Gilles Gratton … The Man Behind the Tiger Mask

Gilles Gratton is an interesting human being.

He played 47 games in the NHL as a goaltender, 41 of those with the Rangers in the 1976-77 season. He is most well known for his colorful “Tiger Mask” he wore, which has become an iconic photo in Rangers history.

But it’s life off the ice that makes him interesting.

In his new autobiography, “Gratoony The Loony: The Wild, Unpredictable Life of Gilles Gratton,” Gratton and hockey author Greg Oliver take you on a journey filled with crazy “you have to read it to believe it” stories of the partying you’d expect from athletes in the 70s, but also a spiritual tale of meditation, out of body experiences and meetings with the dead.

Yes, you read that correctly.

“What made working with Gilles interesting is that he is not about the hockey, at all,” said Greg Oliver.

“Yes, he tells some great stories from life on the ice, on the road, and there are some crazy behind-the-scenes stories from the WHA and NHL, but the book is really about his search for meaning in life. As a child, he tried to figure out what life is all about, and now at 65, he still doesn’t know — but will tell you that he’s really only on this planet now because of his children giving him a reason to live. I know that people will pick up the book for the hockey stories, but they will come away with something greater for sure.”

Worth repeating: Gilles Gratton is an interesting human being.

Gratton spoke to me over the phone from Montreal:

AO: Tell us the story of the Tiger Mask, how did that come about?

GG: You never read about it, eh? No?

AO: I know there was a National Geographic cover…

GG: Yeah, I was on a plane, looking through a National Geographic magazine and I saw this tiger, I thought it would be neat to have it as a mask. So I called (goalie mask artist) Greg Harrison about it and the next time I was in Toronto I showed him the picture. It took him like seven days to do it. It wasn’t easy to do, but he did a good job.

BOSTON, MA – 1970’s: Gilles Gratton #33 of the New York Rangers displays new tiger mask for the camera in pre game warm up against the Boston Bruins at Boston Garden. (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

AO: What motivated you to want to change your mask design in the first place?

GG: Boredom. I guess (laughter). I was bored because, I don’t know … I was bored and I thought something would just kind of wake me up, motivate me, I don’t know.

AO: What was the reaction from your teammates when they saw it for the first time?

GG: They didn’t see it (before the game), only when I put it on at the start of the game. Nobody saw it. In the warm up I wore my cage mask, then I put (the tiger mask) under my arm, when I went back to the net I put it on. The crowd went “oooof!” There was a reaction. Everyone was looking at it. The refs came down to see the mask, they didn’t even start the game. Everybody came to see the mask. Even the St. Louis guys, they came down and said “(expletive), this is cool man!” The guys on the team thought it was cool. They’ve never seen anything like it, you know?

AO: Do you think that this mask started the trend of really cool mask designs and goalies really paying attention to their designs?

GG: Yes. Before that the only mask that really had a design was Gary Cheevers, with the scars. And Gilles Gilbert with the stars. There wasn’t that much, you know? No mask with an art design. After that, people started to paint their masks and stuff.

CIRCA 1970S: Gerry Cheevers of the Boston Bruins defends the net in a circa 1970s game. (Photo by Robert Riger/Getty Images)

AO: You played in both the NHL and the WHA. When you played in the WHA, what was the mood of the players, did you think that it would be a sustainable league?

GG: It was different. Basically, they signed forwards, like Bobby Hull. But the defense was mostly junior and American league (players). So, it was very hard to play goal because there were a lot of breakaways and the defense wasn’t very good. Lots of breakaways, lots of shots. It was difficult for a goalie to play in the WHA compared to the NHL. The NHL was more like tight defense.

AO: What was it like playing in Toronto, such a big Maple Leafs market, for the “second” Toronto pro hockey team in the WHA, the Toronto Toros?

GG: The first year we played in Varsity Arena, it was like 5,000 capacity. That was easy to fill, that was OK. Then we played in Maple Leaf Gardens, we had about 11,000 people come in. We were doing OK. Things were starting to pick up. The year I was there it looked like it was picking up, but then I left.

AO: When you were playing in the WHA, did you think it would be a league you could retire in or were you always looking to get to the NHL eventually?

GG: When I started in the WHA, I was 20 years old, I didn’t think the league would last. I thought by Christmas I would be in Florida. I got my signing bonus, $20,000, and I thought if I could get some paychecks up to Christmas, the league would fold and I would just go to Florida and drift there for the remainder of the year. But it didn’t happen, the league survived for a few years. Basically, how I got to the NHL, former WHA team co-owner John Bassett sold my rights to St. Louis. It’s not that I wanted to get to the NHL, I had a five-year contract in Toronto (for the Toros of the WHA), then things went south in Toronto. I told Bassett I didn’t want to play anymore and he just sold my rights to the NHL. That’s how I ended up in the NHL.

AO: How did the nickname Gratoonie The Loony come about?

GG: Someone gave it to me. When I played, nobody called me that. Someone was reading about my antics and they decided to give me that name. If that title sells a lot of books, then good.

BOSTON, MA. – 1970’s: Gilles Gratton #30 of the New York Rangers tends goal in game against the Boston Bruins at Boston Garden. (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

AO: Any fond memories of playing a season with the Rangers, being a Ranger in New York in the 70s?

GG: I feel a bit, what’s the word, not ashamed, but … I wasn’t really into it when I played that year. I had played in St. Louis the year before, played like four-six games. Something like that. I didn’t really want to play anymore, to tell you the truth. I thought to myself maybe another year, make some money, then go to India for meditation and stuff. When I came to New York I was not totally honest with myself. I was not in shape to start with. I thought that John Davidson would play most of the games. I would have to just sit on the bench and maybe just play 20 games. But then JD got hurt, so I had to play, you know? It was not right for me to go, I should have stayed home, really. The year in New York was not a great year. I was not concentrating that much. My head was not into it. But I like New York, I like Rod Gilbert. He took me out to see a lot of things. I really liked New York for New York itself but as far as hockey was concerned, my mind was not into it.

AO: What do you remember off the ice?

GG: There’s a lot of stories, but you gotta get the book, man! Rod Gilbert knew everyone, eh, we went to see the Eagles at (Nassau Coliseum), the Eagles came to see us at The Garden. We had good times like that.

AO: What would you like Rangers fans, hockey fans, to get from reading your autobiography?

GG: I think they will be entertained, there’s a lot of funny stories in there. And maybe not to take life so seriously, because we’re all going to die one day, that’s about it. Hockey to me is not a serious business. It’s just a game, people should relax about it. It’s just a game. And, really, just to think about when they’re going to die. Because, basically, that’s the main thing. If you read my book you’ll understand. Because I’ve had meetings with dead people. I met my dad when he died and stuff like that. It’s in my book.

AO: This happened through meditation, trips to India?

GG: Yes, I could go out of my body and stuff like that. Maybe they can see that there’s a lot more to life than just hockey.

AO: Did you meditate throughout your playing career or did it happen after?

GG: I started in 1972. Before my career.

AO: Tell me about that journey.

GG: I still meditate, and I lived in India for three years. At different times I lived there for almost three years. You know what an ashram is? It’s like an Indian monastery. You go there and meditate. So I spent quite a bit of time there. I spent mostly 15 years in ashrams in India, USA, Canada, almost all around the world.

Speaking of cool goalie mask designs, I’ll be hosting MASK FEST, a celebration of the coolest, craziest and most interesting goalie mask designs in hockey history, this Saturday in New York City.

Gratoony The Loony: The Wild, Unpredictable Life of Gilles Gratton is available now.