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Sharks’ Mike Grier a long-overdue Black general manager in the NHL

For more than 100 years, the top pro hockey league never had a Black general manager. Will his hiring speed up change in the sport?

On Tuesday, the San Jose Sharks made former NHL player Mike Grier the first Black general manager in NHL history. Upon the news being announced, the broader hockey world celebrated the appointment, including co-chair of the Hockey Diversity Alliance Akim Aliu, who tweeted, “Congratulations to Mike Grier on becoming the first black GM in the NHL’s 100 + year history. What a momentous day this is for our community. This will inspire future generations to believe anything is possible, and they too can reach the highest of highs.”

The NHL.com homepage had the hiring of Grier as the top story, heralding it as a “historic hire.”

And while the appointment of Grier is welcome news and a proud moment for him and his family, the underlying facts give pause about the celebration.

Grier, a former NHL player, scout for the Chicago Blackhawks and assistant coach for the New Jersey Devils, is the brother of Miami Dolphins general manager Chris Grier. Grier said during the news conference that he was aware of the significance of his hire and that it was something he was “extremely proud of.” Sharks president Jonathan Becher was asked about the importance of hiring the first Black general manager in league history and said, “We hired the best general manager available. Mike just happens to be Black.”

The sentiment from Becher gave off good vibes in the news conference, but the NHL was founded more than 100 years ago and only now, in 2022, do we see the first appointment of a Black general manager. The league still has no Black head coaches, and before Grier’s appointment, Brett Peterson, assistant general manager for the Florida Panthers, was the only other Black front-office appointee in league history, in 2020. And when it comes to the players, 2021 was the first time a team started an all-Black forward line, the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Mike Grier played 1,060 games over 14 NHL seasons.

Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Throughout the news conference, Grier’s time in the league — he played 1,060 games in his 14-year NHL career — and his hockey knowledge were given as reasons he was a good choice for the role. This is true, but Grier isn’t the first Black NHL player with knowledge of hockey or a track record of numerous games played. And while the pool of Black players is limited, names such as Kevin Weekes, Anson Carter and Jarome Iginla come to mind as players touted as having great hockey minds.

Despite Grier breaking the color barrier to NHL general manager, the NHL remains the least racially diverse major professional sports league in North America, both on the ice and in the front office. And while the other leagues were ahead of the NHL in diversifying their front offices, there’s still progress needed — the NBA had 11 Black general managers during the 2021-22 season, and the NFL increased its number of Black GMs in the last hiring cycle to seven.

Despite being excited about the opportunity, one wonders if Grier still has trepidation about uncomfortable situations he may run into in a predominantly white player and front-office staff. In 1997, while Grier was playing for the Edmonton Oilers, opposing player Chris Simon of the Washington Capitals hurled a racial slur at him during a postgame skirmish.

Some 25 years later, Black and minority players still deal with inappropriate behavior toward them. During the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs, Colorado Avalanche center Nazem Kadri, a Muslim of Lebanese descent, accidentally collided with St. Louis Blues goaltender Jordan Binnington during Game 3 of their second-round series. The fallout was a barrage of racist tweets and messages aimed at Kadri.

Local law enforcement was called to investigate threats made against Kadri on social media, and there was an increased police presence at the Avalanche’s team hotel in St. Louis and around the players’ entrance to the ice at Enterprise Center in Game 4.

Here’s the biggest challenge facing the NHL: Given the slow progress toward addressing diversity and inclusion in the NHL, celebrating Grier as the first Black general manager feels out of step in 2022. In other leagues, milestones like this have long passed, and rightfully so.

If anything, we should be asking how Grier and the Sharks can be an accelerator for meaningful change in a billion-dollar league stuck in first gear when it comes to improving conditions and creating a more welcoming environment for minority players and executives.

That said, the narrative that Grier’s hiring is a great day for hockey and the NHL is true. It’s great that young Black hockey players of today have the opportunity to extend their careers off the ice. They will now see Grier and, hopefully, other Black figures in NHL front offices, which is good for the sport.

Adam Aziz is a writer and consultant living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @brokencool.