It’s been more than three seasons since Brian McGrattan’s days as an NHL enforcer, but dressed all in black, his tattooed arms showing and his hair cut into a mohawk, he looks like he could step right back into the role if duty called. Sitting in his kitchen at home in the south of Calgary, McGrattan is talking about how different life is today, though you can’t hear much of what he’s saying, because three barking dogs are frantically gunning for his front door. Lola, the tall, golden-haired one, leads the charge.
When the barking quiets, McGrattan gives Lola a pat as she passes on her way to the other end of the house, and then he returns to his last thought. He looks across the counter at his wife, Michelle, and then to his right, where their three-year-old son, Gabe, is playing with Lego on the living room carpet, blonde hair cut just like Dad’s. (They go to the same barber). “Would never have had this,” McGrattan says, describing what would’ve happened had he kept careening down the path he was on a little more than a decade ago. “I’d be dead, so I wouldn’t have had it.”
On Dec. 4, 2008, McGrattan locked himself inside the bedroom of his Phoenix home and called the Coyotes’ trainer to say he wouldn’t be making practice because he was sick. Coming off a five-day bender fuelled by cocaine and whatever booze he could get his hands on, McGrattan called his mom, Cathy, next. “I’m not sure if I wanted to die — I didn’t care,” he says, now. The realization scared the daylights out of him. He told Cathy: “I need to get some help.”
Thanks to that decision, McGrattan is not only a husband and a dad, but the 37-year-old has also carved out a second career in hockey as a member of the Calgary Flames’ front office in a role that’s unique in the NHL — nobody else in the league does what he does. After a 10-year career protecting his teammates on the ice with his fists, McGrattan is now using his vast life experience to protect and help players as Calgary’s Director of Player Assistance. He’s not a therapist or a doctor — he prefers the terms “big brother” or “friend” — but he’s here to confidentially talk to Flames and prospects about anything and everything, the goal being to ensure that none of them hits rock bottom like he did.
As he sits here at home surrounded by his family and dogs, McGrattan considers whether the other 30 teams in the NHL are doing enough to support players struggling with personal issues. Michelle looks up from her early afternoon espresso and answers first: “No.” McGrattan nods in agreement. “I don’t think so,” he says. What’s missing in every market — aside from Calgary, the team sitting atop the Western Conference, which he’ll tell you is no coincidence — is an employee in that lifestyle role he occupies. “I’m not the kind of guy to preach,” McGrattan says, “but hopefully it becomes a trend.”
It’s an off-day for the Flames, and ahead of tonight’s National Lacrosse League game, the Calgary Roughnecks are practicing. McGrattan is half-watching from a private box. His six-foot-four frame is wedged into a seat, his legs stretched out as far as space allows.
He has an office here at the Saddledome, kind of. It’s a small desk in the corner of the office that’s actually occupied by assistant general manager and former teammate, Craig Conroy. That’s where McGrattan does paperwork, since scouting is also part of his role. But his most important work doesn’t happen here. No, unlike his days as an enforcer, McGrattan’s biggest impact is now felt outside the rink, because any player wanting to discuss a sensitive issue won’t be doing so here. “This would probably be the last place it would happen,” he says. A coffee shop or a phone call is a lot more common.
McGrattan supports players the moment they enter the organization. He visits prospects and spends weeks at a time with the Flames’ AHL affiliate in Stockton. He takes small groups of guys out for meals or coffee, “then give them the reason why I’m around,” he explains. What he tells every player is this: “I’m here any time you have something going on. Number’s on all night.” Marital issues, family trouble, anxiety, addiction — you name it, “I’m here to talk and listen,” he says. As for how often he’s discussing personal issues with Flames and prospects, McGrattan says, “I’ll just keep that to myself.” Confidentiality is king.
Though it’s now literally his job, McGrattan figures he helped more than 10 players through personal issues while he was a player himself. He helped guys without even knowing it at the time, too. An example: About nine years ago, Rich Clune was playing for the L.A. Kings. He was sitting on his parents’ bed with his bags packed for rehab, but he was thinking, “Ah, f—, I don’t know if I’m gonna go.” Then he flipped on the TV and there was McGrattan sharing his story on TSN’s Off The Record. “That gave me so much courage and hope, seeing this guy that I could relate to — finally,” says Clune, who’s now 31 and a member of the Toronto Marlies. “Back then it was maybe the one guy that I would look up to, this big tough fighter in the NHL who I’d watched as a kid. So I was like, alright, and I went to rehab.”
Clune lasted four days that first trip to treatment, but a year later, he got sober. Eight months after that, he reached out to McGrattan just before their two AHL teams were scheduled to meet, and asked if they could talk after the game. “I was doing everything they taught me in treatment, going to meetings, but I was so desperate, right?” Clune says. “I was missing that connection with someone I could relate to.” He and McGrattan talked for 45 minutes that day and they’ve been friends ever since.
Someone players can relate to is exactly the reason Flames general manager Brad Treliving decided the team needed a Director of Player Assistance. While the GM didn’t know quite what the job would look like when he first thought about it a few seasons ago, he did know McGrattan was the perfect fit, and extended the offer when McGrattan retired in 2017 after a season with the Nottingham Panthers in England.
Treliving has plenty of experience with McGrattan: He was assistant GM in Phoenix when the team acquired the enforcer. The executive actually believed McGrattan back in those days when he lied and said he didn’t have a problem with drugs and alcohol, when he said he didn’t need help after the team’s management offered it. “We joked the first time we talked about this, ‘Who’s the first person you hire to protect your home?’ You hire the thief that’s already been here,” Treliving says. “He knows all the tricks of the trade.” Not that McGrattan’s here to rat out players: The point, and the hope, is to prevent potential problem situations, to encourage players to talk to him before it’s too late. As Treliving describes it: “Let’s not wait until the house is on fire before we call the fire department. Is there a way that we can get in front of this? Are there resources that we can give our players, people to talk to? In Brian’s case, seeing signs that maybe somebody’s heading down the wrong path, that we can prevent something before it becomes an issue — that’s really our mindset. How do we look after our people?”
Since McGrattan joined the Flames staff, Treliving has had five or six other NHL GMs inquire about the benefits of the role and how it works. Treliving isn’t one to suggest what other teams should be doing — he’s too busy worrying about his own, he says — but that no other teams have added a Director of Player Assistance since he got the job surprises McGrattan. “It’s kind of shocking, actually,” he says, given that statistically, one in five people will experience mental illness at some point each year. With some 700 players in the league, he wonders, “how many guys are struggling without anybody to talk to? You do the math, it could be two players a team that could have something going on.
“A major part of our career is our life away from hockey,” McGrattan adds. “When we leave this rink today, the other 10 hours of the day are very important. So why don’t we have someone helping guys with that lifestyle stuff?”
That lifestyle stuff can be especially daunting for a rookie stepping into the league, as Dillon Dube can attest. The 20-year-old forward made his NHL debut this season with the Flames, and he calls the transition from junior to pro “crazy,” going from no salary to a pro salary, living in a new city, learning to play the pro game. While playing last season in Stockton, Dube got to pick McGrattan’s brain over the course of several visits. “He doesn’t feel like a player development guy,” Dube says. “He was helping me in Stockton, just getting comfortable. He was really there for me. And it’s really different, what we go through, having to hold the reputation as an NHL player. If you had to talk to a stranger about that? It’s hard. So I think going through him, he’s been through it all.
“And it’s hard to talk to people that are in the organization and management, but when you get to know him, you feel comfortable going to talk to him more than anybody else. You know he’s been in the league and [knows] how hard it can be to talk.”
Certainly, that McGrattan has been in players’ shoes helps. But to enjoy the benefits of his wisdom, they do have to get over the fact that the man they call ‘Big Ern’ — named after Bill Murray’s character in Kingpin — could beat the crap out of them if the mood struck. McGrattan may be kind and thoughtful and open, but he’s also the most menacing-looking member of the Flames’ front office. Head coach Bill Peters jokes (maybe jokes?) that he doesn’t take part in alumni skates “because of Big Ern.”
Dube admits he was a little scared to talk to McGrattan when they first met. “Have you seen what he’s done in this league?” he asks, eyebrows all the way up. “The guy’s an enforcer, one of the best of all time.” Dube stares at his own hands and shakes his head as he talks about McGrattan’s bear paw-sized mitts: “His hands are just crazy.”
McGrattan laughs when Dube’s descriptions are relayed to him. “Scared of me?” he says, grinning. “He’s my boy now. He knows I’m here for him, any time.”
What McGrattan is doing in the NHL may be unique today, but the Director of Player Assistance role didn’t begin with him. It got its start with another NHL enforcer.
Brantt Myhres had just checked into rehab for the fifth time. Every item of clothing he owned was stuffed into a Calgary Flames hockey bag. He had less than $100 in his bank account and even fewer hours of sobriety to his name. In about a week, his first child, a daughter, would be born.
Hours later, at that treatment facility in Astoria, Oregon — where The Goonies was filmed and set — Myhres drew up the foundation for a player assistance role in the NHL. Having hit his rock bottom, he decided the league needed to hire someone to help players who were struggling like him. He pulled out his laptop and started to draw up a proposal that same night. He sent the finished product to both the NHL’s and NHLPA’s offices about a year later. “I started thinking back about some of the players that I played with that had issues, and I thought, ‘Man, I want to put something together for the league,’” Myhres says now, from his home in Edmonton. “And if I can hang onto my sobriety, I believe that there’s a position somewhere.”
It was quite the turnaround for Myhres: Three days before he checked in to rehab, his face was in a snowbank and two police officers were on his back. He remembers seeing his older sister, Cher, crying on her front porch. He doesn’t remember smashing the glass table in her house, or trying to fight her husband, or drinking all the liquor in her freezer. It was Feb. 18, 2008, a couple years after Myhres had failed a fifth drug test administered by the NHL. The test had turned up cocaine in his system all five times.
Myhres knows more than most how much support the NHL offers when its players are in trouble. The day after his arrest on his sister’s front lawn, in came a call from the league’s head office with the offer to cover seven months of in-patient treatment and a question: “Are you finally finished?” Was he finally ready to get clean? He had no choice this time, he says. He had to.
The league had already paid for four stints of rehab, would pay for him to return to school, and would later give him a monthly stipend from the NHL emergency fund to help him get back on his feet. Myhres says he’s “forever grateful that they hung in with me right ‘til the end.’” But still, he saw room to better address a need.
It’s not hard to understand why Myhres’s proposal might not have been taken seriously at first. As a player, he’d gotten sober for up to two years at a time so he could be reinstated into the NHL, only to relapse. He wasn’t what you’d call reliable, a guy you’d rush to hire after a trip to rehab, thinking this time it would definitely stick.
But it turned out the fifth time was the charm for Myhres. And about six years after he sent that proposal to the league, he got a call from Dean Lombardi, then GM of the L.A. Kings, looking for help. About a week earlier, star forward Mike Richards had been arrested at the Canada-U.S. border with oxycodone in his possession, and that same season fellow Kings forward Jarret Stoll was booked on the suspicion that he had cocaine and ecstasy at a pool party in Las Vegas.
Lombardi didn’t mince words: He asked Myhres how they could structure the role he’d mapped out years earlier as an in-house job in L.A. “It didn’t take very long for us to agree on most of it,” Myhres says. “I’d figured out a lot of it seven years earlier.” That off-season, the Kings became the first franchise in NHL history with a Director of Player Assistance. Myhres came up with the job title.
For the next three seasons, Myhres spent 20 days of every month with the Kings. “I felt it was imperative that I was involved in the day-to-day functions of the team in order to build that trust with the guys,” he says. “You can’t come in once a month for a couple days, you have to be integrated in the day-to-day stuff the team’s doing, and that’s how you build the trust, not only with the players but with the trainers and with all of the staff.” On his days off, he headed back to Edmonton to see his daughter, Chloe. He can’t and won’t say how many players he helped in that time, due to confidentiality, but he will say this: “We had no unmanageable incidences in the three years that I was employed by the Kings.” In other words, no players in L.A. had to make use of the NHL and NHLPA’s Substance Abuse and Behavioural Health Program (SABH). “That’s me doing my job,” Myhres says.
At least, it was. Last summer, after Lombardi and Sutter were fired and Rob Blake and John Stevens took over, Myhres’s contract wasn’t extended, leaving McGrattan as the lone Director of Player Assistance in the league. Myhres is grateful for the three years he spent with the organization, and says simply, “the vision changed.”
The Kings now have a Director of Player Health and Performance on staff, in Dr. John Meyer. The team declined a request for an interview, but said via email that when it comes to support for players with personal issues, they use “outside services tailored for each individual as we have seen every situation as being different.”
There’s no doubt that every player’s struggle is unique, but both McGrattan and Myhres agree that the best way to reach and help guys in times of need is through someone who’s lived through something similar. “Someone guys can relate to,” McGrattan says.
“With the players in the room, the hard part is breaking through,” Myhres adds. “That’s why I think having a guy that has played in the National Hockey League, the players instantly go, ‘Oh ok, He’s been in my shoes.’ And that’s crucial for that door opening just a little bit, because then you’re just not another guy in a suit that comes in and says a speech for 45 minutes and leaves. Not to say that that’s not valuable, because that is. But I know personally from the players that I helped in Los Angeles and I know from the players that Brian’s helped in Calgary that being an ex-player and having 10 years of sobriety goes a long way with these guys.
“The problem with hockey players is that we’re so careful on who we let into our little world of problems. And usually it’s when it’s too late, and that’s when the NHL and the NHLPA have to step in.”
On Jan. 29, the NHL announced that Predators forward Austin Watson, who was arrested and charged with domestic assault last summer, was entering Stage 2 of SABH due to alcohol abuse. Watson is suspended without pay while he undergoes treatment, and he’s eligible to return to the league if doctors and the NHL and NHLPA agree to it.
If a player reaches the fourth and final stage of SABH, he’s suspended without pay for one season, at minimum, while he gets treatment, and again the league and players’ association decide if he deserves another shot.
Myhres, who is 11 years sober on Feb. 18, is hopeful that an NHL team will seek out his services, but he doesn’t want it to take a big incident for that to occur. He believes the role should be adopted by all 31 teams, that the idea of in-house player assistance should be as natural as having home insurance. “You’re running an organization that’s worth $80 million in assets,” Myhres says. “Even if nothing happens, you still want to be covered. And right now, only one team is covered.”
McGrattan’s NHL dream had just been realized with the Ottawa Senators when he was first made aware of the NHL’s coverage and help for players with personal issues. He remembers hearing presentations from doctors and getting a business card with a number you could call “if you were in trouble,” he says.
By that time, he was already in trouble. He’d developed a dependence on alcohol. Addiction to cocaine followed as he got more money and started going to different parties. Teammates and friends, like Matt Stajan, had already asked if he needed help, and he’d told them to “beat it,” he says, or even to “f— off.” He wasn’t willing to admit he had a problem.
When he was eventually ready to accept help, it was the NHL and NHLPA’s SABH that delivered it. In addition to SABH, since 1996, the league and PA have been providing players and their families with around-the-clock offerings for confidential treatment, an 800 number they can call for help and a bevy of counsellors and doctors in every city. On top of that, the medical staffs on NHL teams have only grown to bolster these programs and offer other services. The Detroit Red Wings have two dentists, the Nashville Predators have four plastic surgeons and the Winnipeg Jets boast a medical team 13 strong.
Still, any effort to change that long-standing tough guy narrative in hockey and offer help for players — particularly those struggling with mental illness — is relatively new. “I think our business historically has been conservative,” Toronto Maple Leafs assistant GM, Laurence Gilman says, when it comes to addressing those issues. “That’s changing, but I think it’s been, in some regards, provincial.”
Toronto’s team took a big step this season, hiring Dr. Meg Popovic as Director of Athlete Well-being and Performance. Popovic is responsible for helping Maple Leafs who may be experiencing mental illness or addiction, and with all issues that relate to their health outside of physical medical problems. And just as they are with McGrattan, conversations with Popovic are confidential. “It’s blind to us,” Gilman says. Popovic isn’t around the team daily, but players are aware they can reach her at any time.
A front office veteran who has worked in Winnipeg, Arizona and Vancouver, Gilman says he has experienced “both ends of the spectrum” as far as what teams can provide when it comes to help for struggling players, but that offerings across the league are as good as they’ve ever been. “Mental health and well-being is something that, I think it’s fair to say, most hockey teams didn’t put a lot of time and effort into. You know, it was a rough and tumble game. Guys were expected to be warriors,” Gilman says. “But things have evolved, and I think they’re changing across the league. That change doesn’t happen overnight, and positions like the one Calgary has for Brian McGrattan, or positions like the one the Leafs have for Meg Popovic, it’s an evolutionary process.”
Other leagues have evolved a heck of a lot faster, though. For the last 18 years, Major League Baseball has required all 30 of its teams to have an Employee Assistance Professional (EAP) on staff, a role that has to be filled by a licensed health care professional. Some former players who’ve also studied medicine in some capacity fill that EAP role, like pitcher Dickie Noles in Philadelphia. The Toronto Blue Jays employ a former U.S. Marine Corps officer and therapist. Still, other teams get former players in their front offices in other ways: Former pitcher Bob Tewskbury, owner of a masters in psychology, is a Mental Skills Coordinator for the Chicago Cubs. Rick Ankiel, who famously lost the ability to throw strikes as a pitcher and then reinvented himself as an outfielder, was hired by the Washington Nationals as a Life Skills Coordinator.
The NBA requires every team to have an employee in that lifestyle role, though the name of that job varies from team to team. In the NFL, you’ll find player engagement roles listed on most team’s staffs, and some are occupied by former players, like Terry Cousin in Pittsburgh and Fred McAfee in New Orleans. In the NHL, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly says medical professionals believe that a centralized league-wide approach is best to address players’ various personal issues, “with perhaps a few exceptions,” he wrote in an email. “And we believe that model has worked very well for us for quite some time now.”
It’s McGrattan’s hope that the NHL moves toward the NFL model, with every team adding personnel in a lifestyle role. For now, he says of Calgary, “we’re kind of leaders.” Not only do the Flames boast the lone Director of Player Assistance, but they also have a mental performance coach on staff, in Dr. Matt Brown.
A look at the standings might convince other teams to follow suit, McGrattan figures. “It’s no mistake that our team is in first place right now,” he says, “because of the way guys are treated here.”
One of the most difficult parts of McGrattan’s job today is knowing when to approach a player he can see needs help. It never worked for him when teammates or management staff cornered him, asked if he had a problem and tried to lend a hand. So he’ll rarely make the first move. Mostly, he waits until a guy is ready to talk.
In a conversation that stretches for more than an hour in his kitchen, over a couple bottles of water, McGrattan revisits his story — the one he started telling when he was finally ready to talk, the one he still tells players today, the one that makes him both unique and relatable.
Michelle is making her coffee, listening even though she’s heard the whole thing more than a few times. She started dating McGrattan after he’d been sober for two years. “Where was your girlfriend?” she asks now, of the day he finally decided to get help. “I’ve never asked you that.” McGrattan shrugs, he’s not sure. Michelle’s eyes widen and she shakes her head.
McGrattan wasn’t a natural at the enforcer role. He took it up by necessity after he turned pro because he wanted to crack the NHL and figured that was the way to get there for a kid his size. He got beat up all the time when he first started dropping the gloves. “I was actually awful,” he says, grinning. He found a fighting mentor in Dennis Bonvie (the most penalized player in pro hockey history), and in his third pro season McGrattan won 40 of 43 fights. He’d found his separating skill, his ticket.
No pro fight was bigger than one of his first in the NHL, a win against his childhood idol, Tie Domi, that solidified his place on the Senators’ roster. And then, “I muffed out a 10-year career doing it the hard way,” he says, of life as an NHL enforcer. “Probably the hardest way.”
McGrattan faced anxiety about getting sent back down to the minors or being a healthy scratch. He drank and did drugs in part because it fit his tough guy image, in part because he couldn’t stop, in part because it helped him manage pain. He played hungover and fought and felt superhuman even when he felt broken inside. “I look back and I don’t know how I did it,” McGrattan says, shaking his head. “Still at the same time, you’re young and you think you’re invincible and nothing can happen to you, and slowly your life starts falling apart around you, but you don’t see it.”
Until, of course, he finally realized he didn’t have another booze-and-drug-filled run in him: “I would’ve died the next time.”
Listen to McGrattan’s story and you’ll understand that when he says “there’s kind of nothing I haven’t been through,” he really isn’t exaggerating. But as good as he is at talking — McGrattan has a gift for the gab — what players who’ve sought out his help will tell you is the man is an even better listener.
In the summer of 2017, prospect Emile Poirier talked to McGrattan every day. Rarely was it about hockey, sometimes it was about fishing, often it was about life and feelings. A Flames’ first-round pick, Poirier was battling alcoholism and had just begun treatment. “He was there for me, telling me, ‘no judgement here if you want to talk,’” says Poirier, who’s been sober ever since, coming up on two years. “We talked a lot, and we’re still talking.”
But to Poirier, 24, and now a part of the Winnipeg Jets organization, the conversations aren’t the only important part of his friendship with McGrattan. It’s the example the former enforcer sets. “Just to see him in his life now gives me hope,” Poirier says. “He’s got a kid, he’s got a wife, he’s got a good life, he’s got a house. Seeing him and seeing that it’s working, you know? It makes you realize, ‘Ok, this can be done.’ He showed me how it could be — you can actually be happy and enjoy life.”
Talk to enough guys who’ve sought out McGrattan’s help and the endorsements pile up like testimonials on a pamphlet. “He’s really helped me to find that happy, safe place,” says Tyler Parsons, the goaltender who earlier this season chose not to attend training camp due to what he calls “dark, dark thoughts” — concussion symptoms had led to depression.
“He’s our guy to talk to here. He’s huge for our organization and I know everybody I talk to loves him,” Parsons says. “I think what he’s doing here and what the Flames are doing, other organizations can learn from. And Brian McGrattan, all he wants to do is help.”
The morning skate is over, the Flames players have all cleared out of the dressing room, and McGrattan is sitting in Matthew Tkachuk’s stall. Back when he had his own space in this room, in 2014, he remembers sitting in his own spot with his own name above it, having just taken off his shoulder pads after a morning skate. Then head coach, Bob Hartley, rushed over.
“I need to see you in my office,” Hartley said. “I need to see you right now.”
Still wearing the lower half of his gear, McGrattan stepped into Hartley’s office and saw prospect Micheal Ferland sitting there, in tears. “I’ll leave you two alone to talk,” the coach said.
Ferland had just opened up to Hartley about his battle with alcoholism. For the next 45 minutes, the two players talked. Ferland broke down and opened up, and McGrattan told him about his own struggle. He told Ferland that as long as he put in the work at the treatment centre, “when you come back, we’ll all be here for you.”
Sitting here now, McGrattan grins, looking nothing like a tough guy, as he thinks about Ferland, who’s now second in scoring with the Carolina Hurricanes. Ferland has been sober since their conversation. “Ferly, I mean, he’s created a pretty special life for himself, too,” McGrattan says.
What’s been created in the Flames organization in that time is pretty special, too. McGrattan’s right to feel pride in the part he’s played and in his role here now, but he knows the secret to real happiness lies, like most of the work he does, outside this building. “Hockey is second,” McGrattan says. “Everything else falls into place — family, career, hockey, all that stuff — if you take care of yourself.”
In Calgary, Big Ern will do everything he can to help make sure you do.
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