July 5, 2022, was a momentous day in hockey. When Mike Grier was hired by the San Jose Sharks on that date, he became the first Black general manager in NHL history.
The news resonated around the league, particularly in Oil Country, where Grier spent the first six seasons of his NHL career playing for the Edmonton Oilers.
Few players in franchise history have been so highly regarded in Edmonton. The Detroit native’s toughness, dedication, selflessness, and professionalism earned him the universal respect of Oil Country. He was a foundational member of the teams of the late 90s and early 00s that were playoff regulars in an era when the deck was stacked against small market Canadian teams.
“If there was one word to describe Mike, it was professional…one of the nicest guys that ever came through Edmonton. He knew what he had to work on, and he did. If he had to be mean, he was mean. His game wasn’t pretty, but he did everything with class.”
Kevin Prendergast, former Oilers’ head of scouting (from ‘Mike Grier was the consummate pro’ The Edmonton Journal, 12/1/11)
Two decades have passed since he played his last game in copper and navy, and Grier’s Oilers tenure might be underappreciated these days, if only because memories fade with the turn of each calendar page. So, on the occasion of this historical hiring, here’s a trip back in time.
Oilers Acquire Grier
Few knew who Grier was when he was acquired as part of Edmonton’s August 1995 deal with the St. Louis Blues for goalie Curtis Joseph and, to be honest, not many cared. It wasn’t anything personal. But all attention was on the future Hall of Fame netminder. The rest of the trade was an afterthought.
However, those who did their homework had reason to be excited. A ninth-round pick in the 1993 NHL Draft, Grier was coming off an NCAA championship victory as a sophomore at Boston University. Racking up 29 goals and 26 goals in 37 games, he was named an All-American and Hobey Baker Award finalist for 1994-95.
In his junior year in 1995-96, Grier recorded 47 points in 38 games and helped the Terriers get back to the Frozen Four. He signed with the Oilers following the season.
Grier Makes NHL Debut
A quarter century before becoming the NHL’s first Black GM, Grier became the first American-born and trained Black player to play in the NHL.
That Grier made the Oiler’s opening roster for the 1996-97 season surprised some; that his rookie campaign was so impactful surprised everyone. Suiting up for all but three games in the regular season, Grier had 15 goals and 17 assists and was fifth on the team with a plus-7 rating. He was voted Top First Year Oiler, outpolling Andrei Kovalenko, Dan McGillis and Rem Murray.
Grier Steps Up in Playoffs
Backstopped by Joseph and with a roster full of up-and-comers like Grier, the Oilers clinched a berth in the 1997 Stanley Cup Playoffs. It was Edmonton’s first time reaching the postseason since 1992, and the team’s classic opening-round series against the Dallas Stars would be a coming-out-party for several Oilers, including Grier.
The rookie winger had the winning goal in Game 2 in Dallas, Edmonton’s first playoff victory in five years. In Game 3, he scored the equalizer at 17:56 of the third period, as the Oilers rallied from down 3-0 with four minutes remaining to win 4-3 in overtime – the greatest comeback in franchise history.
Grier scored again in Game 6 and finished the series tied for the team lead with 3 goals, as Edmonton upset the Stars 4-3 after Todd Marchant scored in overtime of Game 7.
A year later, the underdog Oilers were at it again in the 1998 Playoffs, this time upsetting the Colorado Avalanche, 4-3, in the first round. Again, it was thanks in no small part to Grier; without his heroics, the Oilers wouldn’t have made it past Game 5.
With Edmonton trailing 3-1 in the series and 1-0 entering the third period, Grier delivered arguably his signature performance as an Oiler. First, he drew a penalty that led to Bill Guerin’s power-play goal to tie things up early in the frame. Then he scored the go-ahead goal at 13:11 after digging the puck out along the boards behind the net. Finally, he outraced Uwe Krupp for the puck and tucked it into the empty Avalanche net with 55 seconds remaining, securing Edmonton’s season-saving victory.
Grier Has Career Year
Fortune did not favour the Oilers in 1998-99: Joseph left Edmonton as a free agent, signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs in July 1998, and leading point-producer Doug Weight was lost to injury for nearly three months of the schedule. Edmonton needed players to step up, and Grier rose to the occasion.
The 6-foot-1 winger registered career-highs across the board, scoring 20 goals (later equalled in 2000-01) and 44 points in 82 games, en route to receiving the team’s Unsung Hero Award. Grier was nothing short of spectacular down the stretch when, sparked by a flurry of trades, the Oilers rallied to make the playoffs. Over the final 14 games, during which Edmonton went 8-4-2, Grier had 10 goals, six assists and was plus-9.
Teaming With Marchant and Moreau
One of the Oilers’ trades late in the 1998-99 season brought left-winger Ethan Moreau to Edmonton. Eventually, Grier aligned with Moreau and centre Marchant to form one of the best-remembered trios in Oilers history, the “MGM Line”.
MGM was the quintessential third line, relied upon for checking, though its players also had some offensive pop. For his part, Grier evolved into a terrific two-way forward, playing over three minutes per game on the penalty kill during his final seasons in Edmonton after rarely seeing the ice in short-handed situations early in his career. He was named the Oilers’ Top Defensive Forward for the 1999-2000 season.
Grier’s Legendary Toughness
About two months into the 2000-01 season, Grier suffered a dislocated right shoulder and was placed on the injury list. “We don’t want to get into a situation … where the shoulder keeps popping out for the whole year,” Grier said at the time. If only he knew.
After missing just a handful of games, the Detroit native was back in action. But, before long, his shoulder was back out of its socket. Then it was back in again. And out again. And in again. And out again.
For the rest of the season, Grier dealt with a shoulder that often dislocated during games. He’d return to the Oilers bench, have it (very painfully) popped back in place and go back out for his next shift. No superlative in the dictionary can convey Grier’s toughness and dedication, watching him skate off the ice with his arm dangling loosely at his side, again needing to have his shoulder reset. He still managed to finish the season with 20 goals.
Grier Becomes Part of Hockey History
In addition to Grier, the 2000-01 Oilers featured four other Black players: forwards Anson Carter and Georges Laraque, defenseman Sean Brown, and goalie Joaquin Gage. A Globe and Mail article reported that “never before or since has there been such representation on one NHL team.” At the time, there were only 11 other Black players on the other 29 NHL teams (from ‘Pioneering Oilers team was ‘something special’ and players didn’t even realize it’, The Globe and Mail, 02/13/21).
On Oct. 7, 2002, Grier was traded to the Washington Capitals for a pair of draft picks. He went on to play for the Buffalo Sabres and Sharks, retiring in 2010-11 with 162 goals (81 as an Oiler) and 221 assists (102) for 383 points (183) in 1,063 games (448).
Grier has since worked in off-ice positions, including as a scout for the Chicago Blackhawks, an assistant coach with the New Jersey Devils, and, most recently, as hockey operations advisor of the New York Rangers. Hopefully, hiring Grier is a breakthrough for hockey, and not just in San Jose. Those in Oil Country who recall Grier’s initial years as a pro player know that he will quickly become a difference-maker as he begins this stage of his career.
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.