The pursuit of playing in the National Hockey League is difficult enough. Maintaining that spot at the highest level of the game? That’s a whole other story.
On this week’s session of NEHJ’s The Rink Shrinks podcast, 14-year NHL veteran and Boston University product Mike Grier joined the show alongside co-hosts Brian Yandle and Mike Mottau to discuss his rise to the pro ranks, the importance of taking care of your body, as well as his recent transition into the coaching realm.
A native of Holliston, Mass., Grier grew up in a football-focused family. His father, Bobby, worked in the NFL for years, including with the New England Patriots. His brother, Chris, is general manager of the Miami Dolphins.
Mike got his start playing hockey for his local youth teams. Splitting time between forward and defense, honing his skills and building his understanding of the game from a variety of angles, he also played several other sports, which helped increase his overall athleticism, he said.
With a push from his parents, he eventually moved on from his hometown squad and joined the St. Sebastian’s Arrows in the Independent School League. For three years, he skated under Dan Williams at the Needham, Mass., prep school.
“I would have been more than happy just to play hockey at Holliston High,” Grier told the Shrinks, “but if I did that, I would say most likely I wouldn’t have ended up at Boston University, and who knows what would have happened from there.”
Thanks to his coming out in the prep world, he landed a commitment to join the Terriers under the legendary Jack Parker. After his freshman year, he was drafted 219th overall by the St. Louis Blues in the closing rounds of the 1993 NHL draft.
After his rights were traded to Edmonton at the end of his sophomore year, and after winning a national championship, being named a first-team All-American and a Hobey Baker finalist as a junior, Grier got his shot on a young Oilers team.
From that point on, he never looked back, kickstarting his long professional stint. More importantly, following the start of his pro career in fall 1996, he became the first African-American player in NHL history to be exclusively trained in the U.S.
Four teams, 14 years and 1,060 games later, Grier, a right winger, never faltered. He never lost his spot and never played a game in the American Hockey League. He credits that longevity to taking care of his body by maintaining a routine, one he solidified at BU under longtime strength and conditioning coach Mike Boyle.
“I think it was just kind of … the seed had always been planted in there,” Grier said. “Some of it from my dad and from being around the Patriots and hearing stories of the guys that took care of themselves and the guys that didn’t take care of themselves. So that was an early seed that was planted in me, but Mike Boyle really helped me.”
As a larger player in high school who got his way by simply being bigger and stronger than most kids his age, Grier had to adjust when he moved up a level. After slimming down and getting more confident in his skating and speed in year one, things really started to click for Grier during his second year on Comm. Ave.
“I was kind of religiously listening to Mike from college all the way through my pro career,” Grier said. “As you go, you kind of figure out how important diet is, and even each step, you’ve got to make an adjustment, so I just had to lean out to play at BU and Mike helped me do tha. But even moreso to go to make the jump from college to pro I had to continue it, so I had to keep following the diet and taking care of my body.
“It’s a little bit of a mindset. As you play, you try and tell guys it’s your job, you know. You could be sitting in an office from nine to five, but if you go to the rink for a few hours a day it’s not hard to take care of yourself and do the right thing, so you can play as long as you can or give yourself the best chance to have success.”
One key aspect of Grier’s overall regiment was the absence of alcohol in his life.
“For me, there just wasn’t a lot of alcohol around my house growing up and then going back to my dad I saw numerous Patriots guys get into trouble and have their careers blown up or get injuries or whatever and get themselves in trouble with the law from drinking and other things,” he said. “So, I just decided I wasn’t going to go down that path, but I still loved to be out and be with my teammates and have a good time, laugh and hear the stories. I wanted to witness the nonsense firsthand.
“I think that’s part of the experience that makes sports so special is you’ve got a close group of friends that you can go out to dinner with, the club or the bar, whatever it may be, hang out and have a good time because you guys have a shared experience that other people don’t really know what you’re going through. So, when it’s all said and done, those are the times you miss, hanging out and being out with the boys.”
After retiring in 2011, Grier, now 45, has spent the past two years as an assistant with the New Jersey Devils, making several other coaching stops along the way. Over the summer, he led NextGen AAA’s all-minority team to a tournament win alongside fellow former NHLer Bryce Salvador at the Beantown Summer Classic.
From pushing the importance of self-care to how to best develop skills, a process he’s seen firsthand through years of playing and extensive time as an NHL scout, Grier has a lot of knowledge to pass down to the next generation of hockey talent.
“I enjoy being on the ice and kind of giving back with some of the things (I’ve) learned,” Grier said. “It’s pretty gratifying to work with a kid and then see them make a leap and maybe achieve something that they’ve been striving for, whether that’s make their high school team or whatever it may be. It’s pretty gratifying.”
With so much specialization and the win-win-win mentality in youth sports today, as a coach, it’s important to remember, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Grier said.
“I think it’s different than when we were playing 10, 15 years ago,” he added.
“I don’t think they respond as much to yelling and screaming and being super hard on them. So, you have to be ready to give them an answer why, why you’re telling them this, why you’re showing them this. So that’s what I enjoy. You know, watch a little video with them but then be hands on with them and try to help them craft their game, expand on their strengths and then help them build their weaknesses.”
For more from Grier, as well as many other interviews with The Rink Shrinks featuring co-hosts Brian Yandle and Mike Mottau, find the podcast through a variety of streaming platforms, such as Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and TuneIn, or online at hockeyjournal.com/podcast.
The Rink Shrinks is sponsored by
Boston Junior Terriers
Laura Stamm Power Skating
Paul Vincent Hockey