Mike Grier makes history as NHL’s first Black general manager

The first-time general manager comes in with a hefty resume.

It’s official: the fifth general manager in the history of the San Jose Sharks is former winger Mike Grier, who took the helm this morning in front of media at SAP Center. In far too long after the other major sports leagues, the NHL has finally hired its first Black general manager. Grier’s Black American identity is unique in the sport, as well, as the league has always been dominated by Canadian players, with 18 total nationalities represented as of last season.

Grier, 47, comes from a family of sports executives, but his interest in hockey was a bit of an outlier in a football-centric home. His father, Bobby, began as a high school football coach in the 1960s, working his way up through the collegiate system before joining the New England Patriots in 1981. In 1993, Bobby was moved to scouting, kicking off his NFL executive career, which eventually included a run with the Houston Texans from 2000-2016. Mike’s older brother, Chris, is a former college football player who has served as the general manager of the Miami Dolphins since 2016.

“I lean on them quite a bit. There’s a wealth of knowledge there with those two. As soon as I told my dad about the job, he went right into the mode of giving me tips and advice,” Grier told media earlier today. “Growing up, we talked about the challenges of building rosters, and things like that. At dinner, it would be, I’d want to talk football, they’d want to talk hockey.”

Much like the situation Mike is currently facing in San Jose, Chris did not inherit an enviable position in Miami, and has had to make difficult decisions the improve the club. It has earned him the trust of the team’s owner, though, and Chris has been the longest-tenured GM of the Dolphins since Eddie Jones left in 2004.

Mike watched and learned from his brother. “My brother’s recently been through this with the Dolphins, where he made some decisions to move on from some players to be better in the future, and he’s turned that team around in about four years.”

Still, Mike Grier’s resume is his own and for a first-time general manager, it’s surprisingly expansive.

First, there’s his 14-year NHL career, preceded by a heck of a three-year run at Boston University and the 1995 World Juniors Championship. While in the NHL, he was known for his penalty-killing, while providing reliable offense and physicality, and was often in conversations regarding the league’s best defensive forward. He never won a Stanley Cup, coming as close as the Eastern Conference Final with the Buffalo Sabres in 2006, though he made a postseason appearance in 11 of his 14 NHL seasons.

Grier was the 254th player to reach 1,000 games, retiring after tallying 1,060. It’s no easy feat, but all the more impressive for a player who was originally drafted in the ninth round.

After retiring from playing in 2011, he began working with high school and college players at Boston University in skill development. In 2013, Grier became an assistant coach at St. Sebastian’s Prep School in Needham, Mass., where he had once played high school hockey. The next year, Grier served as coach at the USA Hockey 17s Festival and the CCM All-American Prospects Game. He also accepted a scouting position with the Chicago Blackhawks, scouting both amateur and professional players for potential acquisition, a role he held until 2018.

In 2015, he return to USA Hockey as a member of the selection committee for the U.S. women’s national team Olympic evaluation camps, which he did for three seasons, as well as ahead of the 2018 Winter Games. Grier also served as an assistant coach for the U.S. women’s national team for the Winter Series against Canada in 2016.

The New Jersey Devils hired Grier in 2018 as an assistant coach under John Hynes’ coaching staff. For two seasons, Grier worked with the team’s forwards and special teams, boosting the penalty kill to among the league’s best.

In May 2021, New York Rangers President and GM Chris Drury is said to have hand-selected Grier for a hockey operations advisory role, where Grier was heavily involved in prospect development. His ties to USA Hockey remain strong, as well, serving on the selection committee for the 2022 World Championships.

There’s no doubt the Grier is qualified for the job on his own merits.

“We hired the best general manager available. Mike just happens to be Black. The focus was on finding the best candidate for the job,” said Sharks President Jonathan Becher today. Addressing Grier, he added, “I hope you do serve as an inspiration to lots of people. I hope you’re the first, but certainly not the last.”

Still, it would be a disservice to Grier to not acknowledge the weight of his race not only on this moment, but on his life and career. Being a Black American player from a football family shapes how he thinks about the game of hockey, not to mention what he has experienced in the league, and those intangible qualities are part of what make him a valuable hire in a league that will only continue to become more diverse in the future.

“It’s something I’m extremely proud of,” said Grier. “Since my playing days, the league itself has gotten more and more diverse, with more Black players in the league and more minorities in the league. There’s more women and minorities in front office and scouting and coaching positions. From my standpoint, that’s something that I’m happy to see and excited to see.”

That all said, it is never about one moment when it comes to pushing the league to a more progressive place. Grier has broken through a barrier that the NHL should frankly be ashamed existed for so long. But now what?

Because as mentioned earlier, Grier isn’t inheriting the best of circumstances in San Jose. Even though it’s one of the few times a GM position is available unrelated to the job performance of his predecessor, that doesn’t mean the organization is in a great place, having missed playoffs for the franchise’s longest streak since its inception.

As I’m sure Grier is aware, Black coaches in the NFL are less likely to a second coaching job than their white counterparts. The NHL’s own problems with racism and nepotism are why it took until 2022 for a team to hire a Black general manager, 50 years after the NBA first did so and 20 years behind the NFL.

Hiring Grier is simply a first step. Becher saying that Grier “just happens to be Black” speaks more to hockey’s relentless demand for uniformity than it does Grier’s merits standing on their own. I’m not sure the Sharks have shown they understand how they will be forced to confront structural issues with Grier steering the ship.

I have no doubts that Grier is that man for the job; I have concerns about a league that lags so far behind the rest fumbling this historic moment, and I worry that too many future hires rely on an incredibly white league determining if Grier is a boom or bust.

“My job is to do the best I can for the San Jose Sharks organization,” Grier told reporters today. “And if I do that, hopefully it opens the door to give other opportunities to other minorities to get into front office positions, and maybe lead a team down the road, as well.”