Mike Grier did it the right way
One of the NHL's most prolific African-Americans, he played with toughness, character
BOSTON -- The capital of Massachusetts is known as the cradle of freedom and liberty, but it hasn't necessarily been that for all. Boston's track record on race relations -- ranging from Bill Russell's well-documented suburban nightmares to the busing crisis to Stanley Forman's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph, "The Soiling of Old Glory" -- is somewhat checkered.
But Michael James Grier had other issues to deal with in the late 1970s and early '80s. Namely, a brother -- Christopher -- who was five years his senior. If Grier, the future NHL player, was going to hang with the big kids, he was going to have to develop a thick skin and a "won't take no for an answer" personality.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Matt SlocumMike Grier's bruising style was a trademark of his hockey career, but not moreso than the character that made him an outstanding teammate.
"He was always a good athlete, no matter what he did, as long as he put his mind to it," said Chris Grier, now the college scouting director for the Miami Dolphins, of his baby brother. "My dad will tell you, when he first started skating, he wasn't very good. He didn't pick it up right away.
"But he was determined to make it. Just like playing with my friends. We'd rough him up, but he'd never back down. We'd push him around and try to beat him up, but he always stood his ground. That saved him. He was always mentally tough."
That toughness proved to be a defining quality for Grier, both on and off the ice. He can look back on an NHL career that spanned four teams, 14 seasons and 1,060 regular-season games (1,161 including the playoffs). Grier, who announced his retirement last month, is one of two African-Americans to reach the 1,000-game milestone. (The other, Donald Brashear, was born in Indiana to an American father and Quebecois mother, but raised primarily in Canada.)
Grier was a trailblazer of sorts as the first African-American player, born and trained in the United States, to make it to the NHL. He is now a family man -- he and wife, Anne, have three young children -- who takes great pride in both his accomplishments and his heritage.
"I'm aware of who I am and that a lot of minorities and inner-city kids looked up to me and probably saw me as a role model," he said. "Any fan mail I get, I always tried to write them back and give them some advice.
"Throughout the years, I worked with programs like the SCORE Boston and worked with Willie O'Ree," he said. "I tried to be there for the kids and be a positive influence. I've seen the number of African-Americans in the NHL grow every year and it's nice to see now."
Grier said NHL players of African descent all share "a quiet respect for each other," and they all owe a debt of gratitude to O'Ree, who broke the NHL color barrier when he debuted with the Boston Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958. O'Ree is now the league's director of youth development for the NHL/USA Hockey diversity task force.
"Willie, for me, he's the Jackie Robinson for me," Grier said. "People talk about myself or Jarome [Iginla of the Calgary Flames] as the trailblazers, but Willie really was. He had to go through stuff that was 10 or 20 times harsher than anything we had to endure to play. So I think Willie deserves a lot of credit for all of us -- minorities and African-Americans -- who got to play the game. I think he deserves a lot of credit."
Playing with charisma, intensity
A bruising right wing who was known for his thunderous body checks and penalty-killing prowess, Grier collected 383 regular-season points (162 goals, 221 assists) and 510 penalty minutes for the Edmonton Oilers, Washignton Capitals, Buffalo Sabres and San Jose Sharks. He also left the game as one of the most respected players to pull on an NHL jersey, regardless of race.
I recall a couple of instances when people made comments to him, but Mike knew how to take care of that without being dirty or retaliating. He'd handle it in a way that you wouldn't know it was being handled.” -- BU coach Jack Parker on Mike Grier
It was that character that sold Boston University on Grier after he enjoyed a stellar prep school career at St. Sebastian's in Needham.
"We wanted him because we thought he was a terrific prospect with quite an upside," said BU coach Jack Parker, who played alongside a talented African-Canadian named Eddie Wright for the Terriers. "I remember talking to my assistants when we were evaluating recruits and we always like to find something special in our recruits, what makes them different.
"I said the thing that makes Grier special was his size," Parker said. "And both my assistants said, 'No, no, the thing that makes Mike Grier special is his character.'"
Parker's assistants, who did most of the scouting, relayed how Grier not only was very popular among his teammates but with opponents as well.
"They said, 'He'll be captain when he's a senior.' Well, they were wrong because he signed [with the Oilers] at the end of his junior year, after making all-American for us," Parker said. "But he lived up to all those billings. He was just a terrific player and just a fabulous guy and great teammate."
Grier was born in Detroit in 1975, but moved with his family to the Boston area before his third birthday. His father, Bobby Grier, who was a running back at Iowa, had joined the coaching staff of the New England Patriots. The family settled in Holliston. It was an ideal community, Bobby Grier said, giving his boys a chance to play a number of sports, including baseball, football and hockey.
"We knew some of the fathers who where coaching and it was almost a family atmosphere," the elder Grier said. "The boys all knew each other, so they had the sleepovers and all that. It was really good. "
And while the kids played numerous sports, young Mike Grier took to hockey. He was introduced to the sport because Chris played -- "Being the younger brother, I just followed him to the rink," he said -- but he soon found it a good fit.
"It was fast," he said. "I liked the speed of it and the physicality of it. Those two things, combined, were pretty exciting."
Grier was a big kid, the quintessential "outlier" described by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, "Outliers, The Story of Success." Born Jan. 5, 1975, Grier was assured of always being one of the biggest, strongest kids on the ice. (Coincidentally, Brashear, another bruising forward, was born Jan. 7, 1972.) In fact, his mother, Wendy, carried a copy of his birth certificate to prove he was the appropriate age.
"Growing up, it seemed like every kid was a fan of the Oilers, with Gretzky and Messier. It was a fun time to watch hockey and all the things those guys were doing," Grier said. "For me, as I got a little bit older, got into high school and started having some success, and doing some stuff with USA Hockey and playing in tournaments around the country and Canada, I realized I was holding my own against most of the best kids my age. I started to think that it might be a possibility that I could do it for a career, but mostly that I could play at the college level and take it from there."
Answering the slurs
Grier stood out on the ice not only because of the color of his skin and his size, but because of his prodigious talents. In 1984, he was featured in Sports Illustrated's "Faces in the Crowd" column, after ringing up 227 goals in two seasons as a member of the Holliston Mites.
At Boston University, strength coach Mike Boyle transformed Grier into a taut package of pure muscle. J.P. McKersie, a teammate from Grier's three years with the Terriers, describes the right wing as a "gentle giant."
"Oh, gosh, he was just massive," McKersie said. "There was no soft flesh on him at all. Thank god I was a goalie and he could only hit me with a puck. He was 220 pounds of meat who could just crush you."
Which was Grier's preferred method of meting out justice for any opponent who tossed around racial epithets on the ice.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Charles KrupaFourteen seasons after beginning his NHL career with Edmonton on the heels of three years at BU, Mike Grier retired as one of two African-Americans with 1,000 career games.
"I recall a couple of instances when people made comments to him, but Mike knew how to take care of that without being dirty or retaliating," Parker said with a chuckle. "He would just bide his time. If you ran into Mike Grier, you got hurt. And Mike would make sure that the person making comments might run into him sooner or later.
"Mike got emotionally involved many, many times, in terms of how hard he played. But he never got emotionally involved if somebody made a reference to his race or the color of his skin," the BU bench boss said. "I think he understands the ignorance of that. And, as I said, he'd handle it in a way that you wouldn't know it was being handled."
Grier also could rely on his wit and respond with a quick one-liner.
"I remember one time when someone was making a mouthy comment on the ice," Parker said. "Well, Mike had laid the guy out earlier in his career, and he just told the guy, 'Hey, you were in my highlight film.' He was just too cool. Mike was always a really cool guy.
"He doesn't wear his emotions on his sleeve, that's for sure. But they run deep, I'll tell you that."
Grier credits his mother, who passed away two years ago, with instilling the discipline required to handle any adversity. The taunts ranged from mild -- such as suggestions that he ought to concentrate on basketball or football -- to pure vitriol.
"I never had any problems with any coaches or teammates. I always had great coaches and teammates who always treated me well and with respect, like anyone else on the hockey team," Grier said. "But growing up, every now and then, I'd hear racial slurs from other opponents and parents. It was tough to deal with when I was young. When it happened, I always wanted to fight.
"But my mom told me just to score goals, and eventually people would shut up. So that's the approach I took. And as I got older, my hockey spoke for itself."
Which, of course, is an extension of the lessons that the game itself teaches. Blatant retaliation, no matter how justified, would be seen as selfish if it put the team at a disadvantage.
"It's a sport where everyone out there relies on each other and has respect for each other," Grier said. "Everyone sacrifices for the betterment of the team, that's all part of the code of being a hockey player. You can't make yourself bigger than the team."
Grier's father and brother, as well as Parker and many of his former BU teammates, say they aren't surprised by the length of Grier's pro career, saying he always held true to the bedrock values and commitment to hard work that got him to the NHL in the first place.
"I was more disappointed for him when he got drafted so late, in the ninth round," Chris Grier said.
A quick peek at the top end of the 1993 draft reveals some top-flight NHL talent, including Chris Pronger, Paul Kariya, Rob Neidermayer and Jason Arnott. But it also shows some genuine busts, including top pick Alexandre Daigle and No. 9 pick Todd Harvey. Little was heard of top American picks Landon Wilson and Kevyn Adams (No. 14 pick Adam Deadmarsh held dual citizenship). And although second-round picks Jay Pandolfo (a teammate of Grier's at BU) and Jamie Langenbrunner continue to enjoy solid careers, Grier, the 219th pick overall, doesn't have to take a backseat to any of them.
For Grier, who considers himself fortunate to have had so many outstanding coaches and teammates throughout his career, it was a great ride. And he looks forward to the day when race is not even an issue worth mentioning.
"Hopefully, these young kids -- Wayne Simmonds and Joel Ward and Evander Kane and Dustin Byfuglien -- can keep having success and getting their names out there and playing in All-Star Games, and more kids will see them and more kids will play," Grier said. "Hopefully, it will become commonplace at some point."
But Grier is perhaps most proud of the fact that the people he played alongside judge him not on his race, but on his accomplishments and the traits that made him a good friend, a loyal teammate and a valuable team-first hockey player.
"To have that long a career, and to be so successful, speaks to his character, of being a hard-working, intense athlete," McKersie said. "That demeanor is built into his core personality. He just said, 'I'm going work my tail off, and I'm going to do it right.'"
Brion O'Connor covers college hockey for ESPNBoston.com.
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