Mike Grier understands the culture of hockey. Now 34 years old and in his 13th NHL season, Grier has experienced a lot of what the game has to offer since strapping on his first pair of skates as a youth hockey player in suburban Massachusetts. Originally drafted by the Blues in 1993, the former Boston University standout became the one of the first US-born African-Americans* to skate an NHL shift when he debuted with the Oilers in 1996. A rugged right winger known more for his toughness than his goal-scoring touch, Grier has also seen ice time with the Capitals and Sabres and is currently in his third season with the San Jose Sharks.
David Laurila: How would you describe Mike Grier?
Mike Grier: Off the ice, Iím a pretty laid back guy who likes to spend time with his family and friends, just relaxing. Nothing too serious, maybe watch football. On the ice, Iím more of a defensive player, a third line guy who plays physical. Iím responsible defensively and provide some leadership for the team. Maybe Iíll chip in some goals every now and then.
DL: What did you study at Boston University, and what impact has that had on your life?
MG: I studied sociology, and I think it kind of gives you an idea of how people work a little bit, how society works, and things like that. It maybe gives you a little bit of a look outside at what you can do to try to help others. It helps you look at the world outside of the box, not just making money, but other things that are important in life.
DL: Hockey players have a reputation as being the most down to earth, and least arrogant, athletes in any sport. Why do you think that is?
MG: You know, I donít know. I guess itís kind of a humbling game, but at the same time I think a lot of kids grew up playing in small rinks, and itís passed down from generation to generation. And when you see your parents waking up at five oíclock in the morning to drive you to a rink, you realize the sacrifices that your parents Ė the people you love - are making for you to play the game. I think that all kind of rubs off.
DL: You spent three seasons in Edmonton. Just how different is hockey culture there than in San Jose?
MG: It is hockey crazy up in Edmonton, which was fun for a young guy to go up there to play. Everywhere you go hockey is everything all the time; sometimes itís the lead story on the news. So itís always on your mind, but San Jose is pretty nice. When youíre at the rink, we have great fans, very knowledgeable fans. Weíre lucky that we sell out almost every night, and they know whatís going on and really support us. At the same time, when weíre away from the rink, weíre away from the rink. You donít have people asking you for autographs or wanting to talk hockey all the time. You can go to the mall and be anonymous, which is nice.
DL: Youíve received a lot of attention over the years for being the first US-born African-American player in the NHL. Do you feel that story has run its course, or is it still important to address?
MG: I donít know if thatís really for me to say. The game has changed a lot since I started. There are more African-American kids, and more minorities, playing hockey at all levels now than there were before. I donít know if it is just the evolution of the culture in general, but itís nice to see. Itís helped that weíve had guys like Jerome Iginla who has been the captain of Team Canada and had a lot of success, winning scoring titles and things like that. So, the more success that we have as a group, it just helps spread the word that if youíre a young African-American kid and you want to play hockey, you can play. I guess itís all just part of the way life is going.
DL: From your experience, how differently are European and college players looked at compared to when you started out in hockey?
MG: I think there are a lot more gritty Europeans players than when I first started. All the Europeans before were purely skill guys, and you thought they didnít want to play in the tough areas, but now they do. The same thing is true with college players. Everyone kind of thought that guys in college were playing with masks on and they couldnít play a physical game once they got to the pro level. But I think there are a lot of guys who have changed that perception.
DL: Did you notice a lot more attention being paid to national politics in the clubhouse prior to the presidential election in November?
MG: Definitely. I think that everyone was more into it. It was a time, with the economy and everything, where everyone felt that the country needed to go in a new direction, and that change was needed. Whether you wanted Obama or McCain, I think that everyone was, for the first time Ė especially in my generation Ė taking a genuine interest in the election and its outcome.
DL: Have the clubhouses youíve been in leaned more to the liberal or conservative side?
MG: You know, itís hard for me to say. I donít really know. Guys are usually Ė they can go either way. You have a lot of Canadian kids Ė the majority of the league is Canadian Ė so maybe they havenít been that interested. But this year everyone seemed to be into it, and they were interested in change and what Obama had to say.
DL: Sticking with cultural issues, what would happen if a number of NHL players came out and announced that they are gay?
MG: Personally, it wouldnít bother me. I mean, itís just a matter of time, because thatís the way the world is; thatís the way that society is. There are people who are gay, and live a gay lifestyle, in every walk of life. I think it would be naÔve to think that there arenít any gay people in our sport.
DL: Given your imposing size, were you expected to fight when you came into the league?
MG: It was more a part of my job when I first came in. When I came in, I was a big guy and I played physical, and I still try to play physical. But when youíre young and play physical, you have to stand up for yourself, and things like that, so it kind of came with the territory.
DL: How would outlawing fighting impact the NHL?
MG: Guys would probably take a lot more liberties, and you kind of see that in todayís game. If a team doesnít dress a tough guy, often other teams will take liberties with guys. Youíd see a lot more stick penalties and things like that. A lot more cheap shots, I think.
DL: Although you began your NHL career in Edmonton, you were drafted by the St. Louis Blues. How might your career have been different had the trade not happened?
MG: I donít know if Iíd have gotten to the NHL as quickly. I was fortunate to go to Edmonton, where they hadnít made the playoffs in a few years, and they were looking to change and bring in some new guys and some fresh blood. I think we had about five or six rookies my first year, so it worked out well for me. It gave me an opportunity to play. It gave me an opportunity to play on the power play, to penalty kill Ė all situations. So it was something that worked out for the best for me. I was very lucky to have that trade happen.
DL: In a similar vein, you were born in Detroit. How might have things been different had you grown up there rather than in the Boston area?
MG: My family was right in the inner city there, so I donít know if I would have been playing hockey. I might have been playing basketball or football, or trying to do something like that. I donít know if I ever would have gotten into hockey. Hockey was something when we moved into Boston Ė my older brother, Chris, and his friends started playing, so I kind of tagged along to the rink. And when we visited my cousins in Detroit, none of them played hockey, or had any interest in it at all, so I would probably be doing something else for a living. Iím glad that isnít the case.
*Val James was the first US-born African-American player in the NHL, having appeared in seven games for the Buffalo Sabres in the 1981-82 season. This article initially cited Grier as holding that distinction, and we apologize for the error.