STEP 1: POWERLESS
March 14, 2010. Staples Center, Los Angeles: Nashville Predators vs. Los Angeles Kings
Rich Clune felt his insides churn as he lined up against Jordin Tootoo. He’d been asking Jordin to drop the gloves throughout the first period, and now early in the second, Jordin had finally obliged.
Jordin wasn’t just any opponent. Four years Rich’s senior, Jordin’s reputation as a hardened fighter capable of taking on anyone who challenged him was the reason Rich had covered his bedroom walls with Jordin’s posters growing up. He idolized Jordin so much that when his first pro coach said Jordin was the player he’d have to emulate to realize his dream of making the NHL, Rich scoffed, saying, “I know.”
And now here was Rich, 22 years old and living that dream in L.A. with the Kings. But the tail end of yet another hangover was turning his innards out, his body begging for the booze he’d first learned to crave when he snuck a drink at a family barbecue at age 13. One soon became two, two became three and, before he knew it, three became many, as marijuana, cocaine and pills followed.
Rich wasn’t alone in it. Jordin was also mired in the same state – drinking day and night, after practices and games, at the bars and on the road, drowning in his disease. Taking his spot alongside Rich, Jordin tried to shape his resignation into determination, but when he looked into Rich’s eyes for the green light, Jordin only sighed.
You would have thought the fight was finished after they battled in front of 18,000-plus fans, but skating to the box, each knew the real fight, the one within, was far from over. How to win that, they wondered. Neither had the first clue, and in their irrationality they figured no one else had a clue, either.
* * * *
The steel mills of Hamilton, Ont., used to represent prosperity, but in this techno-future, they only represent the past. Yet its people are still proud to call their city Steeltown. Perhaps it’s because the blue-collar name distinguishes them from Toronto, or maybe Steeltown isn’t so much about a name but about its values: strength, reliability, an unwillingness to change. Whatever the case, at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, 37-year-old retired NHLer Brian McGrattan is a living example of Steeltown. Sometimes, he wishes he wasn’t. True, Brian made the NHL using those Steeltown values and playing a style that made grown men quiver. He still holds the AHL record for most penalty minutes in one season (551). Many were from fights he won. Or thinks he did. The truth is sometimes Brian can’t remember – being addicted to substances for half your career can turn memories into nightmares.
What Brian does remember is wanting to get clean every second he wasn’t from the painkillers and drinks he first used to numb the pain from the fights, until they spiralled out of control. He always knew he wanted to stop, to change. The trouble was he was from Steeltown: he wasn’t supposed to. And had he not had an awakening in December 2008 when he finally told those values to go to hell, they might have killed him. They certainly brought him to his knees. But Brian feels no shame in admitting that because he knows the true measure of a man cannot be taken when he’s on his feet. It must be taken when he’s on his knees. Such is the mentality Brian uses today as the Calgary Flames’ director of player assistance. He’s helping to guide players in need to better futures and disabling the culture of silence that first threatened them.
A social disease that discourages players from speaking out, silence is employed by hockey’s power structure through peer pressure, media perception and the unspoken truth all players know – that the quickest way to the press box is to have someone hear you say you’re struggling. Struggles are baggage, and hockey wants you flying carry-on only.
Such is the Faustian deal players must sign despite correlations to a laundry list of health and economic problems, including long-term injury, civil lawsuits and PR nightmares. Some headway has been made transitioning out of it by progressive-minded executives, but the John Wayne persona that gets handed down from father to son remains pervasive. And everyone knows father is never wrong.
For a while, no one was willing to challenge it. Then Brian came along. That he was tougher than rawhide gave him credibility when he first acknowledged his need for help, but it didn’t spare him from ridicule. The first man in always gets bloody. Brian didn’t care. If saving his life meant bleeding, so be it. A real man didn’t lie. He told the truth – he needed help escaping hell.
After he retired in 2017, Brian reached out to NHL teams asking to be the resource he never had. Only Calgary responded. Again, he didn’t care. He only cares about saving lives, and not in the Lifetime movie way: he doesn’t carry a bound gospel and he won’t sing “Amazing Grace,” but that doesn’t mean his mission is any less spectacular. One in five men are likely to experience mental illness, and the NHL has thousands of players, alumni and prospects, yet only one Brian.
But how does Brian bypass a player’s built-in B.S. meter? What does he say? “Listen, there are steps to this. One, you’re powerless with control over nothing. Accept that then go to Step 2, hope.”
No, no, Brian backpedals. Too much too soon. To break the silence, you must first hear the silence. That’s what he’ll do when he meets another player. He’ll listen and look into the man’s eyes, assuring him he’s not alone in this fight against a silent enemy who never sleeps, slows or waits. When he’s done, if Brian does speak, he’ll likely say this: “Here’s my number, call or text anytime.”
It might not seem miraculous, but Brian swears it can give hope to the hopeless. After all, he still remembers using it eight years ago on the first player who came to him asking for help.
* * * *
STEP 2: HOPE
Nov. 21, 2010. Verizon Wireless Arena, Manchester, N.H.: Providence Bruins vs. Manchester Monarchs
Fans were trying to provoke Brian into fighting for the second time in a game that had become a disaster, and when a scrappy Manchester winger with his scar-marked face lined up beside him, it looked like they would get their wish.
You couldn’t hear a thing, though, not even the whistle as the players found their spots for the faceoff. As Jordin had done eight months earlier, Brian looked into his opponent’s eyes, in search of the unspoken green light, only this guy’s seemed absent of the fire needed to fight.
Confused, Brian glanced at the back of his jersey. Letters spelled, C-L-U-N-E. Brian was sure this was Rich Clune, a middleweight who’d had a cup of coffee with L.A. last season and surely wanted to fight Brian to get back to The Show.
Or did he?
“Hey,” said Rich before the puck dropped. “Could I talk to you in the hallway afterward?”
Then he skated away, leaving Brian and the crowd wondering what the hell that was about.
A short time later, Brian would learn it was about hope.
Brian almost lost all his when the Boston Bruins had demoted him early in the season. Nearly two years earlier, he’d emerged from the NHL’s substance-abuse program with a new life that promised to be different from his past. Yet here he was, toiling in the minors again.
In treatment, someone said there’d be hope on the other side of recovery and after that, a feeling of will before he came into a power that could shape his future. Brian didn’t feel like that, and he had questions as to why. Sure, he could turn to his support circle for help, but what Brian wanted, what he was searching for, was a player like him, a brother in recovery with whom he could get a coffee and just shoot the breeze.
He’d tried talking to teammates but might as well have been speaking another language when he mentioned “his feelings.” And though he’d gone public with his addiction, Brian had nothing but silence. Until, out of nowhere, he had Rich Clune. “I just want to tell you,” said Rich to Brian after the game, “I’m seven months sober and remember being at my folks, trying to go to treatment, defeated, unsure if I could do it.”
“What made you?” Brian asked.
“You did,” Rich responded. “The TV was on with your interview, and I thought if a guy I looked up to could be this vulnerable, who was I not to? F— everyone saying, ‘Suck it up.’ I focused on you. I’ve been well, but I got cut from L.A. and I don’t have anyone to talk to…So I was wondering if I could talk to you.”
Rich pulled out his phone and held it toward Brian, who stood in disbelief before saying, “Here’s my number, call or text anytime.”
Rich did, and as they later learned, there was no playbook for every fan, player or stranger who called them “boozer” or questioned their manhood. There was only each other.
And people began to hear about that. It’s why David Poile and Barry Trotz, the men in charge of running the Nashville Predators, acquired Brian before the 2011-12 season, telling him they had a player who’d gotten sober and could use his help.
“Of course I’ll help,” Brian said, cutting them off. “Just tell me his name so we can start.”
“Jordin Tootoo,” Trotz replied, “but around here, everyone calls him ‘Toots.’ ”
* * * *
Chances are you’ve never heard of Rankin Inlet, a town in northern Canada located somewhere between nowhere and goodbye. If you have, a good bet might be because it’s the hometown of Jordin Tootoo, who, like Brian, is also a product of his environment, his 5-foot-9, 200-pound frame having been formed from the values of his ancestors, the Inuk, who call this place home.
They too relied on strength and resilience to weather the land and federal government, whose policies threatened to destroy their culture through resulting famine, disease and the residential school system. In this way, the Inuk have also been silenced and, according to Jordin, for those First Nations males dependent upon strength, determination and an unwillingness to change, it’s to their detriment. According to studies, First Nations men are more than twice as likely to suffer from depression and substance abuse than the rest of the Canadian male population. Compounding matters, they often refuse to ask for help because of how they were raised, says Jordin. Pair this with the fact there’s a need for more federal resources, and the ugly truth is the world doesn’t care about them the way they care about hockey. It makes it easy to understand why Jordin’s story is so important and why his legend in this community is all the more amazing.
All through junior, the minors and the NHL, Jordin always had inquisitive fans when he came home during the off-season – even if he was on a bender. But he got sober in December 2010 when he entered the NHL’s substance-abuse program, almost two years to the day after Brian did. And now, when he returns with seven-plus years of sobriety in one hand and his family in the other, he no longer has fans – he has a following.
Legions of kids take refuge outside the town’s only arena while Jordin shows his two daughters the ice sheet where Daddy forged himself. Knowing he’s changed for the better, these kids wait all day just for the chance to walk alongside Jordin, and he’s more than happy to have them there, particularly the young men. He feels a responsibility to them, knowing he’s capable of leading them to a place they know of but don’t know how to reach. The place isn’t the NHL but a mindset where men can be comfortable speaking, crying, loving, where they no longer have to be silent.
Jordin knows he must speak to them. After all, to break the silence, you must first hear the silence. And when you hear it, you must speak to it.
Leaving the arena with his family during one trip home, Jordin asked the kids following him what they’d like to know. Most shouted questions about games and goals from the previous season, but a young Inuk boy asked where Jordin learned this message of hope he preaches.
Jordin smiled and then eyed his wife, Jennifer. I learned it in the place where we started this new life together, he thought as they gazed out over the breathtaking land, gazing south, toward a honkytonk town, whose name he could never forget.
* * * *
STEP 3: WILL
November 2011. Nashville.
Signs inside the restaurant advertised music, barbecue, cold beer. The year before, Jordin had come to drink, but now he came to eat, especially after a lousy practice earlier in the afternoon.
Resetting his mind was something Jordin had learned in rehab, and he was surprised at how well it worked as calm came over him like a breeze. He could do this, he surmised.
That’s when he noticed a man staring crooked-eyed across the bar.
Jordin thought he was a fan, until he stumbled over with a beer asking Jordin why he wasn’t drinking. Jordin gestured to his water. The man chortled that made sense because he’d heard Jordin couldn’t drink like a man anymore. In fact, the last time Jordin was in here hammered, he’d spilled the man’s beer and never offered to replace it.
Jordin’s hand started to tense. Part of recovery had been learning to accept responsibility for his mistakes, and though he couldn’t remember this incident, it was good practice to apologize. “Sorry if I ruined your night,” Jordin said. “If you need me to buy you a drink, I will.”
But the man sipped his beer then slammed it on the table, saying, “Nah, you can just have mine.”
Jordin’s hand tensed until his knuckles turned white. He’d been so focused on getting clean he hadn’t thought about the outside world. But now it was here, and in the first year of sobriety its challenges seemed insurmountable.
Just then, dinner arrived. Jordin reached into his pocket. The man, still waiting, thinking a fight was about to start, until Jordin threw down what he owed for his meal and then stole out into the night, screaming into his shirt sleeve.
Nearby, he paced in an alley in need of something to settle him. Beer? Booze? His contact would know what to do. On his phone, Jordin scrambled for the number and hit dial. This late, he wondered if he’d even be up, but after one ring, a familiar voice answered. “It’s me,” Jordin said. “I’m at my spot. Jammed up.”
The line disconnected. Not 10 minutes later, a car pulled up and out stepped a figure hustling toward the alley where Jordin sat slumped, on the verge of tears. The figure looked around to make sure he wasn’t being followed, then sat down beside him. “Don’t know what to do,” Jordin said.
“Yeah, you do. You called me.” Jordin looked up. In all of the alley’s darkness, only Brian McGrattan’s face was visible. “Now tell me what’s up.”
They spoke until Jordin’s hand relaxed, then went on their way assured they’d done the right thing, not only for themselves but for the city and team that had taken a chance on them when few would.
That season, they attended every charity event on the Predators’ calendar, speaking to kids about friendship, help, breaking the silence. After one event, Brian asked Jordin if he wanted to meet another sober player, who’d completed treatment in May 2010 at a Toronto facility. Jordin wasn’t sure he was ready to trust others in the way he’d come to trust Brian, so he declined saying he wanted to focus on his recovery and that he would speak to others when the time was right. Only the right time came the way it always seems to, when he least expected it.
* * * *
STEP 4: POWER
July 2015. Martha’s Vineyard, Cape Cod, Mass.
Four years later, married, a homeowner and playing for his third NHL team, Jordin had come a long way. Rarely did he have to deal with anyone giving him the crooked eye anymore as people had mostly learned to support his lifestyle. It allowed Jordin and Jennifer some peace as they sat on a couch during a wedding reception inside a lavish estate, even if there were plenty of drinking games happening.
Jordin was OK around them. It seemed someone else was, too, as he noticed another guest nursing a water by his lonesome, telling signs of sobriety. Curious, Jordin sat up to look closer. Then his hand tensed. This was not only someone he knew, it was someone he’d fought.
By chance, Jordin locked eyes with him and held his gaze before daring to offer a seat on the couch. The guest considered the danger that hung between them, then carefully marched over and eased down next to Jordin. “I can’t believe I’m sitting beside you,” said Jordin as his hand slowly relaxed.
After all these years, Rich Clune couldn’t believe he was sitting next to Jordin, either.
Rich had always wondered what Jordin thought of him. If he ever got the chance, he promised to ask. Doing so now was beyond his wildest dreams as they traded stories about everything and nothing, the way friends who can let years pass before picking up the phone do. In Rich’s eyes, Jordin was no longer an opponent or an idol. He was a brother.
Truth be told, Rich knew he’d be here. The groom, having played with them when they were on the Preds separately, called to give him two options: come or decline. But to decline meant to run, and Rich had done enough running. Besides, he was never one to decline a challenge. He knew Jordin wasn’t either, and although they’d fought, they were different men back then, who’d found their way back to sobriety in a league where few did. They needed each other, and not just for themselves but to set an example for others. At least that’s how Rich felt. He was going to ask Jordin when another guest stumbled over. “Why aren’t you drinking?” she asked.
Jordin glanced at Rich, who hoped Jordin would take the lead the way older brothers do. “I’m talking to my friend,” Jordin said. “Beat it.”
The guest scoffed, but Jordin’s face held strong until she meandered away. As Rich watched her go, he noticed he was grinning. Jordin had answered his question without him even asking. “If you think about it,” Jordin said, “from where we were to where we are, it’s kind of something.”
Rich nodded. It was, but he didn’t want to tell Jordin that. Instead, he said, “If I’d been sober, I would’ve beaten you.”
Both chuckled, then it was time to go. They exchanged numbers with familiar instructions to call or text and that they hoped to see each other soon.
Afterward, inside his home, Brian’s phone lit up with a text from Jordin: “Just met ‘Cluner.’ ”
Brian was on a late-night conference call but muted the speaker and texted back, “What’d you think?”
Bubbles came up, followed by Jordin’s response: “Should have listened to you long ago.”
Brian smiled. Then another text came in from Rich: “Just met Toots.”
“You guys scrap?”
“Ha. No. Made plans to later on 🙂 Lucky to know you both.”
Brian closed his texts and then unmuted the phone’s speaker. Voices from the call belonging to other players who’d recently gotten sober filled his room. They were calling for a friend on another team who could use Brian’s help and wanted to know what to do.
“Give him my number,” Brian said. “Tell him to call or text anytime.”
Outside on the estate, the quiet night was turning to dawn as Rich pocketed his phone and strode off smiling. He’d just bonded with another addict, who happened to be his idol, and felt confident he could do anything.
Actually, confidence wasn’t the right feeling. Confidence is tied to ego, and ego can wane at the first sign of trouble. This was different, something more powerful, profound, capable of creating change everlasting, of allowing you to fight those unwinnable fights.
But what was its name?
In the distance, the first slash of sun began to rise and a bird started chirping as it awoke to its light. Soon, its calls were answered by another bird and another until one had become two, two had become three, three had become many and the silence was no more.
Then the name of the feeling came to him. How could it not? It was the feeling Rich and Jordin had sought all those years ago, the feeling Brian helped them find, the one we all hope to find.