The Tiger Mask: Catching up with Gratoonie The Loonie
By Michel Godbout, anchor at TVA Sports.
It’s not easy finding a guy who doesn’t necessarily want to be found.
Embedded within shelves upon shelves of old sports memorabilia at Classic Auctions where he works, Gilles Gratton seems perfectly happy to walk the shadows.
“I kind of fell into this business by accident. I’m no history buff by any means. One day one of my buddies in Germany was selling jerseys to Classic Auctions and asked me to manage the sale. I came away from the deal with a new job.”
And that kind of odd circumstance could easily apply itself to Gilles Gratton’s life. Things sort of fall into his lap.
Take for instance the way his hockey career took off.
“I was 16 years old and playing Jr. B at the time. I took a slap-shot right off the mask and it knocked me out cold. I spent 6 days in hospital with a concussion and then went right back at it. Then I had another, I only ended up playing five or six games that season and the doctors told me I couldn’t play anymore. So I said OK, I didn’t really care. That summer, the Boston Bruins scout came to my house and asked me if I still wanted to play. I said, ‘I dunno?’ He said, ‘I have a contract for you with the Oshawa Generals, it’s not a try-out, you’ll be on the team.’ I played there for three years.”
Things kinda just happen to him!
But wait, there’s more…
For legions of goalies, many who grew up in the 70’s, Gratton was the epitomy of goalie weirdness. Even amongst his peers he can easily come off as “out there.”
To this day he has no qualms talking to us about his reincarnation beliefs. About how he was once a Count in a previous life who’d been speared in battle. And how those same injuries, suffered centuries earlier, stopped him from playing in some NHL games. Nope, Gratton has no issues talking about it and no regrets on how it impacted his career.
Make no mistake, no one will confuse Gratton’s career with Ken Dryden’s. But where the latter’s play and life seemed, dare I say, vanilla ice cream, Gratton’s was without doubt Chunky Monkey!
Another worthy example of how fate played in his favour was the infamous Tiger Mask.
“I was going through a bit of a rough patch with the Rangers at the time. So I started switching masks a lot, trying to break out of the slump. We were flying back to New York after a game and I was going through an issue of National Geographic magazine and happened to fall upon this beautiful picture of a tiger. I stole the magazine and sent it to my mask maker, Greg Harrison and asked him if he could replicate the picture on a mask.”
And thus, the Tiger Mask was born. Gratton wore if for the first time against the St-Louis Blues on December 8, 1976.
It didn’t improve his game much and his career ended shortly after. But it did leave an undeniable blueprint for future goalie masks.
Just consider how many animal faces don masks nowadays. Hundreds, thousands perhaps? They all originate from the Gratton-Harrisson collaboration, a $300 paint job that spawned generations of similar work.
But Gratton remains humble: “It would have happened anyway, someone would have thought of it.”
For the longest time the Tiger Mask was displayed at the Hockey Hall Of Fame but recently, its original artist Greg Harrison, convinced the Hall to give it back to him. He told me he’s now using it to inspire new mask art.
InGoal was the first to inform Gratton of the masks whereabouts, “Good for Greg if he has it, but I would have appreciated him telling me.”
And that’s kind of where Gratton’s NHL story ends.
After leaving all his gear behind in the Rangers locker room he never looked back.
He spent most of the 80’s and 90’s in Ashrams, in the Catskills. He came back to Montreal in 1983, worked at Costco (!) and then left again. He went to India to work on his meditation techniques.
“It was something I always wanted to do as a kid. I read many esoteric books, it was a dream of mine as a kid to meditate with the Monks in Tibet. I wasn’t looking to run away but I couldn’t wait to have enough money to travel. For me hockey was a way to gather up enough money to travel, to fulfil my real dreams.”
It’s worth mentioning that all those years following his career were lived with constant headaches and dizziness “I’m sure it’s related to the concussions suffered while I was playing,” he says.
Today the symptoms aren’t as bad.
And his life is where he wants it to be.
He takes in hockey games from time to time with his wife and two kids, and he likes what the NHL has to offer. “They nearly killed the game in the United States when they used to show expansion team match-ups during the weekends in the 70’s. It was brutal, boring hockey. But now the game is quicker, more entertaining and the shootout is the best thing ever. I would have loved to have that in my day!”
The Tiger Mask may well be more of a hockey icon than the goalie who wore it. But the legacy of Gilles Gratton may even be greater. A person who fully accepted who he was, made no excuses.
He proved to all goalies that playing the position requires a special person with a special mindset. And hockey may be better off because of it.