Progress has always moved slowly in the backrooms occupied by hockey’s power brokers, but this was better late than never. The National Hockey League was more than a century old before it finally got around to handing over the keys to one of its franchises to someone other than a white man on Tuesday.
That’s when the San Jose Sharks named Mike Grier the first Black general manager in the history of the league. Grier, who defied the odds as a ninth-round draft pick to play more than 1,000 games in the league during his days as a rugged forward in Edmonton, Washington, Buffalo and San Jose, acknowledged the significance of his rise to the top of the executive ranks. Most recently a hockey operations adviser for the New York Rangers, Grier won’t have more than a moment to celebrate. The NHL draft begins Thursday in Montreal, with free agency commencing six days later. And given how the Sharks have missed the playoffs for three straight seasons and just fired head coach Bob Boughner, there’s plenty of work to be done.
“It’s something I’m extremely proud of,” Grier said of his hiring. “I realize there’s a responsibility that comes with the territory, but I’m up for it (with) how I carry myself and how the organization carries themselves.”
It was a groundbreaking moment in the slow but important business of diversifying game, to be sure.
“What a momentous day this is for our community,” tweeted Akim Aliu, chairman of the Hockey Diversity Alliance. “This will inspire future generations to believe anything is possible and they too can reach the highest of highs.”
As seismic as Grier’s hiring has the potential to become in the hockey world, it was old hat in his immediate circle. Grier may be the first Black general manager in the NHL, but he isn’t even the first general manager in his family. That would be his older brother, Chris, 52, who has been the general manager of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins since 2016, after a 16-year run in the Dolphins’ scouting department.
And just as Mike Grier was the first African-American born and trained in the United States to play in the NHL, he wasn’t even the family trail blazer in hockey. That’d be Chris, too, whose love for the game was handed down to his younger brother before playing football at the University of Massachusetts.
As for the eye for the executive suite — well, that’s familial, too. If you need to see it to be it, as the saying goes, Mike and Chris are the sons of Buddy Grier, a former NFL running back who coached with the New England Patriots before taking a series of scouting and executive roles in New England, Houston and Miami, where he’s now a consultant.
“Unknowingly, you’ve been preparing me for this job since I was about 10 years old,” Mike Grier said, speaking of his father on Tuesday.
Said Chris Grier in a statement provided by the Dolphins: “Our parents deserve all the credit for how they raised us. We were very fortunate to observe and learn from our father while growing up.”
Certainly Mike and Chris Grier didn’t grow up with a bevy of Black general managers to observe from afar. It has been more than 50 years since Wayne Embry, the longtime Raptors senior adviser, was named general manager of the Milwaukee Bucks, making him the first Black general manager in the history of North American pro sports. And let’s just say, for a long time, Embry was in rare company.
It was 15 years after Embry broke that barrier that Al Campanis, then the general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, caused an uproar by insisting, when asked why there were no Black managers, general managers or owners in Major League Baseball, that “(Blacks) may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager, or perhaps a general manager.”
Campanis was promptly fired from the Dodgers. But Major League Baseball didn’t name its first Black general manager, Bob Watson, until the early 1990s. The National Football League didn’t hire a Black man as general manager until 2002, when Ozzie Newsome was given the reins of the Baltimore Ravens.
As for hockey, Jonathan Becher, the president of Sharks Sports and Entertainment, downplayed the role of race in Grier’s ascension. “We hired the best general manager available,” Becher said. “Mike just happens to be Black.”
At Tuesday’s press conference to announce the hiring, Becher turned to address Grier.
“So I hope you do serve as an inspiration for lots of people,” Becher said. “And then I hope you’re the first but certainly not the last (Black GM in the NHL).”
You’ll excuse Grier if the search to fill the role, which had been held by Doug Wilson for 19 years before he left the club for medical reasons last season and resigned his post in April, felt as if it took more than a century. The initial stages of the search saw a dozen candidates subjected to interviews that lasted as long as six hours. By the end of it, Becher estimated the organization’s search team had spent more than 200 hours interviewing candidates.
“It was an exhaustive, and I might say sometimes exhausting, interview process,” Becher said.
Grier got the job, Becher said, in part because he got glowing reviews from various NHL alumni, among them Chris Drury, the Rangers GM with whom Grier played in Buffalo and at the University of Boston, and in part because he embodied the qualities the Sharks were seeking.
“Mike is a true testament to one of our organization’s principles. That is, say what you mean and then do what you say,” Becher said. “There are precious few candidates that have the strength of character to lead … Mike consistently demonstrated that strength of character.”
As a pioneering hockey general manager, Grier said his No. 1 job is to make sure the Sharks win more hockey games; on Tuesday he even spoke of bringing a Stanley Cup to California’s Bay Area. If he does that, or comes close, perhaps there’s a chance his impact will be felt well beyond the on-ice product, for a more diverse NHL century to come.
“For me, my job is to do the best I can for the San Jose Sharks organization, and if I do that, hopefully it opens the door to give other opportunities to other minorities to get in front-office positions,” Grier said. “Hopefully I’ll leave a good footprint and open some doors.”
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