The Sharks finished this past season in 6th place in the Pacific Division standings.
According to hockey historian and author Eric Zweig, the reason it took the NHL so long to hire a black general manager speaks to a bigger issue of representation in the league.
“There hasn’t been a large pool of Black hockey players,” Zweig said. “For years and years, you know, all the management, all the coaching jobs were filled by ex-players. The sentiment is right now, whether there’s none before or not, I mean it’s important right now.”
Hockey isn’t unique to their player-first approach when hiring executives, especially those not confined to a business side. However, this strategy, considering the NHL’s overwhelmingly white majority, offers an explanation for Grier’s historic hire.
To date, around 5% of the hockey players in the NHL are black or people of color. Comparatively, the next closest major sports league is MLB with 40% players of color. MLS has 60% players of color, followed by the NFL at 73%. Rounding out the major sports leagues is the NBA and WNBA, which both report around 83% players of color.
As Zweig explains, this relatively small sample size rarely makes its way into executive-level positions.
In the 102 years since the NHL’s conception, the Chicago Blackhawks’ Dirk Graham remains the lone Black head coach in league history.
However, hockey isn’t alone in its lack of representation.
Take the NFL, a league made up primarily of players of color, but currently finds itself caught in a lawsuit brought forward by former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores alleging racial discrimation in the hiring practices of the league and specific teams. Grier’s brother, Chris, is the general manager of the Dolphins.
At the heart of this lawsuit is the Rooney Rule, a policy that requires all teams to meet an interview quota when filling head coaching and senior football operations openings. Despite this requirement and the fact that the NFL is nearly three-quarters players of color, there are currently only three Black head coaches.
“It’s interesting, basketball and football -- especially football -- how few Black men have been hired in positions of power in the NFL, considering how many Black athletes are playing football,” Zweig said. “It’s been very slow.
The NBA, on the other hand, just set a record for most Black coaches in the history of the league with 15 following the hiring of Darvin Ham at the Los Angeles Lakers. This also marks the first time that half of the coaches leading NBA sidelines are Black.
“There isn’t any reason that the NFL would be any faster or slower, but they do have a smaller pool to draw from. This is an important first step.”
Zweig went on to say that Grier fits the mold of many former general manager hires and that “there isn’t any reason why with his background he shouldn’t be able to succeed.”
Grier was drafted in the ninth round of the 1993 NHL Draft, but didn’t make his league debut until three years later. He spent the next 15 years building a solid career with the Edmonton Oilers, Washington Nationals, Buffalo Sabres and eventually the San Jose Sharks. In his 1,060 league appearances, he recorded 162 goals and 221 assists, good for 383 points.
He retired in 2011 at the age of 36, but quickly moved into management, serving as a scout and assistant coach before joining the New York Rangers staff last year as hockey operations advisor.
The historical significance of this moment was not lost on Grier least of all.
“It’s not something I take lightly,” he said. “I realize there’s a responsibility that comes with the territory. But I’m up for it.”