Howie Mooney
FiredUp Network Sports Writer


Sunday, July 3, 2022


“Listen, Howie.  The goalie is always going to give you something to talk about whether you win or lose.”

Those were words spoken to me on a bus ride as we were coming home from a ball hockey tournament in Philadelphia in the summer of 1984.  The man who was talking to me was Mike Bullard, who at the time was playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins of the National Hockey League.  

Mike played with us in that tournament and was drafted by the Pens in the first round, ninth overall, of the 1980 draft and he was the first NHL player to ever score 50 goals in a season for a last place team.  We had all gone to high school together and we all played ball hockey in the summer as a way to stay in shape between hockey seasons on the ice.

I was the goalie who had played terribly in that 1984 tournament and Mike was trying to console me.  “Next year, you come back here and you play great and you win the tournament.”  Mike was prescient.  The next year, 1985, we went down to South Jersey and we won the thing.  I was selected as the goalie of the tournament.

Mike’s point was a valid one, though.  The goalie, win or lose always gives us all something to talk about.  There are some goalies, though, that seem to always give us something to talk about without doing anything special on the playing surface.

We hear it all the time.  “Goalies are ‘different’.”  The emphasis is on the word ‘different’.  And it is spoken in a way that implies that goalies are not ‘normal’.  “You have to be a little crazy to be a goalie.”  For some people, that may be true.  But for others, it may not be.  Certainly, goalies think differently, perhaps more analytically than other players.  But, again, there are some goalies that seem to stand out from the rest, just for being who they are.

Back in 1974, Jim Coleman was a venerated and esteemed sports columnist whose prose appeared in newspapers across Canada.  He wrote in a piece in which he described what he saw in most of the netminders he had seen or interviewed over the years.  “Historically, goaltenders have been the lonely oddballs of hockey.”

Various words have been used to describe those men (and women) who choose to be the goalies.  Words like ‘odd’, ‘wacky’ or ‘goofy’ have been used when referring to the folks who choose to wear what my uncle Bob Mellor used to describe as ‘the tools of ignorance’.  When I was a kid, Uncle Bob was a sports columnist for the Ottawa Citizen.  His words held a kind of gravitas to my brother and me when we were youngsters.

But I was a goalie.  Did that mean I was odd, wacky or goofy?  That’s a story for another day.

Whenever anyone does a scan of the world wide web for a list of the oddest, the wackiest or the goofiest goalies of all time, there always seems to be one name that appears at the tops of all of those compilations.  

Gilles Gratton.

So, what is it about Gilles Gratton that makes him the oddest of the oddballs?  It’s more than likely a few things, really. Perhaps it was the fact that he grew up in a home with little to no parental supervision or authority. Or maybe it was the fact that he had a propensity to constantly question any authority....or the fact that he just questioned everything and looked at the world in a way that very few other people did. 

Or maybe it had something to do with the fact that he believed that in his past lives he had been. So many different people.  It's important to remember that through all of this, there has always been a human being behind that mask, regardless of all the wild and eccentric happenings in his life.

The cartoon show ‘The Simpsons’ once had an episode in which the town of Springfield celebrated "Do What You Feel Day". Gilles Gratton pretty much lived that way every day of his young life and some of the stories of his time in hockey and outside of it are absolutely wild.

He was born in Montreal on July 28, 1952 and from the day he could form a cohesive thought, he began asking himself existential questions about life, about himself and why he was born and was present on Earth.  And often, he was unable to find any real answers.  In his 2017 book, Gratoony the Loony – The Wild, Unpredictable Life of Gilles Gratton, he talked about his young existence.

“My childhood was very difficult because of all the questions I had.  I was very surprised to end up in this body.  What am I doing on this planet?  I especially had a hard time pretending things were important, and still do.  You win the Stanley Cup, but what does it mean?  People skate around, they kiss the Cup.  What does that mean?  It means f*** all....In the grand scheme of things, being a good person, treating your wife and kids and other people well, means far more than winning the Stanley Cup.”

As a child, he says that he was in “utter anguish”, to the point where it adversely affected his sleep.  He “would wake up in the middle of the night and just sit at the kitchen table for hours, thinking”.  In those days, kids had no guidance counselors or people they could talk to or confide in so he tried to deal with his overactive mind the only way he could think of.  He would go out and play sports as long as he possibly could in order to exhaust himself so intensely, that all he would be able to do was sleep.

His parents were raised on adjacent farms to the east of Ottawa between Casselman and Saint-Isidore.  They married and moved to the Lasalle neighbourhood of Montreal where Gilles’ father, Fernand, got a job as a machinist for Standard Brands.  In the family were four boys, Jacques, Normand, Gilles and Francois.  The boys had a sister, Claudine, as well.

Gratton’s mother, Therese, was outgoing and made friends easily.  His father was very quiet, very distant.  Gilles says there was very little emotion in the household.  There was no real affection shown.  “On birthdays, no one really said anything, no one wished you happy birthday, there certainly weren’t presents.”

Fernand worked shift work, and was rarely around to guide or supervise the five kids.  As a result, it left young Gilles Gratton to his own devices quite often.  He admits that from a young age, he “lacked direction”.  

When he first went to school, his teacher asked each child in the class to stand up and recite their entire name.  Gilles’ paternal grandfather was also his godfather.  His name was Belani, but everyone called him Ben.  Young Gilles stood up and told the class his name was Joseph Gilles Baloney Gratton.  Everyone laughed, except the teacher, of course.  She sent the young boy to the corner of the room to contemplate his behaviour.

The teacher called Therese to apprise her of what her son had done.  Gilles tells that part of the story.  “She called my mom and said, ‘Your son is a little bastard because he’s only six years old and he’s starting to make people laugh.’  My Mom told the teacher that my grandfather’s name was Belani.  The teacher apologized to my mom and then things were okay.”

Gratton has told the story of how he and one of his boyhood friends would get into mischief.  There were times they would go down to the St. Lawrence River and find an eel and then carry the eel around for a bit.  When a bus would come by and the door opened, they would toss the eel on to the vehicle and revel in the shrieks from the passengers.

Another time, he and his friend Claude were walking along the railway tracks not far from the Gratton home when they came upon a bottle with an unknown liquid in it.  Gratton told Claude that they should drink it.  Claude said no and persuaded Gilles not to, but not before he opened the bottle and smelled it.  It turned out to be acid and the fumes burned the inside of Gilles’ nose.


In 1964, the Beatles were absolutely massive and Gratton and his friends totally fell into Beatlemania.  They all bought guitars and grew their hair to look like their new heroes.  They learned to play chords and even made a band together.  “We played Beatles, Beatles, Beatles.”  Gratton had a good ear for music and taught himself how to play the guitar.

His brother Jacques was an excellent tenor as well and his voice would boom throughout the house.  His parents bought a piano to assist Jacques with his scales.  Eventually, Gilles would teach himself to play the piano as well.  It was the one thing he seemed to actually love doing.  When he was a professional hockey player, he would be the life of every party, especially if there was a piano around.  One of his former teammates said he tickled the ivories like “a virtuoso”.

Throughout his childhood years though, Gratton was still out there playing baseball in the summer and hockey in the winter whenever he could.  He became quite good at both.  As a kid, he played on a ball team with his brother, Norm and former National Hockey League goaltender Dan Bouchard.  Gratton enjoyed getting outside and playing and never really gave much thought to his future.

In winter, there was an outdoor rink across the street from the Gratton home.  Norm and Gilles were out there all the time.  Gilles was a forward when he played pee-wee hockey with Norm who was two years older.  Bouchard was their goalie.  Bouchard was good and the coaches felt he needed more of a challenge, so he was sent up to the bantam level team.  That left a void in goal on the pee-wee group. 

Gratton wrote, “When a team needs a goalie, what do they do?  They take the smallest guy, which was me, and they put him in net.”  He figured he would try it “just for fun—and fun it was”.  He liked that he was in a position in which he was depended on by his teammates.  But, like his musical pursuits, he had to learn as he went.

“I didn’t have a clue,” Gratton wrote in Gratoony the Loony.  “There was no hockey school, no one taught me.  I just played.  Our coaches were parents, volunteers.  They didn’t know much.”  On Saturday nights, in the early to mid ‘60s, he and his brothers would have their baths on Saturday nights and then sit down to watch the second period of La Soiree du Hockey, the French version of Hockey Night in Canada.

“I followed NHL hockey until I was about 12 years old, and then I drifted away and didn’t watch as often.  I didn’t have any goaltending role models to help me along the way.”  He was good at what he did on the ice though and was selected out of his church league with a group of other players to represent LaSalle at the big pee-wee tournament in Quebec City.

While he was still a pee-wee, a neighbour would come and skate and work on his shot on the outdoor rink across from the Gratton home.  Jacques Lemaire lived four streets over and would skate and take slapshots on the vacant sheet of ice.  On at least one occasion, Gratton would stand in the net and face the then-Junior hockey star.  

“I don’t even know if he knows that was me,” Gratton remembers in his book.  “He’d be at the blue line practicing.  He was careful because he was a junior and I was just pee-wee, so he would shoot low on me, not high.”

In his second year of bantam hockey, his team from LaSalle became the provincial champions.  Then, in his first (and only) year of midget hockey, his team won the all-Quebec title again.  In 77 games as a 15-year old, Gratton compiled a goals against average of 1.06.  That number brought eyeballs from Junior B and Junior A teams.  

He played eight games at the Junior B level, but in that eighth game, he took a slapshot to the head and was knocked unconscious.  He spent six days in hospital and when he was released, it was in a wheelchair.  When he got home, he spent another week in bed.  He said that he was thankful that he was still able to read.

He had never lost his inquisitive mind and had become “fascinated by books on reincarnation, Tibetan Buddhism, and many other subjects that pre-teens aren’t usually into.  My hero was the Dalai Lama, not Maurice Richard.”

Gratton suffered a second concussion in March of that season and wasn’t sure if he would ever play hockey again.  He was at a crossroads in his life.  He hated school.  And had to figure out what his path would be.  That was when he got a visit from a scout from the Boston Bruins, Chuck Catto.  Catto wanted to get Gratton to try out for their Junior team in Oshawa, the Generals.  

His parents didn’t make much of a fuss about it.  If Gilles wanted to go, he could go.  He decided to give it a try.  As he said, it might help him to learn some English.  But he wasn’t completely sure he was good enough to be playing that level of hockey.  His old friend Dan Bouchard was of great help that summer of 1969 in preparing the 17-year-old Gratton.

“I thought I was in way over my head going to Oshawa, because I felt so weak.  But Dan trained me and encouraged me.  He got me in shape.  He was such a positive guy, so it grew on me that maybe I could do it.  Dan had been playing net in Sorel with the QMJHL Black Hawks, and he’d learned muscle stretching exercises from his sister Sylvia, who was a figure skater.”

Bouchard taught him dry land workouts and they did a lot of work with a lacrosse ball back and forth to improve reflexes and timing.  But there was a lot of positive affirmation and two friends being able to work toward a common goal.  Each man wanted to be as good as they could be.

Gratton made the Oshawa Generals team and played 26 games as a 17-year-old in the 1969-70 season.  His goals against average was not great (4.96) but the team finished ninth out of ten Ontario Hockey Association teams that year.  Since a goalie’s performance is a function of the team in front of him, it’s possible to see why his numbers were the way they were.  

That first season was not a fun one for Gratton.  He didn’t respect the coach, Doug Williams.  Williams had played for the Whitby Dunlops at a time when the Dunnies had been Canadian senior hockey champions.  But, in Gratton’s mind, “he didn’t know piss all about hockey”.  Gilles vowed to go home at Christmas and never come back.  But he did go back.

The next season was more of the same for the team but Gratton saw a lot more action as an 18-year-old.  The Generals finished ninth again but Gratton played in 47 of the team’s 62 games.  His goals against average was virtually the same though (4.99).  That year, Gratton admitted that he was more into life away from the rink than he was into hockey.

“That year, I had a girlfriend, Marion, who was later named Miss Oshawa,” recalls Gratton.  “Hockey wasn’t a focus.  I spent my whole year in love.  After spending all my spare time with Marion, I’d go to bed at four or five in the morning....I honestly don’t know why the Generals stuck with me, why they kept their faith in me.  That second year in Oshawa, I was just terrible, and the team wasn’t much better.”

For three weeks in the summer of 1971, Gratton headed down to Johnson State College in Vermont with his brother Norm, who was with the Buffalo Sabres at the time, and Norm’s friend and teammate, Richard Martin to get into hockey shape.  Gilles had broken up with Marion and tried to devote his time to getting ready to play the game in Oshawa again. 

Ed Reigle had coached the Generals in the 1970-71 season.  He was gone and Gus Bodnar was now the coach and general manager in Oshawa by the fall of 1971.  He was also someone who had an idea about how to deal with young players and people as a whole.  He had a rapport with the players and his experience in coaching lower levels of Junior hockey gave him an understanding of the mindsets of teenaged players.

Gratton reacted positively to Bodnar’s approach.  “Gus got me straightened out.  He was a good guy, a father figure.  When he talked to you, it was always in a positive way.  He never put you down.  A real good coach – the guys really liked him.”  His Generals’ teammate, defenseman Mike Amodeo, felt the same way.  “Gus knew how to work his players, how to combine his players, so much.  He knew how to get the best out of everybody.”

Under Bodnar, the Gennies went from ninth-place, the previous two years, to second in the ten-team OHA.  That season, Gratton played in 55 of the team’s 63 games and he responded to his coach’s positivity.  His GAA fell to 3.55 and he collected 30 of his team’s wins and added a shutout in there as well.

His performance that year netted him a second-team OHA All-Star selection.  The first team nod went to Michel “Bunny” Larocque of the Ottawa 67s.  Gratton was taken by the Buffalo Sabres in the fifth round of the NHL draft in June of 1972.  But a new, renegade league had come into view and the World Hockey Association had held their draft in February of 1972.  They would commence play in the fall of that year.


The Sabres offered Gratton a $5,000 signing bonus, $8,000 to play the first year and $10,000 in the second.  Oh, and he would be playing in the Central League.  Gratton balked at that, figuring that he could make more money playing with his band.  The Alberta Oilers had selected the Generals’ goalie and then traded his rights to the Ottawa Nationals before the season started.

Buck Houle (pronounced HOO-lee) was the Nats’ general manager and he offered the unproven Gratton a more substantial deal than the Sabres’ Punch Imlach did.  Houle presented Gilles with a $20,000 signing bonus, $25,000 for the first year and $30,000 for the second.  “Do the math,” Gratton wrote in his book, “that was $75,000 for two years.  I had no money.  I was broke and out of junior hockey.  It was a no brainer.”

Gilles Gratton was now a professional hockey player.  An Ottawa National, whatever they were.  And his legend was about to begin.  Immediately, Gratton asked for sweater number 69.  Because.....of course, he did.  Houle said ‘no’.  It’s not sure whether or not he really expected to get it.  He settled for number 33.  

But the one nagging thing that continued to hang over him was the fact that, although, he was very good at playing goal, he just didn’t like hockey very much.  He did some of the physical work in the off-seasons that all players generally tried to do back then, but mentally, it was a grind for him.

He had tried a lot of things, including hypnosis, to help his mind try to enjoy the playing of the game, but he was never able to find a long-term solution to his malaise when it came to his participation as a valued and valuable member of any team.  He seemed to find his success with Gus Bodnar, a coach who seemed to understand Gratton.  He would find his new coach in Ottawa to be similar to Bodnar in that respect.

Billy Harris was named the Nationals’ coach.  He had played in the NHL and had spent the years before the existence of the WHA coaching in Europe.  With the Canada-Russia Summit Series to take place in September of 1972, many viewed Harris as a good acquisition for this young team.

The team had three former NHLers.  Wayne Carleton had played with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Boston Bruins and the California Golden Seals.  Guy Trottier played two seasons with the Leafs before he joined Ottawa.  Their choice for first string goalie was the former Pittsburgh Penguin, Les Binkley.  It was assumed that Binkley would play the majority of the team’s games.

Being a rookie, Gratton figured that he would not be a major player in terms of games in the 1972-73 season.  He was in the same group that just looked at Binkley as the main guy in goal.  But ‘Bink’ was 38 years old when the season started and had a lot of miles on his body by that time.  He got injured after the team’s first game and the responsibility fell to Gratton to be the man for the Nationals for much of that season.  The prospect of being that guy was not something he was looking forward to.

“F***, I’m up,” Gratton wrote in his book, Gratoony the Loony.  “I wasn’t exactly filled with confidence.  Gavin Kirk (one of the Nationals’ centremen) tried to encourage me.  I replied that I didn’t think we’d ever win another game.  In the end, I had 25 wins, 22 losses and three ties that season.”

Gratton credited Binkley for being a positive influence on him, especially since this was his first year of professional hockey.  “Les was a calming influence and never seemed to be nervous.  He was a little like Gordie Howe, one of those guys who has a dry sense of humour.  He was always making jokes but not laughing, keeping a straight face.”

But the way Binkley thought of Gratton may have been a little at odds with the way he portrayed himself to his protégé.  “Gilles was eccentric.  We’d be beside each other tightening our skates.  He’d say, ‘Jesus, Mars is going to collide with Jupiter tonight.  I don’t know if I’m going to be okay or not.’  Here I am tightening my skates a little bit tighter because I figure I’m going to get in the game sometime.”

Gavin Kirk tells a story about a media availability that he and Gratton did in advance of a game the Nationals were going to play against the Winnipeg Jets.  “We had a press conference, and Gilley and I went.  He was doing really well as a rookie and I was as well, so the two of us attended this meet-the-players type luncheon.”

“They asked us a couple of questions.  One of the questions they asked Gilley was ‘You’re going to be playing Bobby Hull next week.  His nickname is the famous Golden Jet.  Do you have a nickname?’  Gilley looked and thought for a second, ‘Well, they call me the Golden Hammer.’”

At the end of February of 1973, the Nationals were starting to roll.  Starting on February 25, Ottawa edged the Oilers and defeated the Cleveland Crusaders, the New York Raiders and the Chicago Cougars.  The four-game win streak matched their longest of the season.  On the night after the victory over the Cougars, the Ottawa Sportsmen’s Dinner took place.  

Because the Winnipeg Jets were playing in Ottawa the next night, Bobby Hull was asked to appear at the big banquet.  He showed up and stirred the pot.  The people of Ottawa were buzzing about the Nationals at this point and the presence of Hull was a boon to Doug Michel, the owner of the team.  More than 9,400 fans showed up the next night for the game against the Jets.

Bobby Hull may have been the big star, but Gilles Gratton was the story of the night.  Doug Michel wrote in his book, Left Wing and a Prayer – Birth Pains of a World Hockey Franchise, “In a game where 20-year-old Gilles Gratton did everything but swallow the puck and even blank Hull, we beat the Jets 5-2.  The streak now stood at five games.”

The Nats lost their next game in Los Angeles against the Sharks but then they ran off another win streak.  This one was seven games, including a pair of back-to-back wins in Winnipeg against the Jets!  The dozen wins in thirteen games was enough to get Ottawa out of the basement of the WHA’s East Division and it also propelled them into a playoff spot.

Gratton’s strong play was one of the contributing factors to the team’s rise in the standings, but he also gave some credit to his coach, Billy Harris.  Harris was viewed by some as standoffish or an elitist, but Gratton saw something else in the man.  “Billy was a good coach, sure, but he also served as a father figure to me.  It took a while for the guys to buy into his system, but once they did, we were tough to beat.”

Harris was a little bit ahead of his time.  He was using the neutral zone trap before it even had a name.  At the time, people looked at the way the team played and said things like “they wait for their breaks”, or “he’s taught them how to be responsible defensively”.  Whatever people wanted to say, the team was playoff bound.  There was one problem, however.  

The Central Canada Exhibition Association was basically holding the team hostage. In order to play their playoff games in the Civic Centre, the team would have to pay $100,000 for each contest.  Doug Michel and general manager Buck Houle basically said “no”.  When the regular season ended, the team moved to Toronto.  They played their post-season games at Maple Leaf Gardens as the Ottawa Nationals, but it was only a matter of time before they were re-christened the Toronto Toros.

In the summer of 1973, Michel sold the team to John F. Bassett for $1.8 million.  The team had played their playoff games at Maple Leaf Gardens, but when the 1973-74 season began, they were playing at the University of Toronto’s 5,000-seat Varsity Arena.  The Toros played well enough to finish second in the East and win a playoff round.

Gratton was playing well too, but aside from his actual play on the ice, he was developing a penchant for getting his teammates a rest when he felt they needed it.  He called it ‘the art of the stall’.  He would usually save it for a time when the other team had been putting the pressure on and his defensemen had been out on a long shift.  Les Binkley talked about it.  

“Gilles had this thing with the trainer all the time.  He would call it his ‘Dead Fish’.  A guy would go by him and he’d throw himself up in the air and lay on the ice and roll around.  The trainer would go out, fix him up and he’d go back in the net and play again.  It’s just funny, he called that his ‘Dead Fish’.  We knew about it, but we didn’t know when it was going to happen.”

Gratton preferred the French term ‘Poisson Mort’.  He would go down and when one of his defensemen came over to check on him he would give “a little wink and whisper ‘poisson mort, poisson mort’.”  The trainer would come out.  Time would elapse and everyone got a little breather.

When the Nationals were in Ottawa in 1972-73, Gratton stayed with his aunt in Sandy Hill.  In the winter, he would walk a few blocks over to the Rideau Canal and skate to the Civic Centre.  In Toronto, he lived with the family of his teammate, Wayne Dillon, in Don Mills.  When he wasn’t at the rink, he could often be found playing road hockey with neighbourhood kids.

At one point, he wanted to get some sticks for the kids and he asked the equipment manager for a dozen sticks to share with the children.  The equipment guy told Gratton that the only he would give up the sticks was if the goaltender would go streaking.  Streaking was a kind of fad at the time in which a person or persons would run through a public place completely naked.

Gratton had very few inhibitions and so one day, after practice, he set out to get the sticks in the way that the equipment man prescribed.  “It was at George Bell Arena, where we practiced, in Toronto’s west end.  I asked (right winger) Tom Martin to come with me, but he didn’t want to, as he thought he’d be sent to the minors.”

“So, wearing only my skates and my mask, I headed out into the cold for a couple of freeing laps and a quick pirouette at centre ice.  My little sacrifice scored a dozen sticks for my friends and has helped keep my legacy alive.”

In January of the franchise’s third season, their second in Toronto, coach Billy Harris wanted to take a leave of absence.  His wife, Sylvia, was sick in the hospital and his six-year-old daughter, Patty, was facing surgery.  There was discussion about his status in the newspapers, but on January 15, he went into the dressing room and told some of the players that he had been fired.

For Gratton, the loss of Harris was devastating.  He and defenseman Mike Amodeo broke down in tears at the news.  Winger Tom Martin talked about how Harris’ departure affected Gratton.  “I think, when Billy Harris left the team, that hurt him (Gratton), because he was really close to Billy.  I think they had a special relationship, not only on the ice but off the ice.”

“As a young player, Billy really helped him.  Let’s face it, Billy played in the NHL a lot of years and understood what the pressures were for a young kid coming up.  ‘Don’t get caught up in it.’  Billy liked him because he was loose.  ‘Don’t let the pressure kill you.’  I think, as a goaltender, it would be worse.”

In his book, Gratton gave an example of the relationship he had with Harris.  “I broke the curfew once in Winnipeg.  It was about three in the morning when I was coming in with my girl.  The elevator opened and Coach Harris was standing there.  He looked at me and started to whistle.  No one said a word on the elevator.”  No one spoke of it afterward either.

Harris had been a calming influence on Gratton and in his absence, the netminder descended into a dark place.  Harris had chosen Gratton as the third goalie for Team Canada ’74 in the WHA’s series against the Soviets.  He didn’t see any action against the Russians but he was quite content with that scenario.

The “despair over the meaningless of life” that had visited him as a child had returned.  One night, after he had been named the first star in a game at Maple Leaf Gardens, he had a bit of a meltdown.  “Here I was with a Porsche, a $100,000-a-year salary, and I sat in the car at the end of the game.  All the pretending, all the pretenses that I’d put up about caring about the game just disappeared.”

“I was back to being five years old and anguished about life.  It was kind of a nervous breakdown.  I sat there in the parking lot for at least an hour.  The mental structure or armour that I built up to give everyone the impression that I cared crumbled that night.”  He couldn’t pinpoint why his mind went to this place and he wanted to talk to someone.  The team referred him to the doctor who was on hand at that time – a dentist.  He was not much help.

When Harris left, that was it.  Whatever zeal he had for playing the game had left him, at least for a while.  One night in Cleveland, the new coach, Bob Leduc, wanted Gratton to play but he told Leduc he wasn’t feeling well.  So, while the game was being played on the ice, Gratton headed up to the highest level of seats and read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

In 1975, Roy MacGregor was writing for Canadian Magazine, the weekend supplement in many Saturday newspapers in Canada.  He wrote a piece for the popular publication about Gratton.  The Toros’ keeper was incredibly forthcoming.  At the time, he was 22-years-old, had a contract that would pay him a total of $645,000 (Cdn) and he also had a very fast Porsche Targa.  

“Nobody should be paid as much as I get,” Gratton told MacGregor. “In real work terms, I’m worth nothing. I’m not helping anyone, not making anything. What am I doing for the world? I’m stopping rubber — what’s that doing for evolution?” 

“The difference between me and a hockey player is this,” Gratton continued. “When summer ends, a hockey player gets itchy, I feel like killing myself. If I never played hockey again, it wouldn’t matter. A real hockey player would be broken. Me, I’m liberated.” 

This MacGregor piece put Gratton into the public sphere in more of a way than he had ever been before.  This cemented his legacy as a goalie who is ‘out there’ and really doesn’t care for the game, but he plays it because it pays him and he’s obligated to play contractually.

The article also pointed out that Gratton draws astrological charts for people who interest him, he plays and writes music and he has a belief that he had lived many past lives.  The most famous past life that has been ‘assigned’ to him was as someone who stoned people to death during the Spanish Inquisition.  His payback for doing that was to become a goalie and be pelted with pucks.

He doesn’t necessarily believe that one.  He has surmised that it might have been made up for him by his buddy Rod Gilbert when the two men played on the New York Rangers together.  The lives that he is sure he has lived include being a sailor during the 12th century, an Indian hobo during the 14th century, a Spanish landowner in the 17th century, a Spanish priest in the 18th century and a British surgeon in the 19th century.

After the 1974-75 season, he signed with the St. Louis Blues of the NHL.  One of the first people he ran into when he got to St. Louis was the team’s coach, Garry Young.  The two men knew each other from Gratton’s time with the Oshawa Generals.  Young asked his new goalie, “How do you feel about coming and playing with St. Louis?”  Gratton replied, “I don’t give a f*** as long as they pay me.  F***ing hockey.  I hate it.”


One of the things, though, that everyone seems to remember about Gratton was the wild mask that he wore when he played in New York with the Rangers.  It’s one of the most famous pieces of hockey headgear that has ever existed.  The story of that mask started with a call that Gratton made to Greg Harrison, the noted maskmaker of decades ago.

Harrison had introduced himself to Gratton when the latter was playing for the Rangers early in the 1976-77 season.  The Toronto native Harrison had made masks for Jim Rutherford and Doug Favell and was a goalie himself, albeit, of the beer league variety.  He had also graduated from art school, so he had a diverse and interesting background.

When the two men met at Harrison’s home, they discussed a few ideas.  Gratton’s astrological sign is Leo so he most wanted a lion.  Harrison picks up the story.  “I had various pictures of lions – different angles, different shots, both at ease and snarling and that’s what I based it on.  It wasn’t airbrushed.  It was done like an oil painting.”

“The mask was finished on a Friday night.  I painted it the next day.  Then I baked it for a couple of hours to dry it, and put it into a box, took it to the airport.  It went on a cheap seat on the plane, and off to New York.  That was on the Saturday.  On the Sunday, he wore it.  And the next day, it was all over the press.  The following week, it was in Time Magazine – it was on the same page as a picture of the Queen.”

Gratton’s Rangers’ teammate, Mike McEwen, was the first to see the new mask.  “I’m sitting at the dining room table, we’re having dinner with my two sisters; they’d come down for a visit.  We hear the back door open up, the entrance to the kitchen, and he comes in and he’s got the mask on.  He runs into the dining room, right at the table, and growls like he’s a lion.  We look and go ‘Ooooh.’  We were the first ones to see it.”

That night, January 30, the Rangers were playing at Madison Square Garden against the St. Louis Blues.  Gratton brought the mask to the arena in a box and he kept it under his dressing room stall.  In the pre-game warmup, he wore his old Jofa helmet and cage.  As the teams were skating out for the game, he kept his new mask under his arm to shield it from view as much as possible.  He didn’t put it on until the last possible moment.

“The crowd went ‘Ooooh!’,” remembered Gratton.  “The referees didn’t start the game – they all came down to see my mask, referees and players.  It was neat.  We won the game 5-2, by the way, and it might have been the best $300 I ever spent.  My mask was a hit, and newspapers and TV stations in each city wanted to talk to me about it.  Truthfully, it was one of the few highlights of that season with the Rangers.”

As the season wore on, he and coach/general manager John Ferguson enjoyed each other’s company less and less.  The same was true of his relationship with team captain, Phil Esposito.  That was his last year as an NHL player.  Gratton would spend the next year in New Haven of the American Hockey League with the Nighthawks and after that, his hockey career was over.

“The mask is better known than I ever was, which is somewhat appropriate,” Gratton wrote in his book.  But for all its fame, it sure didn’t have as much fun as I did...”

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You can listen to Howie and his co-host Shawn Lavigne on The Sports Lunatics Show, a sports history podcast, right here on the FiredUp Network, or on 208 different platforms wherever you find your podcasts, including Alexa.  Howie also hosts Like Father, Like Son with his son, Reese here on the FiredUp Network and those same platforms as well.