"In the history of the game it's always about depth," Mike Grier’s linemate Curtis Brown said in a 2006 interview. "They're not the guys who show up in the headlines, but it's always the intangibles. The hockey people know, the real fans know.”
That describes Mike Grier to a tee. There are no highlight reels of Grier undressing goalies on YouTube. That wasn’t his game. His game, in a nutshell, was this: show up, hustle your butt off for 13 to 20 minutes of ice time per game on the third line and the penalty kill, and do whatever it takes to ensure the line you’re matched up against doesn’t score.
It’s not a pretty role, but it’s a role that every good NHL team needs filled — and filled by quality hockey players. Mike Grier did that, day in and day out, for 1,060 NHL games over fourteen years. Talking about intangibles and locker room leadership when you talk about Mike Grier isn’t an excuse fans use to cover for his flaws — it’s an acknowledgment of a very real strength of a damn fine hockey player.
Michael James Grier was born in Detroit, Michigan on January 5, 1975. He moved to metropolitan Boston at the age of 3. The Grier family was not familiar with hockey; they were a football family through and through. Mike’s father, Bobby, worked in the New England Patriots’ scouting department for many years. He’s notable for being the only NFL executive to call Michigan coach Lloyd Carr about an unheralded quarterback named Tom Brady. He was fired from the job two weeks later, immediately caught on with the Houston Texans, and just retired after 40 years in football. Mike’s brother Chris is the current General Manager of the Miami Dolphins.
So, with that football pedigree, why hockey? Well, Mike Grier was a big child. He was so big, in fact, that he was too heavy for his age to stay under weight restrictions to play organized youth football. Football’s loss was hockey’s gain. Grier took up hockey at the elite St. Sebastian’s school program, and after netting 43 points in 22 games as a senior, the St. Louis Blues drafted Mike Grier 219th overall in the 1993 Entry Draft. Grier was committed to play college hockey at Boston University, so it was the definition of a long-shot pick. BU Coach Jack Parker summarizes how Grier’s college career went:
"I said the thing that makes Grier special was his size. And both my assistants said, 'No, no, the thing that makes Mike Grier special is his character. They said, 'He'll be captain when he's a senior.' Well, they were wrong because he signed [with the Oilers] at the end of his junior year, after making all-American for us," Parker said. "But he lived up to all those billings. He was just a terrific player and just a fabulous guy and great teammate.”
The Terriers won the 1995 NCAA Championship. They lost to Michigan, the eventual champions, in the semifinals of the 1995-96 Frozen Four tournament. Mike Grier, who had grown into a 6’1’’, 225-pound behemoth who would hit anything that moved, concluded his college career with 119 points in 114 games to go with his 223 penalty minutes. St. Louis had traded Grier’s rights to Edmonton in a monster deal that packaged him with Curtis Joseph in exchange for two first round picks.
Grier broke camp with the Oilers ahead of the 96-97 season and made an immediate impact. He would be a remarkably consistent presence on Edmonton’s second and third lines for the next six seasons, typically netting about 30 points each season, eating up penalty kill minutes, and showing a willingness to throw his body around and drop the gloves with much bigger men.
He also was a role model for how he handled his status as one of the NHL’s few African-American players: when Chris Simon hurled a racial slur at him near the end of a 1997 game, Grier accepted Simon’s apology in person and said "I'm sure I can forgive him. But I'm not going to be able to forget it for a long time." Grier elaborated on dealing with racism in hockey in a later ESPN story:
“Growing up, every now and then, I'd hear racial slurs from other opponents and parents. It was tough to deal with when I was young. When it happened, I always wanted to fight. But my mom told me just to score goals, and eventually people would shut up. So that's the approach I took. And as I got older, my hockey spoke for itself.”
After the 2001-02 season, the Oilers found themselves with a surplus of forwards and traded Grier to the Washington Capitals for a 2nd and 3rd round pick. The Caps were a brutal team defensively during those years, which featured a futile attempt to build a Stanley Cup contender almost entirely around offensive firepower. It was a poor fit, and Washington traded Grier to the Buffalo Sabres for Jakub Klepis in March of 2004.
The 05-06 season, Grier’s first full year in a Sabres uniform, established him as a fan favorite among the Buffalo faithful. He netted 23 points in 81 games, but four of his goals were game-winners, and his hard-nosed playing style epitomized Sabres hockey in a year where they were the consensus favorite to win the Stanley Cup.
That Sabres team fell to the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Finals, but Mike Grier had established himself as a complementary player who could help a team on the cusp of contention for a relatively low cost. For the first time in his NHL career, Grier was an unrestricted free agent. Enter Doug Wilson.
On July 3rd, 2006, the San Jose Sharks announced two signings at once. Neither one was sexy or a particularly big splash. Curtis Brown was coming to San Jose from the Chicago Blackhawks for $1.4 million over two years. Mike Grier would make slightly more, at $1.775 a year for two years. "He is a physically dominating guy," Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said about Grier. "He obviously kills penalties, can score big goals and plays his best in the playoffs. He punishes people, too. The ability to be physical is still a big part of this game."
It’s hard to overstate just how valuable Mike Grier was to the Sharks for his three years on the team. As always, the point totals weren’t especially sexy: 33, 23, and 22 points, respectively. But he was a mainstay on the Sharks’ penalty kill, and coaches Ron Wilson and Todd McLellan used San Jose’s group of defensively-minded forwards like Grier, Torrey Mitchell, and Marcel Goc in matchups to ensure that San Jose’s top six forwards could play more sheltered minutes. Every team tries to do this, but few do it well.
With Grier, San Jose succeeded: they prevented opponents from scoring at a top-5 rate in the league all three years Grier was a Shark, and in his final two seasons they had the best and fourth-best penalty kill in the league. Grier was a down ballot Selke candidate every year he was a Shark, getting a few votes every year he was on the team. Plus, Grier’s shorthanded goals and personality made him fun to watch:
But there was a downside, too: Grier didn’t perform in the playoffs the way the Sharks hoped he would. It was unfair to expect an elite checking line forward to turn into a scoring machine come playoff time, but after a respectable performance in 2006-07, Grier registered a solitary assist and no goals in 19 games over the next two playoffs.
In his defense, Grier was dealing with a nagging knee injury for the 08-09 stretch run, and I would argue him suiting up at all against Anaheim was incredibly courageous. Grier never used that as an excuse, even after Todd McLellan said he regretted rushing certain players back for the playoffs. As he told David Pollak: ““By the time the playoffs came around, I was feeling better. My knee was sore, but I was feeling better and thought I could contribute.”
That postseason would mark the end of Grier’s Sharks career. He was a free agent once more, and opted to reunite with the Sabres and his former coach Lindy Ruff. He played 73 games in each of the next two seasons, and was widely beloved in Buffalo in a way he never really was in San Jose. Look, I’m not slighting Sharks fans here. Sabres fans are just a special breed: one guy was so excited about the news of Grier’s return that he made a music video featuring highlights from his first stint with the team. Go figure.
Mike Grier retired after the 2010-11 season concluded. After enjoying a few years at home with his wife, Anne, and his three young children, the 42-year old Grier has been working as a scout for the Chicago Blackhawks since the fall of 2014. I’ll leave you with this video, which I think perfectly captures what made Mike Grier special:
Share your Mike Grier memories in the comments!