Enforcer knows score

EARL MCRAE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:42 AM ET

He's sitting in the dressing room, alone at his stall, bent over untying his skates, the thicket of microphones, pens, notepads, tape recorders, cameras, and TV lights around others after the morning practice, but not him.

Hardly -- ever -- him.

Having never talked to him before, I break his reverie by asking about the odd-looking tattoo below his neck between his shoulder blades. He looks up with a smile, his voice warmly accommodating. "It's just some tribal thing."

The one on his right upper arm says Gratts. "I got them in junior." The big one along his left bicep? "A dragon. It's not finished yet. It takes about five, six hours to do. I have to go back."

That would be to Planet Ink where his girlfriend Sarah is manager. What, I ask, if one day you no longer want the tattoos -- they're painful to remove, can leave scarring. "I'm keeping them, I'm not planning to become a businessman anyway."

Brian's song is a discordant melody now. But there was a time, there was a night, when the crowd rose and the crowd cheered, and the great Brodeur reached into the net behind him, swept the puck out with his stick, and at that moment in time, the 19th of November, 2005, the music was never so sweet in the heart and soul of Brian McGrattan.

Nor in the hearts and souls of his family in Hamilton: Dad, Tom, a purchasing agent at Dofasco; Mom, Cathy, an insurance adjuster; brother Darryl, human resource manager at Mohawk College.

"It was very exciting for us when he got that goal," says Darryl, 24. "I look up to him. He and I talk two or three times a week. He's always been there for me. It'd be nice if the Senators played him more. I know he can play. His goal against Brodeur, it was a beautiful tip-in."

Not too many designated tough guys have scored against Martin Brodeur, fewer their first NHL goal, but Brian McGrattan did, and when his arms flew up to rejoice, his teammates embracing him, how was he to know the melody's promise of that perfect moment was but a delusion?

MERE MINUTES

Since that evening -- his goal against the best goalie in the NHL making the Senators' 5-4 win possible -- Brian McGrattan, 27, has scored only one more goal, assisted on only eight others, in 142 games, averaging fewer than three minutes playing time a game.

The demeaning word "goon" does not apply to Brian McGrattan. Enforcer, yes.

He is not without playing skill beyond his fists, you don't gain entry into the small, exclusive club that thousands upon thousands with skill along with toughness aspire to, and fail to achieve, if you don't have a superior edge. But it is hard to capture the proof when it has been subjugated, in the new game of finesse, speed, and pacifism, to a mere few moments of ice time, and the two words most players never hear: Healthy scratch.

PROBABLY WON'T PLAY

It's McGrattan's misfortune he is not playing in a past era when tough guys with enough playing skill were prime assets. In today's more physical Western Conference, he'd likely be a third or fourth line regular. If professional attitude was all the game was about, he'd be an NHL first-team all-star. He seldom gets to play, but doesn't complain. His generous ice time is confined to practices where he gives his all, hoping against the improbable, hoping not to hear the two words.

He feels the hurt inside, not playing, and knows he probably won't during the playoffs. "Everybody wants to play, I'd like to get in against Pittsburgh. But I know I probably won't unless somebody gets hurt. Or someone tries to take advantage of us, but even then, not for long.

"It's human nature -- if you don't get pissed off with your boss from time to time, something is wrong with you. There are days when it's tough, sure. But I consider myself honoured to be in the NHL. It's a lot of fun at practice, I like the guys, I have a lot of friends on the team.

"I understand my role here. I don't have a great education. My brother has a university degree, but I hated school. I couldn't wait to get out. I have a choice: Back home working in the steel mill or fight for 20 seconds with 20,000 people cheering. The people love it. I really don't care what some people's negative perception of me might be. They can think what they want."

But, if he had another choice, it'd be respect as a scorer, not a fighter.

He played for six OHL teams, one season as captain of the Mississauga Ice Dogs, and while not a proficient scorer, he says, brightly: "I did score 20 goals two seasons in a row. I know I can score. I know I could score if I was playing more."

The contract of Brian McGrattan is up at the end of the season. He'd like it if the Senators would re-sign him. There've been no talks. If not hockey as a career? He thinks for a second or two. "A police officer. Law enforcement."

No "healthy scratches" and he already has a head start.


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