MONTREAL – Alain Nasreddine knew that Mike Grier was going to interview for the general manager vacancy with the San Jose Sharks. When Nasreddine read that Grier was one of the finalists, he knew a congratulatory text message was going to be in order soon.
Nasreddine and Grier were assistant coaches for two seasons with the New Jersey Devils for John Hynes, and long before that they were players in the Edmonton Oilers organization, though Nasreddine was a minor leaguer trying to break through and Grier was an established NHL veteran.
That text was sent Tuesday, shortly after the Sharks introduced Grier as the fifth general manager in franchise history.
“When I found out he was in the last three candidates, I just knew he was going to get it,” Nasreddine said. “I didn’t know who the other guys were, but I just know Mike is made for this. I know it’s been a really long process and I’m just so happy for him.”
It has been a long time coming, on a few different levels.
For Grier, it was a nearly three-decade journey. He arrived at Boston University as a walk-on, left as a national champion and played more than 1,000 NHL games before a winding path through scouting, coaching and a year in the New York Rangers’ front office before returning to San Jose, where he spent three seasons near the end of his playing career.
He’s a Boston guy. He played for Jack Parker. His father, Bobby, worked for the New England Patriots. But this is something of a homecoming for the Grier family. His daughter was born in the Bay Area. His oldest son learned to skate there. His youngest son will play for the Junior Sharks next season.
“He’s a guy that loves the game. He’s a great person that treats people the right way and works hard,” said Hynes, now the Nashville Predators coach who played at BU with Grier and hired him as an assistant when he coached the Devils in 2018-19. “He’s very bright. He knows the game and he knows players. Having the opportunity to coach with him in New Jersey and just talking with him about different things over the years, I always felt the management side was like a true calling for him. I think he’s a very good coach, but the management side always intrigued him.”
The Sharks had been without a permanent GM since Doug Wilson stepped down in early April, but really since he stepped away with health issues in late November. Team president Jonathan Becher said he and interim GM Joe Will spent “something like 200 hours” interviewing candidates, seeking references and doing background checks.
For the NHL, this is a barrier-breaking moment. Grier is the first Black GM in league history.
“For the longest time, from my own experience and also what I’ve heard and seen in the marketplace, I’ve heard every reason as to why not,” ESPN analyst Kevin Weekes said. “And it’s nice to finally see all the reasons on the plus side equal why as opposed to why not. Finally, some organization just stopped discrediting and devaluing, and had an open mind. They just said, ‘Hey, we look at the criteria and he fits what we’re looking for at this time.’
“It’s like having a man on the moon, quite frankly, in our sport. These have been exclusive jobs until recently for older white men – never for females, people of color, AAPI, any other visible minority or alternate sexual orientation or any minority group. These jobs were closed off. So the fact that this actually happened, as opposed to the talk or the token interviews or just kind of conceptualizing it … the fact that it has been realized I think is massive for the sport. It’s huge. And congrats to Mike for making it happen.”
The Sharks started with a long list of preliminary candidates. Becher said they interviewed a dozen people on Zoom, with the calls ranging from four to six hours. Then they invited the finalists to San Jose for all-day meetings.
They said from the beginning, when Wilson resigned, that prior GM experience would not be a requirement. Becher said it would be a wide-ranging search. The Sharks are the 13th team of the past 14 clubs to hire a new GM to pick someone who had never held that title in this league before.
“We hired the best general manager available,” Becher said. “Mike just happens to be Black. The focus was on finding the best candidate. Having said that, I think it is great. It is part of our pioneering spirit, which is to get the most out of everybody and expand the sport. San Jose is a very culturally diverse area, as well, so I hope he can serve as an inspiration to lots of people. I hope he’s the first but certainly not the last.”
Grier spent this past season with the Rangers as an adviser to GM Chris Drury, another teammate at BU. Drury gave the Sharks a strong recommendation for Grier.
Will said Grier’s duties with the Rangers were equivalent to what an assistant GM does. He also pointed out the breadth of Grier’s post-playing work. He worked in scouting for the Chicago Blackhawks. He’s coached at various levels, including two seasons behind an NHL bench. The Sharks believe the wide scope of experience will make up for Grier not spending several years as someone else’s No. 2 in command.
This is also the family business. Grier’s father not only worked for the Patriots in various roles, he’s been in an NFL front office for the past 40 years, including time with the Houston Texas and Miami Dolphins. In Miami, he works for his son – Mike’s brother, Chris, is the Dolphins’ GM.
— Miami Dolphins (@MiamiDolphins) July 5, 2022
“Honestly, I’m so excited and so happy to finally see someone who looks like him in this position,” said Fatou Bah, an executive board member for Black Girl Hockey Club. “I feel like this sport is sometimes a copycat sport. It takes someone who dares to be different to make a change like this.
“Diversity of thought and representation is so important in hockey. I’m so happy they did this, but the Sharks have made history before with their jerseys, which was created by a Black guy (Terry Smith). Good for them daring to be different, and I’m so excited to see what new doors open in San Jose after this door was opened to him.”
Grier inherits a tricky situation in San Jose. The Sharks have missed the Stanley Cup playoffs for the past three seasons, a first in franchise history.
The to-do list is lengthy. It starts with his first NHL GMs meeting Wednesday in Montreal, then the 2022 NHL draft begins the following night.
Grier said the draft and free agency are top of mind to start, but he will also need to hire nearly an entire coaching staff after the Sharks fired four-fifths of theirs five days before he was introduced. Becher and Grier also alluded to further changes in the organization, including additions to the hockey operations staff.
“Tenacious, highly competitive, in your face, fast, hard to play against – that’s what you see when you watch the playoffs and that’s what wins in this league,” Grier said when asked what he wants the identity of his team to be. “We’re not looking to tear this down like Arizona or some teams have done in the past. Yes, there’s challenges with the salary cap. But I think the majority of the league is dealing with the flat cap and they have their issues.
“For us, we’re not looking to rebuild. As Jonathan said, there’s a lot of ‘R’ words you can use. For us, there might be a few bumps in the road ahead. Maybe we’ve got to step back a little bit to go forward, but we’re going to try and get better and try and make the roster better every day. Our goal is to win here.”
There will certainly be pressure on Grier as the league’s first Black GM. The NHL hadn’t even had a Black assistant GM until Brett Peterson earned that role with the Florida Panthers in November 2020.
The Sharks are short on salary cap space, but the roster is clearly not ready to fulfill the high expectations set forth by owner Hasso Plattner.
“I think he’s got his hands full,” one league source said. “They have some big contracts. He’s got to start with a coaching search, and that is going to be a challenge because a lot of coaches have been hired. From the outside looking in, it is like they are kind of in between right now. They gave out some contracts that didn’t make a lot of sense. Are they going to rebuild? Are they going to try and salvage this and be competitive by making a few moves? I don’t know the answer, and I don’t know what I would recommend. I think he’s got a tough job ahead of him.”
In some ways, this has been a very long journey for Grier, but in others he has vaulted into this position very quickly. There are plenty of examples of GMs around the NHL who did not toil away in someone else’s front office before they earned the chance to run their own franchise.
“He’s genuinely just a nice human being. He’s kind and personable and easy to talk to,” said Islanders goaltender Cory Schneider, who played in New Jersey when Grier was an assistant. “Just from that standpoint, he was great to have around as an assistant coach. But you could also see the qualities that would make him a good GM. He’s very cerebral. He’s very measured. It seemed like he was never in a panic or a rush. He was very deliberate and clear in what he would tell you, but you could tell he had put some thought into it and presented things in a certain way. I think that will ideally transfer over well for him as a GM.”
Becher began the news conference in San Jose by noting this opening gave the organization an opportunity for a full-scale, franchise-wide review. The results of that process are a fresh start.
The Sharks have had only two general mangers since 1996. There has been lots of continuity, lots of loyalty and lots of success, though the ultimate goal of winning a championship has eluded them.
There has been less success over the past three seasons. The organization feels Grier will be the right choice to blend the franchise’s long-standing ideas on how to build a quality hockey team with new perspectives.
The Sharks and Grier made history Tuesday. He has an incredible opportunity, but also a difficult one. Now the tough part begins.
“I think the opportunities are what they are. There’s only 32 of them, as everybody always says,” Weekes said. “The challenge is, it’s not an easy situation. That’s for sure. It’s a unique one, as every club and their structure is unique in its own way. I would say I don’t know that everything is always teed up for all of us the way we want it when we get opportunities in life. You just have to go out there and rock it, regardless of what’s stacked against you. They’ve got some unique challenges, but if it was Toronto, he’d have unique challenges, or Buffalo, right? Same if it was Ottawa or Arizona. All you can do is just try to do the best job you can.
“They’re comfortable with him. He’s comfortable with them. It would be great if he succeeds. I think it would just be better for the sport.”
(Top photo: Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)