Gilles Gratton was one of pro hockey’s most colorful characters. He had a short, tumultuous career in the NHL and WHA in the 1970s, and is better known for his awesome goalie mask and strange behavior than for stopping pucks. He had enough talent to land six-figure contracts and play for Canada internationally. Sometimes, Gratton was said to be an even better goalie than Ken Dryden — when he felt like playing. But Gratton had almost no desire to play pro hockey. Now, almost 40 years after he retired from the game, Gratton decided to write a tell-all of his, ahem, interesting career.
“Gratoony the Loony: The Wild, Unpredictable Life of Gilles Gratton,” is co-written by Gratton and frequent book author Greg Oliver (“The Goaltenders’ Union,” “Father Bauer and the Great Experiment“). Right away, Gratton lets the cat out of the bag — his famous lion mask — addressing it in the book’s introduction. “It has come to define me,” he says, “because most of the rest of my career was just a series of f–k-ups.”
That is pretty much true. Despite having talent, Gratton often sought ways to get out of actually having to play. Many times, these reasons bordered on the absurd, such as a bad horoscope or pain from war wounds incurred during his “past life” as a soldier.
Gratton’s memoir is funny in so many places, but not necessarily because it was intended to be. Rather, his devil-may-care attitude during the 1970s — an era full of sex, booze and drugs for many pro hockey players — led to numerous anecdotes that are entertaining to read about decades later. (Though I could have probably done without Gratton’s graphic description of how his teammate helped rid his nether regions of crabs.)
And while he never goes out of his way to smear anyone, Gratton — then or now — isn’t afraid to speak his mind. Old interviews and articles with him are excerpted, with Gratton adding his reflections (usually never apologetic) from today. Two rather eye-opening, WTF moments are when he recalls his first meeting with his coach when he joined the St. Louis Blues, and an argument with New York Rangers’ teammate Phil Esposito a season later. Needless to say, ultimately neither ended well, but Gratton doesn’t care. He isn’t shy about addressing his actions or words that got him into trouble 40 years ago. No whitewashing here.
Oliver interjects quotes from Gratton’s friends, family and former teammates throughout each chapter, which spruce up the narrative and give asides on what the erstwhile goalie is talking about. Some of the book is also about Gratton’s older brother Norm, who played 201 games in the NHL. Later chapters detail Gratton’s post-career life and how he found the inner peace that eluded him for much of his life.
Quote that epitomizes “Gratoony the Loony”: The truth is that I was hiding something. That despair over the meaningless of life I felt as a child had returned. What really stands out one night when I was first star at Maple Leaf Gardens. 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 a kind of nervous breakdown. I sat there in the parking lot for at least an hour. The mental structure or armor that I had built up to give everyone the impression that I cared crumbled that night.
What I like about “Gratoony the Loony”: Gratton is a former player I had many questions about, and this book answers all of them — from his mask, to his nickname, to why his career fizzled out. The stories about his days in the WHA and NHL show how wild life could be for a pro hockey player in the 1970s. His unwillingness to sugarcoat anything or anyone, even himself, is refreshing.
What I do not like about “Gratoony the Loony”: It may be splitting hairs, but the later chapters, which focus on his life after hockey, are a little less interesting — but not by much. Topics in these chapters include his study of meditation, learning how to separate his consciousness from his body for “astral travel,” and marrying a woman claims he was married to a past life. That’s not the typical stuff you read about in most hockey biographies, but by no means does that mean its boring.
“Gratoony the Loony” is an honest and many times humorous memoir from hockey’s most reluctant player. ■
Follow Sal Barry on Twitter @PuckJunk.