Mike Grier spent the first game of his freshman season at Boston University not on the ice but in the stands, unready for the lineup, minding a high school recruit checking out the program. He saw little ice time in the next three games and then was told that was what he could expect for the rest of the season, too.
The humbling experience lit a fire under the big right wing from Holliston, Mass., and set him on a course that eventually led to college hockey stardom, a 14-season N.H.L. career, and where he is today — the newly appointed general manager of the San Jose Sharks, and the first Black general manager. in league history.
“I was a pretty good player, and being told I wasn’t going to play that much, that never happened to me in my life,” Grier, who spent three seasons with the Sharks during his N.H.L. career, said at a news conference on Tuesday. “The lesson there is there’s no easy way. The only thing to do was to work harder, practice harder. I was just determined to win my spot back in the lineup and not let anyone take it away.”
In announcing the appointment, Jonathan Becher, the president of the franchise’s parent company, Sharks Sports and Entertainment, said Grier’s tenacity was one of the qualities that had landed him the job. “There are precious few candidates who have the strength of character to lead not just in good times but in difficult ones,” he said. “Mike has consistently demonstrated that.”
That night in the stands at B.U. even had a role in the team’s decision. The recruit Grier hung out with was Chris Drury, who is now the Rangers’ president and general manager. Drury brought Grier to the Rangers a year ago as a hockey operations adviser, a post in which Grier essentially served as an assistant general manager. Drury urged San Jose to give Grier the job, and the Sharks’ front office listened.
The number of Black players in the N.H.L. remains small but has increased over the last decade, and in recent years, members of minority groups have gained posts in management and the sports media. Kim Davis, who is African American, is the league’s senior executive vice president for social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs. Delvina Morrow, also African American, is the senior director of strategic and community initiatives for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Kevin Weekes and Anson Carter, Black former players, appear regularly as analysts on N.H.L. telecasts.
Women have made progress in front offices, too. After the Devils’ hiring of Kate Madigan this week, there are five female assistant general managers across four N.H.L. franchises.
Grier, 47, said being the league’s first Black general manager meant a lot to him. “It’s not something I take lightly,” he said. “I realize the responsibility that comes with the territory, but I’m up for it. If we do well, hopefully it will open some doors for someone to follow.”
While Grier is the first Black general manager in the N.H.L., he’s not the first one in his family to have such a position. His brother, Chris, has been in the role for the Miami Dolphins of the N.F.L. since 2016.
“Growing up, we talked about the challenges of building rosters,” Mike Grier said. “At dinner I’d want to talk football. They’d want to talk hockey. They definitely helped me a lot.”
Before his year with the Rangers’ front office, Mike Grier spent four years as a scout for Chicago and two as an assistant coach for the Devils. In his playing career, he notched 162 goals and 221 assists in 1,060 games.
Grier was born in Detroit, a son of Bobby Grier, a former college running back who had gone into coaching. When Bobby was named an assistant coach for Boston College, he moved his family to the Boston area, where Mike started playing hockey at age 4. Bobby later became a coach with the Patriots.
In 1984, when Mike was 9, he was highlighted in Sports Illustrated for having scored 227 goals over two seasons. A few years later, when he hoped to follow his older brother, Chris, into youth football, Mike exceeded the local Pop Warner league’s 120-pound weight limit, and he stuck with hockey.
In youth hockey, Grier regularly heard derogatory comments, and sometimes racial slurs, from parents and opposing players. His mother, Wendy, who died in 2009, would tell him to respond with actions, not words. “Just put the puck in the net,” she would say.
The B.U. men’s hockey coach at the time, Jack Parker, noticed Grier because of his size — 6 feet 1 inch and over 200 pounds — but one of his assistants had seen another trait.
“His teammates are all waiting to hang out with him after the game, and then four or five guys from the other team come over and want to talk to him, too,” Parker, 77, said. “He just had that type of personality.”
Grier arrived for his freshman season weighing close to 250 pounds, and after getting little ice time, he hit the weight room hard.
“He was just determined to make himself as a good a hockey player as he could,” said Jay Pandolfo, who played with Grier at B.U. and became the Terriers’ head coach in May after five seasons as a Bruins assistant. “He wasn’t going to be denied.”
In his sophomore season — by then Drury was a freshman on the fourth line and one of his closest friends — Grier was 20 pounds lighter, and his body fat had fallen to 12 percent from 25. He scored 29 goals, tied for tops on the team, was named a first-team all-American, and helped B.U. win a national championship.
Grier has said he rarely heard racist comments on the ice in college. One time when he did, Drury retaliated. “I was mad at Drury because he almost started a fight, until I found out why,” Parker said.
Grier had been drafted in the ninth round in 1993 by St. Louis, and when he decided to return to B.U. for a third season, the club traded his rights to Edmonton. He signed with the Oilers after his junior year and quickly became known as a reliable role player — the kind of guy who does the critical tasks that don’t show up on the score sheet, like forechecking and winning one-on-one battles.
Over the years, that attention to hockey’s finer points caused several coaches and teammates to say Grier had the potential to be a coach or even a general manager someday.
“He played the game the right way and had a great demeanor,” said Ryan Miller, who was the Buffalo Sabres’ goalie during Grier’s two stints with the team. “He prepared and brought a competitive nature to the ice, and when you have that and you know how to interact with people, it makes sense why people can see Mike in so many different roles.”
On Tuesday, Grier was asked what type of game he wanted from the Sharks. He responded: “Tenacious. Highly competitive. Fast. In your face.” It was also an apt description of how he played.
In six seasons in Edmonton, Grier twice scored 20 goals. He was cast into headlines in 1997 when Chris Simon, an enforcer with the Washington Capitals, used a racial slur in an altercation with Grier and was suspended for three games.
By 2004, Grier was playing for Buffalo — as the right wing on a line centered by Drury. The two clicked, and with Miller in goal, the Sabres made it to the 2006 Eastern Conference finals, losing to Carolina in seven games.
He spent three seasons with the Sharks and then returned to the Sabres for two final campaigns. In Game 7 in the first round of the 2011 playoffs against Philadelphia, a first-period shot went off Grier’s glove and past Miller, sparking the Flyers to victory. After the game, Grier sat in his uniform in the visitors’ locker room, crying, until well after his teammates had showered.
It proved to be his last game but not the end of his career in hockey.
“I think he’ll do real well as G.M., for the same reasons he’s done well in every other aspect of his life,” Parker said. “He’s a competitor. He knows people and hockey. He’s a class act.”