The NHL is celebrating Black History Month in February. Throughout the month, NHL.com will be featuring people of color who have made or are making their mark in the hockey world.
Today, we look at Mike Grier of the New Jersey Devils, one of four black assistants on NHL coaching staffs.
Mike Grier is an NHL assistant who draws his inspiration and work ethic from one of his favorite National Football League coaches: his father.
Grier, a veteran of more than 1,000 NHL games and now an assistant with the New Jersey Devils, said he learned what it takes to be successful in coaching by growing up watching his dad, Bobby Grier, work as an assistant on the staff of the New England Patriots from 1985-92.
"I think I always admired the dedication my dad had," Grier said. "The long hours at the office, and then come home and watch film and breakdown film. You have to put in the time, put in the effort."
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It's a credo that he follows in his second season as a Devils assistant. Grier is one of four black assistants working in the NHL and perhaps the most visible because he's the only one who regularly works on the bench during games.
Frantz Jean is goaltending coach for the Tampa Bay Lightning and does most of his work at practices. Nigel Kirwan is the Lightning's video coach; most of his work is done away from the ice. Francis Bouillon is a player development coach for the Montreal Canadiens.
A black coach hasn't led an NHL team since Dirk Graham guided the Chicago Blackhawks for 52 games in 1998-99.
Grier said he focuses on pre-scouting, penalty killing, 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 play but adds that the Devils have "been good in letting me get my feet wet in all situations."
Alain Nasreddine, who took over as Devils coach on Dec. 3 after John Hynes was fired, said he relies on Grier "a lot."
"He's an extremely sharp guy as far as hockey knowledge," Nasreddine said. "When he talks to any guy in the locker room, they'd be stupid not to listen to him. You can tell the guys have tremendous respect for him all around the dressing room. He's got that presence where this guy's been around for 1,000 games, so when you talk to him and he talks to you, you kind of have the feeling that, 'Oh, he knows what he's talking about.' That's good for a coaching staff, but I think the players also appreciate it. He's been a good mentor and teacher."
Grier cites Nasreddine, Hynes and Jack Parker, his coach at Boston University, as role models as he climbs hockey's coaching ladder.
"Coach Parker, he was hard on us, he pushed us," Grier said. "But he was so personable and had great relationships and cared about all of us not hockey players but as individuals. [Hynes] at the NHL level, he was great. Similar to the hours my dad put in, I saw [Hynes] put in the same hours."
Grier, a Detroit native, caught the coaching bug shortly after his retirement in 2010-11 when he began coaching his son. The desire to coach intensified when he served as a coach at the CMM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game in 2014 and worked with the coaching staff of the U.S. Women's National Team for three years leading to the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.
"I'd come into the camps and work with them and be around their staff," Grier said. "It was something I enjoyed and made me realize that it was something I wanted to explore. I just enjoy being on the ice, the teaching and passing on the things that were taught to me by some of the older players I played with."
Grier had 383 points (162 goals, 221 assists) in 1,060 NHL games with the Edmonton Oilers, Washington Capitals Buffalo Sabres and San Jose Sharks.
He was selected by the St. Louis Blues in the ninth round (No. 219) of the 1993 NHL Draft from Boston University and helped BU win the NCAA championship in 1994-95. Grier had 120 points (59 goals, 61 assists) in 114 games for BU from 1993-94 and 1995-96, and he was a top-10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, presented to the NCAA's top player, in 1994-95.
Grier began playing hockey because his older brother, Chris, played. However, Chris Grier followed in his father's footsteps and made football his career; he's general manager of the Miami Dolphins and the only black GM in the NFL.
Mike Grier said his decision to pursue a hockey career was good for him and his father.
"Hockey was something I was able to have as my own, something different," he said. "For my dad, it was a break from talking about football at home. He would come watch my games; we'd talk about hockey and watch hockey on TV."
He said it's also been good having a brother who is a pro team executive to offer him perspective.
"We've had plenty of ups and downs in two seasons in Jersey," he said, "so he's been good to have someone to talk to as a sounding board to kind of tell me there's always going to bumps in the road and that you've got to keep grinding and keep at it and keep a positive attitude."
The 45-year-old said he hopes to lead an NHL team one day but that he still has dues to pay before that happens.
"It would be something I'd look forward to, the challenge of having one day, but I still have a lot to learn and a lot of experience to gain," he said. "Hopefully, down the road, maybe an opportunity comes up and I would embrace it."