Grier, Mike 1975–

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Mike Grier 1975

Hockey player

Became Standout Player Early

Joined NHL with the Oilers


Mike Griers debut on ice with the Edmunton Oilers made him the first African-American player in National Hockey League (NHL) history. There were a few other minority skaters in professional hockey, but they had either grown up or been trained in Canada. It doesnt seem strange to me, because Ive always been a black hockey player, he told Bergen County Record writer Mark J. Czerwinski. But I understand what it means, and it makes me proud that I could be a role model.

Became Standout Player Early

Grier was born on January 5, 1975, in Detroit, Michigan, where his father was serving as an assistant coach for the Detroit Lions. Two years later his father took a job with the New England Patriots, and the Griers lived in the suburban Boston area for the next several years. Grier began skating at the age of four, following his older brother onto the ice. Within a few years he had become such a talented player that he earned a Sports Illustrated mention at the age of nine for scoring 227 goals in two seasons with his team, the Holliston Mites. During this era, youth hockey was a largely white, suburban sport, and Grier was almost always the only black player on his team. He had no role models in the professional league to emulate, but that didnt prevent him from dreaming of a future in the sport. I always knew I wanted to be a hockey player, but I didnt talk about it much, he recalled in a Seattle Times interview.

After a brief attempt at playing football, where his size was deemed too large for the youth league, Grier went on to play hockey at St. Sebastians Country Day School in Needham, Massachusetts. The school boasted a famously winning hockey team, and Grier was one of its standout players. Still, he sometimes encountered difficulties during his youth career because of his race, when a parent from an opposing team would hurl an occasional slur from the stands. Parents would yell things like, Hey, kid, youre in the wrong sport; you should be playing basketball, Grier recalled in an interview with Sports Illustrated writer Gerry Callahan. But my mom always told me the best way to shut them up was to score a goal.

During his senior year at St. Sebastians, Grier was drafted by the St. Louis Blues. He opted to play college

At a Glance

Born on January 5, 1975, in Detroit, Ml; son of Bobby Grier (a sports executive). Education: Attended Boston University, 1993-96.

Career: Edmonton Oilers, right winger, 1996-2002; Washington Capitals, right winger, 2002-.

Addresses: Office c/o Washington Capitals, Market Square North, 401 Ninth St. NW, Suite 750, Washington, DC 20004.

hockey at Boston University (BU) instead, but arrived for his freshman year weighing 255 pounds, and the coach judged him too heavy to play. He sat out the season, paying his own tuition because he was not eligible for any scholarship money, and shedding 20 pounds. A walk-on with BUs Terriers the next season, he soon proved to be the teams powerhouse. During that sophomore year, he scored 29 goals in 37 games, and helped take BU to a 1994-95 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) hockey championship title. The racial issue surfaced again, during a game against cross-town rival Boston College (BC). The year before, Grier had run into a BC player with what Michael Felger of the Boston Herald termed a thunderous body check. The hit drew gasps from the Boston Garden crowd and was replayed on sportscasts across the country. Grier took a penalty for it, but during the next years match-up, the same player uttered a racial epithet at him that went unheard by officials. Grier failed to bring it to their attention but, according to Felger, he replied to the other player, You are the highlight of my highlight reel.

Joined NHL with the Oilers

While he played college hockey, Grier still retained his option to play in the NHL at a future date. But by the time he finished his junior year, the St. Louis Blues had traded his future rights to the Edmonton Oilers. He decided to join the team, leaving BU prior to his senior year. Initially Grier was not expected to play his first season in the NHLwhose roster is dominated by players who came up in the minor leagues, not collegebut he performed so well at training camp that he made his debut during the 1996-97 season, and scored 15 goals as a rookie. He handled the naysayers with his characteristic grace. Sure, a lot of people had doubts, he told Felger in the Boston Herald interview. They werent as optimistic as I was. Its always good to prove people wrong, but I never really listened to that stuff anyway.

During his rookie year, Grier was the NHLs first African-American player. There had been other blacks before him on the ice, beginning with Willie ORee in 1958, but they had been born or trained in Canada. At the time, only six out of 600 NHL players were black. Both he and another minority rookie, Calgary Flames player Jarome Iginla, were soon dubbed the potential Tiger Woods of their sport, the standout black athlete who would bring legions of new minority players into youth hockey. Grier gave many interviews that first year due to overwhelming press interest, but tried to downplay his historic first. In an interview, he simply pointed out to St Louis Post-Dispatch writer Dave Luecking, It was bound to happenan African-American playing in the NHL. Im just lucky it happened to me.

During his second season with the Oilers, Grier experienced a rare name-calling from another player, this time from Chris Simon, a player of Ojibwa heritage who played with the Washington Capitals. The incident occurred during a heated exchange between players, and the NHL reaction was swift. Simon was suspended for three games, and Grier went on to heed his mothers advice, scoring his first goal in what had until then been a moribund season. Once again, he earned kudos for handling the situation well, and tried to put the incident behind both of them. (Simon) showed a lot of heart by doing what he did, Boston Herald writer Karen Guregian quoted Grier as saying on a local radio show. He came to see me and talk to me man-to-man. He seemed genuinely sorry and he was honest about everything that happened. I forgave him and hopefully now, we can both move on.

Grier played well for the Oilers, scoring a total of 81 goals in six seasons with the team. He even played under the most trying of conditions, with a shoulder dislocated from its socket during a 2001 game. Those present said they heard the scream all the way up in the press box, reported Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service sportswriter Dan Noxon, of the incident. Grier then headed off the ice to have it reset, doubled over by pain, knowing another blinding, white-hot flash would rip through his upper body when the trainers reset the joint, Noxon wrote. Two minutes later, Grier was back on the ice, taking his regular shift.

In October of 2002, the Oilers traded Grier to the Washington Capitals after budget constraints made his $1.3 million contract a financial drain on dwindling team resources. He went on to score 15 goals and 17 assists in 82 games in his first season with his new teammates. Off the ice, he was active in NHL diversity efforts, including the landmark Ice Hockey in Harlem program. Grier knew that his presence and the NHLs work to increase minority involvement in the sport would have a positive impact. I know if I hadnt been alone all the time growing up, he told Callahan in Sports Illustrated, it might have been easier for me.


Boston Herald, July 19, 1997, p. 31; November 2, 1997, p. B15; November 12, 1997, p. 96; November 15, 1997, p. 43.

Buffalo News, November 11, 1997, p. B7.

Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), November 17, 1997, p. S27.

Denver Post, May 1, 1998, p. D1O.

Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, April 13, 2001.

Record (Bergen County, NJ), February 13, 1997, p. S1.

Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO), May 2, 1997, p. 16H.

San Francisco Chronicle, November 11, 1997, p. E7; November 18, 1997, p. D2.

Seattle Times, March 9, 1997, p. D7.

Sports Illustrated, February 20, 1995, p. 146.

Sports Illustrated for Kids, January 1, 1999, p. 44.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 9, 1997, p. 1F.

Washington Times, November 29, 1996, p. E3; October 8, 2002, p. C7; December 14, 2002, p. C2; April 15, 2003, p. C1.

Carol Brennan