Gilles Gratton was one of the most colorful characters to ever tend goal for the New York Rangers. Unfortunately “Gratoony the Loony” was known more for his eccentric behavior, claims of past lives and Lion’s goaltenders mask than actually stopping pucks.
After three seasons with the Oshawa Generals of the OHA, Gratton was selected by the Buffalo Sabres in the fifth round (69th overall) in the 1972 Amateur Draft. That same year he was also selected by Edmonton in the WHA General Player draft and eventually signed with the Ottawa Nationals who had acquired his rights from Edmonton.
Gilles Gratton: Buffalo offered me $5,000 to sign and $8,000 for my first year and $10,000 my second. Ottawa offered me $20,000 to sign and $25,000 for each of the next two years. So I had no choice.
Gratton stayed with the Ottawa Nationals \ Toronto Toro franchise for three seasons, but when his NHL rights were traded to St. Louis by Buffalo for cash in July 1975 he signed with the Blues. Ironically the addition of Gratton as well as their top draft pick, goaltender Ed Staniowski, made John Davidson expendable which led to his trade to the Rangers.
However after playing only six games for the Blues, Gratton walked out on the team, claiming that he wanted to return to Toronto of the WHA. The Blues put him on the voluntary retired list but refused to place him on waivers, thereby blocking his attempt to re-sign with the Toros. He sat out the remainder of the season and was signed by Rangers GM John Ferguson that summer. It was Fergy’s first signing and probably his most memorable.
Gilles Gratton: When my agent called to tell me that the Rangers wanted to sign me I really didn’t want to play hockey anymore. Coming to New York was a mistake, I was out of shape, I hadn’t played in a year and I didn’t really want to play anymore. But I figured that John Davidson would play most of the games so I thought, well I’ll go and sit on the bench, get into shape slowly and get my money because I wanted to travel and go to India. But then “JD” got hurt right away and I had to play. That year was hell for me. I smoked pot every day when I was there.
Gratton, the younger brother of former Ranger, the late Norm Gratton, won his first start as a Blueshirt, a 6-5 opening night decision over Minnesota and appeared in a total of 41 of the Rangers’ 80 games that season. He may have played in a few more if he didn’t sometimes feign an illness or tell Ferguson that his planets were not aligned properly to get out of playing. But the real reason he refused to play was that he just didn’t want to. In fact he used to do a little dance when Ferguson would enter the Ranger locker room and toss John Davidson a puck before a game, meaning that “JD” would be playing that night and not Gratton. He also had a run in with Ranger captain Phil Esposito which ultimately led to the end of his Ranger career.
Gilles Gratton: I had a situation with Phil Esposito, a bit of a conflict and I was told a few days later that I wouldn’t be playing again. At that time Esposito was kind of king of the locker room. So I was told by Rod Gilbert, who I lived with, that there had been a meeting and that I was not going to play anymore. That was around January I guess and after that Fergy asked me to play a few times so I told him that my planets weren’t aligned. But that wasn’t true. I was just playing with his head. I just thought that since they told me I wasn’t going to play, I wasn’t going to play. So I told him that my planets were not aligned or I had an injury from a past life. But it wasn’t true.
Gratton was the first Ranger goaltender to wear a birdcage-style mask. However about midway through the season he adopted his trademark Lion mask, which he insists was inspired by pictures of tigers he saw while leafing a through a copy of National Geographic. Gilles took his idea to Toronto-based mask maker Greg Harrison who turned the concept into a reality. Gratton surprised everyone when he unveiled the mask right before the opening faceoff of a game against the St. Louis Blues at the Garden on January 30, 1977. He kept the new mask in a box in his locker and wore his cage mask during warm-ups. He then hid the new mask under his arm during the playing of the National Anthem and donned it for the first time right before the opening face-off.
Gilles Gratton: The crown went oooohhh! The players and referees came down to see it. It was cool. It may have been the best $300 I ever spent.
Gratton believed that in a past life he had been a Spanish Count who enjoyed throwing rocks at commoners and stoned people to death in Biblical times and that being a goaltender was his punishment for his past deeds. He also thought that his recurring abdominal pains were a result of being stabbed during the Spanish Inquisition.
Gilles Gratton: It’s kind of strange but I had memories when I was a kid and then later on I did past life regressions. I’ve been a 12th century sailor, a 14th century Indian “hobo,” a 17th century Spanish landowner, an 18th century Spanish priest and a 19th century British surgeon among other things.
Gratton was known for “streaking” after practice and doing handstands in the shower. He is also an accomplished musician although he never took a lesson.
Prior to his final game with the Rangers, Gratton was slated to back up John Davidson and gave his suspender to a fan in the stands. However when called on the play later in the game he was forced to stuff his jersey into his pants to help keep them up.
Gratton started the 1977-78 season with the Rangers’ AHL club in New Haven, but his heart wasn’t in it and his contract was eventually bought out. He then left for an ashram in India, leaving behind all his goaltending equipment including his famous mask.
Gilles Gratton: I should have taken my mask because I would have gotten a lot of money for it today. I heard that the mask is in Boston, Some collector has it. I now work for Classic Auctions and my boss tracked it down to a guy in Florida who paid me $5,000 for it with a promise of $5,000 more. But I never heard from him again. Then I heard that he sold it to someone in the Boston area.
Unfortunately Gratton is still feeling the effects of the many concussions he suffered during his playing days, more that four decades ago.
Gilles Gratton: I had a lot of concussions. I remember six, but I must have had more. Because in those days you got hit in the head, you threw up and were dizzy for three days but you kept playing. But we didn’t know about concussions. When I was with the Toros of the WHA I got knocked out and the trainer came out and waved the smelling salts under my nose and I put the mask back on and kept playing. After the game I threw up. That was a concussion but we didn’t know it at the time.
I had bad headaches from the time I was 20 years old to about 50. I had about three or four headaches a week. But over the last 10 years it’s been maybe one or two a week. But sometimes I get up and lose my balance and have to lay down. The headaches are not so bad, but now it’s the dizziness. It’s like everything is spinning around.
Gilles spent most of the 80s and 90s in ashrams in India and the Catskills. He also worked as a photographer and is currently a consultant for Classic Auctions. He has also written an autobiography with Greg Oliver called “Gratoony the Loony.”
Gilles Gratton was a talented goaltender, but unfortunately he lacked the desire to succeed. He has freely admitted that he really didn’t like to play hockey and was only in it for the money which he used to finance his quest for spiritual enlightenment by meditating, going to ashrams and practicing yoga.
Gilles Gratton: Meditating with the Monks in Tibet was something I always wanted to do as a kid. It was a dream of mine. 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 fulfill my real dreams.”
In 41 appearances with the Rangers Gilles posted an 11-18-7 record with a 4.22 GAA. Overall in 47 NHL games he went 13-18-9 with a 4.02 GAA