For parts of four seasons as a forward with the Buffalo Sabres, Mike Grier was pretty much already a coach. A steady veteran presence, he served as a role model to younger players and was looked up to by his teammates. Now he'll have the chance lead from behind the home bench Thursday night.
The former NHL forward, who suited up for 1,060 games, will be one of the coaches of the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game, which begins at 7 p.m. from First Niagara Center.
“It’s a great event put on by USA Hockey so I was thrilled when they asked me to be a part of it,” he said. “Being here in Buffalo is the cherry on top. It’s a special place for me. I have a lot of great memories here.”
Grier is now a college scout for the Chicago Blackhawks, focusing on Hockey East.
He’s eager to go out on his first assignment and said it’ll be a little different for him because now he’ll be watching games with a purpose. He’ll use these experiences to help him see if he wants to become more involved in the pro game moving forward.
Coaching a team in the Prospects Game will provide him with another opportunity to discover different avenues in the hockey world.
“I’m just trying to take it all in, have some fun and learn some things along the way,” he said.
LISTEN: GRIER ON SABRES HOCKEY HOTLINE
He’s tried to stress to the prospects playing in the game on Thursday that they shouldn’t let their best attributes fall by the wayside just because they’re playing in a showcase. He wants to see physical players continue to be physical even if they may have some friends in the opposing dressing room.
“You have to have some intensity to the game and make sure there’s pace to the game and you’re playing hard and you’re doing the things that brought you to this game. So not just playing shinny out there and treat it as an All-Star Game,” he told Kevin Sylvester and Andrew Peters on Sabres Hockey Hotline.
“You have to treat it as a real game with all the scouts and the people here that are going to be watching you. You’ve got to try to leave your mark on the game.”
One player that many scouts and fans will be paying special attention to is Jack Eichel, the 17-year-old Boston University freshman who is likely to be one of the top picks in the 2015 NHL Draft. Grier, a BU alumnus, has gotten the chance to know Eichel a little bit and will be coaching him in the Prospects Game.
Grier said on Hockey Hotline that what’s most impressive about Eichel is his demeanor off the ice.
“For two years, he ‘s been getting the first or second pick in the draft, who’s better – him or [Connor] McDavid – thrown in his face and nonstop interview requests and TV requests,” Grier said. “And he handles it very well. It would be real easy for him to be a cocky, braggy kid, but he’s got a good head on him. But besides that, he’s a real dynamic player.”
Grier had a reputation for being a tremendous teammate and for taking younger players under his wing. He said he learned those things when he himself was a young player and spending time with veterans like Kelly Buchberger, Doug Weight and Bill Guerin.
“They’re doing all the right things that if you see that as a young guy, you say, ‘That’s who I want to be.’ That’s something I tried to take and pass along as well,” he said.
Grier retired with the Sabres in 2011, following a first-round exit in the Stanley Cup Playoffs at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers in seven games. That marked the end of his second stint in Buffalo.
He was first acquired by the Sabres at the NHL Trade Deadline in 2004 and played the remainder of that season and the entire 2005-06 season in the black and red. He left for San Jose as an unrestricted free agent in 2006 and returned to Buffalo for the 2009-10 season.
Grier shared a close bond with former Sabres captain Chris Drury. They won a national title together with Boston University in 1994-95 and became teammates again when Grier was traded for in 2004.
Sylvester and Peters asked Grier what Drury is up to now as he’s avoided the spotlight since retiring in 2011.
“He’s Keyser Söze,” Grier joked, referring to the elusive criminal mastermind from “The Usual Suspects.” “You don’t see him too much. He’s happy to keep to himself and he’s always been a quiet guy and has enjoyed his time with his family.”
Grier figures his best chance to win a Stanley Cup came in 2005-06 when the Sabres reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals but gave up a lead in the third period to the eventual champion Carolina Hurricanes.
“That was probably the year. We just had a team that loved being around each other, worked for each other,” he said. “We had a little bit of everything. We had great goaltending with [Ryan Miller], four lines who could score, good D and [coach] Lindy [Ruff] molded the group, let us find our own way and just play our own brand of hockey which was pretty fast paced.
“…That’s definitely my ‘What If?’ moment.”