The True Hollywood Story: Chris Gratton
Chris Gratton is back with the Lightning for the third time and it got me thinking about his first two stints in Tampa Bay. I covered Gratton through both stretches and how he left was always more interesting than how he arrived.
We all remember the first time he left. That was when he signed an offer sheet with the Flyers and then-GM Phil Esposito said he could not read the offer sheet because his faulty fax machine left a smudge over how much the Flyers were offering to pay Gratton. That's still one of the all-time classic Lightning and Espo moments.
The second time Gratton left never got a whole lot of attention, partly because he was traded late at night (a bit after midnight if I recall) to Buffalo in a deal that brought defenseman Cory Sarich to Tampa Bay. But why was he traded? That is the interesting part.
A few weeks before the trade came one of the most bizarre scenes in franchise history. The hapless Lightning had just been blown out in Ottawa and was boarding a charter flight to Raleigh, N.C. around 11 p.m. As player Dan Kesa passed by coach Steve Ludzik, Ludzik said something about Kesa's play. Kesa shot back with a smart-aleck comment and it was on. The two had to be separated from literally fighting on the plane.
At that point, Ludzik kicked Kesa off the charter. In the strangest sight I've ever seen in hockey, Kesa was left standing on the runway as the plane backed away from him.
Gratton, at the time, was the team's captain. At first, he tried to talk Ludzik into letting Kesa get back on the plane. When that didn't work, Gratton returned to his seat. Later in the flight (I'm guessing about 24,000 feet over the American-Canadian border), Gratton walked up to first class, took a seat next to Ludzik and the two talked for the better part of an hour. As any good captain would do, Gratton tried to explain to Ludzik why it was wrong to leave Kesa behind. The conversation never grew into yelling, but clearly the two men had different points of view.
While no one would ever admit it and while the trade did turn out to be a good one for Tampa Bay, I'm convinced that night when Gratton stood up for one his teammates to Ludzik was the beginning of the end for Gratton in Tampa Bay. Ultimately all of the Lightning leaders -- Gratton, Darcy Tucker, Mike Sillinger -- were traded because under Ludzik there was one way to do things: His way. Gratton was one of those who dared to question Ludzik's authority and it was part (and maybe ALL) of the reason he was shipped out of town.