Sharks' Mike Grier born to be American pioneer as NHL's first Black GM

Poole: Sharks' Grier born to be pioneer as NHL's first Black GM originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

SAN JOSE -- Racial barriers in the four major North American sports have fallen slowly over the years but steadily enough that few with the exception of ownership remained at the dawn of 2022, when Mike Grier came along to clear one that would seem to be among the last to stand.

He is a Black general manager in the NHL, which among the four major sports historically has the least Black representation.

Grier knows his first challenge with the Sharks -- a franchise with which he spent three seasons (2006-09) as a player -- is to build a team capable of winning a championship. But he also recognizes, and accepts, that his burden is exponentially greater.

He carries the weight of an entire race and expresses acute awareness of this in an episode of “Race in America,” premiering Friday night at 10 PT on NBC Sports Bay Area.

“It’s an honor and a privilege, and it’s something I take very seriously,” Grier says. “It’s similar to when I was playing. You want to do well. You want to carry yourself the right way. You want to be a good person. You want to make sure you’re doing the right things, so that people who come after you can have the opportunity that I have now.

“That’s one of the main driving forces for me. I want to do well personally and for the Sharks organization. But a lot of it, in the background, is that I want to do well so that someone, whether it’s someone who is in the NHL now or it’s a 15-year-old kid who has ambitions to one day have this job and be in this position, is that I do well enough and I leave a good enough impression that another organization will be open to giving an opportunity to another minority.”

What’s certain is that Grier, 47, is cut from appropriate cloth. It’s in the blood.

His father, Bobby, has spent nearly 50 years climbing the ranks of football at the college and NFL levels, going from coach to scout to director of player personnel to vice president, mostly with the New England Patriots. At 79, he is now a consultant for the Miami Dolphins.

Grier's brother Chris, 52, is the general manager of the Dolphins. His 28-year career began as an intern with the Patriots, after which he was hired as a scout. After six years in New England, he was hired in Miami, where since 2000 he has been promoted from area scout to national scout to director of college scouting, before becoming the team’s GM in 2016.

So how did Grier, who in adolescence participated in football, basketball, soccer and track, end up in hockey? That, too, is a product of family influence.

Though Grier tended to follow his brother’s every footstep, Chris stayed with football and by the time Grier reached high school in the Boston area, he migrated to hockey. He never strayed from the sport he loved most.

That’s the sport Bobby would take his two boys to see in Boston, where Grier grew fond of the Beanpot hockey tournaments featuring local college teams Boston University, Boston College, Harvard and Northeastern.

Yes, he noticed the lack of Black faces there and also as he entered the NHL as a ninth-round pick of the St. Louis Blues in 1993. Inspired by the presence of Hall of Fame goalie Grant Fuhr and Tony McKegney -- the first Black player to score 40 goals in a season -- Grier made his league debut in 1996 as a member of the Edmonton Oilers.

Even during his 14-year NHL career as a winger, Grier never shook the thrill of the deal that began in childhood, when he developed at least as much passion for player transactions as the game itself. Bobby Grier’s genes were at work.

“Just being around him all the time,” Grier recalls, “the coaching aspect at first, then the front office aspect, going over with him personnel and why he did this, why he made this trade, why he drafted this person, why he let that person go. It was something that always intrigued me, and it was nice to have him there to pick his brain.”

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Grier’s affinity for deals transcended hockey. What started with him reshaping the rosters of the Patriots advanced to video games.

“You can always build your own team,” Grier says. “Sometimes that was more fun for me than playing the actual video game. Just going in there and making trades and shuffling rosters and building it the way I thought was best.”

And now, having spent more than a decade as a scout, assistant coach and adviser with three different teams, he has an NHL team of his own.

And, moreover, the complicated task of a pioneer.