGrattan says. “I told him I would like to finish off the season to see what I had left.”

The Coyotes sent him to their AHL team in San Antonio for a conditioning assignment. He was recalled and suffered a serious shoulder injury the second day back.

“It was my first major setback sober,” he says. “I had to use everything I learned in rehab not to fall back.”

He underwent surgery and was prescribed Oxycontin for pain. He went home and immediately flushed the tablets down the toilet. He knew to use them could jeopardize his sobriety. He used over-the-counter Tylenol instead.

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“It was the most pain I had ever felt in my whole life,” he says. “It was also the most gratifying experience I had ever had. I figured if I could get through that, I could get through anything.”

He returned to hockey and in between playing in the AHL had stints with the Nashville Predators and Flames. In Calgary at one point, he was asked to provide guidance to Micheal Ferland, who was struggling with substance abuse.

By then Maloney had accepted a role in Calgary’s front office and Brad Treliving was the Flames general manager. He had been Maloney’s assistant when McGrattan played in Phoenix.

In 2017, McGrattan retired after spending a year with the Nottingham Panthers in the British Elite hockey league. That summer, the Flames asked him to make a presentation to rookies about lifestyle issues and to help mentor one of their prospects, who suffered from off-ice problems.

It turned into a full-time job at the start of the 2017-18 NHL season.

“I felt that we needed an avenue for players with problems to seek help without us ever knowing about it,” Treliving says. "I certainly think there is a value in it. The mental-health piece is really important.

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“Brian was already doing this job without officially ever doing it," Treliving says. “He had already helped a lot of guys over the years."

In 2009, Richard Clune was debating whether he should enter a drug-rehabilitation program when he saw McGrattan talking about the path he took to sobriety on television.

“I heard him and could relate to him as a fellow hockey player,” says Clune, now a member of the Toronto Marlies. “It gave me strength, encouragement and hope.”

Clune went into treatment, got out and then readmitted himself nine months later. He has been clean and sober since May 5, 2010.

The following fall he found himself lined up on the ice against McGrattan in an AHL game in Manchester, N.H. Right before a faceoff, Clune tapped McGrattan, then of the Providence Bruins, on the shinpads with his stick.

McGrattan turned, thinking he was about to receive an invitation to a fight. Instead Clune asked to speak with him after the game.

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They talked for about 45 minutes in a hallway beneath the arena and are now close friends.

“I was going to meetings and seeing a therapist and was very desperate to stay sober,” Clune says. "Outside of that, it was hard for me to talk to anybody and I didn’t know anybody in hockey that was sober.

"When I met him and we talked, it alleviated a lot of my anxiety. It felt nice to have someone in my corner that had empathy for what I was going through. You could not ask for a better guy to be a resource for players.

“The disease of addiction is so ruthless it is almost impossible to get out of. He has almost transcended the NHL with his story."

When they both played in Nashville, McGrattan also reached out to help Jordin Tootoo.

“I had just recently gotten out of rehab and Brian had a huge influence on my sober life,” Tootoo says. He has been clean since Dec. 19, 2010. “In this profession, you are constantly around people that pull you in different ways. When I was battling my demons, I went to Brian and he was able to coach me through.”

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McGrattan travels back and forth between Calgary and Stockton,. Calif., where the Flames have an AHL team. He offers advice to players on a variety of issues. Their confidentiality is guaranteed.

“I just want to let the guys enjoy the life they have,” he says. "If I can have some small impact to make it better, that is all I could want.”

His own life now has become great.

“Early on in my sobriety if you told me the things I have in my life today, I never would have thought it possible," he says.

He has been married for seven years. He met his wife, Michelle, at a Christmas party in his second year of sobriety. They have a son, Gabriel, who celebrates his fourth birthday on Saturday.

Gabriel began to learn to skate this winter. He sleeps with a Johnny Gaudreau jersey hanging over his bed.

Earlier this season, Gabriel had his picture taken with Alex Ovechkin. He was more interested in the Zamboni than Ovie.

“I told [Gabriel] one day he would appreciate it," McGrattan says.

He has a job with a team poised to make a run in the playoffs and a life full of love.

“I don’t know if I would be alive today if I hadn’t asked for help,” he says. "I wouldn’t have Michelle, and the life I have today. And I wouldn’t have a son.

“I have learned that if you take care of yourself and do the right things, anything is possible.”

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