Grier: it can’t End this Way5
We’re re-visiting this post on the heels of today’s announcement that Mike Grier has, in fact, done the retirement thing. Best of luck Griersie. We’ll really, really miss you.
One more year.
Call me sentimental if you must, but Mike Grier’s hard-nosed career simply cannot be remembered for ending in this way.
Yes, the Sabres were decimated by injuries. Yes, they imploded as a team in Game Seven. But they were about to survive that first period with a 0-0 score, despite being out-shot 16-2. Anything could have happened in the 2nd period, but after that puck deflected off of Grier’s hand and into the net with 18.5 seconds left, it was over.
Instead of stopping that damned puck, he was faced with the
gutty gutting task of describing what happened to reporters after the game, the series, and the season, was over.
“You know, the guys battled hard all year. I gotta block that shot on the first goal. I tried to catch it. It went off my glove and went in. It gave them some momentum. It’s just disappointing. I don’t know how much longer I have to play.”
But he didn’t stop there.
“Tough one to swallow. I don’t know if I’ve played on a team that I’ve been more proud of. It would have been easy for the group to go the other way and get selfish. The guys stuck together and dug in. The coaching staff did a good job keeping us together. As a group, I’m proud. They played as hard as they could all year.”
“If I play again, it’ll be here. If not, that’ll probably be it.”
“It’s a great group. I’ve been on teams that probably had more talent, more skill, but I’m probably most proud of this team here with what they’ve been through. There was a lot of adversity this year. It would’ve been easy for a team to just kind of self-destruct and fall apart, but the guys held in there and stuck together, came to the rink every day ready to work and have fun. It was great to see.”
How can you not love a guy like Mike Grier, who comes to the rink every day, puts in his 110%, plays the boards, both zones, is one of the strongest penalty killers in the game – and continually credits his teammates? Heck, he wasn’t even supposed to be in the NHL, but his herculean work ethic earned him a long stay.
Grier was originally drafted by the Blues in the 9th round (219th overall) of the ’93 draft, and was considered a long-shotto make an NHL team.
He took those odds, and crushed them with sheer willpower.
In his early playing days, he skated with Saint Sebastian’s School and later with Boston University, culminating in his best amateur season in 1994–95, where he was named a first team all-star. During his time at BU, Grier’s NHL rights were dealt to the Edmonton Oilers (along with Curtis Joseph) in exchange for a pair of first round picks.
He left college in 1996, and immediately cracked the Oilers lineup as a checking-line right-winger, scoring 32 points and bearing a respectable +7 plus-minus rating. He did it as the first African-American player – (aside from Val James, who briefly cracked the Sabres lineup in 1981) – in the NHL.
15 years later, Grier has been through 1060 NHL games. He’s netted 162 goals, added 221 helpers, and earned the reputation for for being one of the league’s better penalty killers and playoff performers.
And 15 years later, there’s a scuff on his glove from a puck that may have ended his career – a puck that he tried to get in the way of, like he had so many times before in his career, only this time, he directed it in the net.
“It’s just disappointing. I don’t know how much longer I have to play.”
Disappointing is an understatement. Everyone in the Sabres organization knew that the Sabres were already reeling in that Game Seven, but terribly, it all seemed to be lost after that moment that Grier failed to knock down that puck.
Sure, they could have won in Game Six, as Ryan Miller was quick to point out after the game:
“There’s a lot of disappointment right now. That’s what happens when you don’t step on a team’s throat when you have a chance. We had our opportunity to end this series and didn’t do it.”
Lindy Ruff agreed:
“For four months we asked them to go above and beyond, and they have done everything we have asked. They haven’t used an excuse in the book. We lost a lot of good players and we lost our goalie, and we found a way to get to this point. The disappointment was that we didn’t find a way of getting by Game Six.”
Still, in the end, even Miller had to admit what happened in Game Seven was series-changing:
“We almost got away with that first period and maybe it would have been a different game. I thought we were going to get away with it and it was a tough bounce. It changed direction on me a bit. I was reaching to play it to the corner and it ended up diving down off Mike.”
That can’t be the way Grier goes out of this game. What he has done for the league, for African-Americans, and for the Sabres, means so much, and means that he deserves so much more.
Unfortunately in the NHL, deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.
Grier already has a lot going against him, with younger studs like Mark Mancari, Zack Kassian, Marcus Foligno et al already barricking for next year’s spots in the bottom six. Besides the competition, he also has to recover from knee and wrist injuries. He’s 36 years old, and his time to skate in the NHL is coming to a close, fight as me may.
And he will fight it. Hard.
If Grier’s story tells us anything – a story that began with his fight and drive to make this league, the grit to be be successful, and the wisdom to remain a critical component for a team in the postseason at age 36 – it tells us that he has plenty of fight left. I have a strong feeling that Grier will be back with the Blue and Gold next season. Kassian and Foligno need their pro seasoning in the AHL. Grier, a bit slower now than he was when he was 26, is dependable. He’s a leader. He can maintain himself and help the team, and serve as a mentor in the locker room for the guys waiting to take his place.
“He’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever played with, one of the best leaders I’ve ever played with,” said Tyler Ennis, on locker clean-out day. “I hope he keeps playing. I hope he comes back.”
If his health allows it, Grier will be back. He’ll have his shot at checking the Team Goat into the boards. He’ll do it heavily, with passion, responsibility, and all the verve of a rookie. And when he skates back to the bench, he’ll give a nod to the youngsters – “This is how it’s done.”
One more year.
next post: Player Profile: Nathan Gerbe