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McGrattan's battle with sobriety still resonates

by Aaron Vickers / Calgary Flames



Seven years.

Eighty-four months.

Two thousand five hundred and fifty-six days.

One goal.

Zero drinks.

“I got to the point where I wanted to quit all the drinking and the drugs,” says former Calgary Flames fan-favourite Brian McGrattan, now with the Anaheim Ducks minor-league affiliate San Diego Gulls.

“I just didn’t know how to do it. I came to that point and was willing to do whatever it took to get clean and sober. Whatever path it was going to take, I was willing to do it. Because I had the will and the determination to do it…I was willing to do whatever it took to get my life this way. In the early stages I buckled down. It wasn’t easy at first. It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

The most rewarding, too.

And on Dec. 4, the 34-year-old skated by the seventh anniversary of the start of his sobriety.

Three weeks before Christmas seven years ago, the longtime heavyweight champion of the National Hockey League dropped the gloves in the biggest fight of his life.

An ongoing one.

I made a phone call to my parents and then talked to the league and talked to the team and said, ‘I need some serious help here because it’s not going to end well'.Brian McGrattan

After getting knocked down one too many times.

“I was by myself,” McGrattan recounts. “At the point I was at, the drinking and drug use was at an all-time high. It was an everyday thing for me. It just came to a point…I went on a three or four-day bender and I woke up that morning and said I couldn’t do another day.

“I made a phone call to my parents and then talked to the league and talked to the team and said, ‘I need some serious help here because it’s not going to end well.’ I don’t know what made me make that decision…some guardian angel? I have no idea. It’s probably the only moment of clarity I had to make the right choice for once.

“Here I am, seven years later.”

Happy.

Healthy.

As a husband to Michelle.

As a father to son Gabriel, welcomed into the world eight months ago.

“That’s one thing I probably wouldn’t have right now,” the soft-spoken tough-guy admits. “I couldn’t even take care of myself, never mind a wife or a kid. That’s one of the added bonuses, I guess. To get to spend every day with him now, healthy and fresh and sober, I get to enjoy every little minute and every little thing he does. He just started crawling three weeks ago. He’s starting to stand up. He’s chasing the dogs around the house on his hands and knees.

“It’s the little things like that that you don’t think they’re real big things until you have a kid. Now I get to enjoy it all. Every little thing he does is a big thing to us. It’s great.”

Seven years ago, those little things were unimaginable.

Now, they’re experienced every day.

And that’s enough of a reason for close friend Matt Stajan to lend congrats to his former teammate.

“I think for Grats, he’s such a good guy and he’s obviously known as the enforcer and the tough guy, but behind all of the hockey stuff, he’s a great friend to me and my wife,” Stajan says. “To see him go day-by-day about his business and lives his life and enjoys it, it’s nice to see that.

“Him hitting seven years it’s an accomplishment. He’s turned his whole life around. You talk to him everyday and he’s really with where he’s at. People around him are very supportive to help him get to where he is.

“It’s great.”

Yet it's not hard to imagine a different, darker path for McGrattan.

He himself isn’t about to forget that either.

And it’s what keeps the 6-foot-4, 235-pound winger light in life.

Brian McGrattan at a Flames practice in September, 2014 - Photo Credit: Clint Trahan
“When I get jammed up now, whether it’s in hockey or my personal life, when things aren’t going too great, I compare it to the time I was in an alcohol treatment center and whatever I’m going through goes away,” he starts, “because nothing will be as hard as the 65 days I was in that place.

“It all worked out.”

He knows how tough it can be.

So the rough-and-tumble hockey type puts a focus on trying to lend a hand, ear, or shoulder to those that reach out.

And impact of his journey, his struggle, his experience, resonates among those who have faced the same struggles.

“I’ve always had that quality,” McGrattan says. “I never followed it when I was a young player. I got a little sidetracked.

“Ever since I’ve been sober, I’ve really tried to take on that leadership role. I’ve always had it in me. Being a little older now, and being able to maybe be an influence on some guys so they don’t get sidetracked and then have to do things the hard way, because that lifestyle is going to be there for a lot of guys.

“You want to try to sway them away from that. I can be a voice in their ear or be a guy they can look up to and say ‘you know what, that’s a guy I want to be like, look at the way he carries himself.’ If I can be an influence on a guy that is 19 or 20-years-old and they can have a 10, 15-year career in the NHL, that’s why I’m here.”

Micheal Ferland can attest to that.

The 23-year-old Flames forward himself is coming up on two years sober.

McGrattan helped play a role in his turnaround.

“He’s been a big mentor of mine since I’ve come to this organization,” said Ferland, whose own journey to sobriety started in 2014. “I just think it’s unbelievable that he’s been sober for seven years.

“He took me under his wing as soon as I got here. That’s the type of guy he is, he takes care of the young guys. He truly does care about his teammates.

“When I left rehab, he was the guy that I talked to. I had a lot of questions and he helped me out as best as he can. He’s been there, and he was a big help for me.”

It’s rewarding for McGrattan.

“I’ve played with guys, [Jordin Tootoo] in Nashville, Rich Clune in Nashville, and I played with Ferland a little bit in Calgary’s system,” he starts. “It’s always good, it’s rewarding to see them do well when they’ve struggled with the same problems I’ve had. I have a lot of respect for them…but I don’t even care if they ever play hockey again. Those three guys…I know how hard it is.”

Tootoo, now with the New Jersey Devils, Clune, now in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, and Ferland know how difficult the journey is.

But they might not know how much help they’ve given back to McGrattan.

“That’s the coolest thing about it,” McGrattan says.

“Those guys don’t know it, but they’re role models to me too. They’re guys I can pick up the phone and call any hour of the day or any hour of the night if I have a problem, or they have a problem. We’re always there for each other. That’s the one thing you come to learn. When you have the disease that we have, you start getting to know people that are alcoholics and drug addicts that have come clean.

“Some people have five days…some people have 15 years of sobriety, but they’ll be there for you in a heartbeat if you get connected with the right people. We’ve done that and Ferly’s done that. You see the success that you have when you put your mind to doing the right thing and you do the right thing over and over.

“It becomes almost natural.”

Natural too, suggests McGrattan, is the next step in his journey.

He’s not quite ready to put his stick down.

But when he is, McGrattan isn’t about to step away from the game.

He’s got more work to do.

More players to help.

More people to help.

“I’ve actually been looking at doing some stuff online here in the second half of the season to try to chip away while I’m still playing,” McGrattan says. “I would really like to jump on with the PA when I’m done. With me, Rich and Jordin, I think there are three guys that I really think they should bring on as ex-players. They don’t have any ex-players working for them that have gone through what we’ve gone through. I think we can really help with the program they have going on there.

“That’s something I really want to do after. I’d love to stay in the game and do that and work with a couple of teams. There are a whole bunch of things I’d like to do going down that road when I’m done playing. There’s a little bit of schooling and stuff that won’t be that tough, but that’s what I’d like to do.

“They have three prime examples that are still playing for them that have done the program. Ferly’s a lot younger than us. He’s got a lot of playing left, but me, Toots and Cluner are all in the same age category. They’ve got three guys that have done their program perfect and have succeeded in their program. Us guys going forward can really help, and bring it to a new level and really help players here moving forward.”

Because he’s been there.

He’d like to help others get there, too.

Because nothing in life has topped his past seven years.

Nothing is bigger than what he’s been able to accomplish.

Day in. Day out.

Two thousand five hundred and fifty-six consecutive days.

And climbing.

“It’s No. 1 for me. It’s No. 1 for anything I’ve done,” McGrattan unwavering declares. “I mean, everything else is kind of easy compared to that. You know, the other stuff, they’re big accomplishments and it’s really hard to do, but that’s on a different level.

“All in all, it’s the thing I’m most proud of, for sure.”

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