Editor's Note: On Thursday, December 1st, Mike Grier announced his retirement from the NHL after a career that spanned 14 seasons. Grier was one of the lynchpins to the Oilers "little teams that could" of the late 90's and early aughts. We could not hope to describe Grier's time in Edmonton and his impact on the Oilers any better than Bruce McCurdy did in this September, 2010 article on his favorite post-dynasty Oiler.
It's tough to identify a single favourite Oiler from the post-dynasty days, a period that now stretches two decades into the past and indefinitely on to the future like an open prairie road. Like Lisa, I have lots of favourite Oilers. But I have no problem whatsoever in identifying my favourite trade from that period, so I'll use that as the springboard.
It was a complicated transaction, a kind of reverse sign-and-trade. Fortunately there was a willing sucker out there to do the signing, in the person of Mike Keenan, GM of the Blues. Keenan had a hankering for a hard-rock winger and decided that the man he wanted was Shayne Corson of all people. Corson - who I will say flat out is my least favourite Oiler ever - had worn out his welcome in the River City. He had "led" the club to three out-of-playoff finishes since being acquired from Montreal for Vincent Damphousse, and had disgraced the Oil drop through his off-ice actions, especially a widely reported fistfight with teammate and former protege Jason Arnott over the awarding of an assist of all things. This during a playoff "race" which was once again doomed to end in failure. That last incident resulted in Head Coach George Brunet losing his job and Corson himself being stripped of the "C" and clearly being placed on the "let him go when his contract is up" list.
Up stepped Mike Keenan to do the signing, despite the compensation of the day which was two first-round picks. I was happy enough with the exchange, but then Keenan came up with a sweetheart offer to get his picks back: he'd give up his own contract headache in star goaltender Curtis Joseph and throw in a developing hardrock winger of his own in Mike Grier. Tee hee.
At the time I called it a "three-for-zero" trade: we got Cujo, we got Grier, we got rid of Corson. Three desirable outcomes. It could hardly have worked out better as both Joseph and Grier more than fulfilled their promise, while Corson went on to soil the bed of a few other teams, notably Toronto where he quit on his teammates right in the middle of a playoff series. But I digress, other than to point out the obvious bias that I was likely to see Mike Grier in a very positive light compared to the void he would be stepping into.
Although he was still a year away from the NHL at the time of the trade, I was already familiar with Grier; in fact, I had already seen him play live. 1994-95 was the year of the First Bettman Lockout, which dovetailed nicely with the World Junior Championships being hosted here in Alberta. Included in the Edmonton package was a New Year's Day doubleheader, in which Ryan Smyth and Team Canada beat Finland in the opener before Mike Grier and USA topped Germany in the nightcap. Given that he wasn't yet Oiler property, I wasn't watching Grier quite as intensely as Smyth, but man oh man, the guy was hard to miss. The only black player on the ice for one thing, so there was no way to misidentify him. Not sure if he was quite his eventual playing weight of 227 but he was a man among boys for sure. Hit like a linebacker, reminding many of his uncle, NFL legend Roosevelt "Rosey" Grier. The guy was already a load, not the most agile of skaters but real good straight-ahead speed, and a built-in imperative to finish the check. With an almighty crunch.
A 9th round steal by the Blues in 1993, Grier scored 1.2 points a game that season, his second at Boston University. In today's terms that was an NHL Equivalent of a 40-point season, pretty compelling for a player of Grier's fearsome physical capabilities. But the Blues organization clearly still didn't really rate their own guy judging by their willingness to sweeten the pot with him.
Grier posted another solid year at BU, improving slightly from 19 goals to 21 and from 45 points to 47 (in 38 GP), then turned pro with a year of eligibility remaining. There wasn't a shred of doubt that he was ready - he came into that first camp and quickly won his way into the hearts of both fans and coaches by exhibiting a solid, grinding, responsible style of play right off the hop. To this day Mike's never played a game in the minors. He played 79 NHL games as a rookie pro, posting very solid numbers of 15-17-32, +7. Grier and fellow rookies Rem Murray, Mats Lindgren, and Dan McGillis pumped enthusiasm and a surprising amount of defensive game into a suddenly-promising line-up that already included emerging young vets Doug Weight, Jason Arnott, Todd Marchant, Ryan Smyth, Miro Satan, and Boris Mironov, not to mention Curtis Joseph. After four long summers of fallow, the Oilers returned to the playoffs.
And while Oiler fans weren't deluding themselves that there was a Kurri or a Coffey in the mix let alone a Gretzky, we certainly had a young, hard-skating, hard-working group that was easy to support. The Corson Era - maybe I should call it the Corson Boundary - was definitively in the past, and the two guys we got for him were both major players in the turnaround.
Grier was the embodiment of a role player. A 3 RW who could be expected to play 12 minutes a night at even strength, and another 3 on the PK, with very few "cherry minutes" to be found. He always seemed to draw the toughs, whether lined up on Murray's starboard side or, later, Marchant's. Over time the MGM line of Marchant between Grier and Moreau became something of a constant, a classic "checking line" in the old-fashioned sense, while Marchant and Grier were the first-team forwards on an Oilers' PK unit.
In the last half of his six-year Oiler career Grier's role can be derived from his special teams production: a combined 8-6-14 while shorthanded, and just 2-1-3 on the PP over the three seasons. In his last year here he played over four hours on the PK, barely a quarter of an hour with the man advantage. We don't have information like QualComp and ZoneStarts or even Hits and Blocked Shots to microanalyze his contribution, but I feel pretty safe in saying he would have looked even better by those metrics. He was a combined +30 over his six years in Edmonton, which is to say that after you discount the shorties and the empty netters that naturally accrue to a defensive specialist, he was pretty much a break even player against, I'm certain, the toughest of the toughs.
Mind you, Grier was one tough hombre himself. There's tough and then there's Tough. Lee Fogolin Tough. Jaroslav Pouzar Tough. Jason Smith Tough. Mike Grier Tough.
I was at one game where Grier popped his shoulder out in a collision on the end boards. He let out one of those involuntary screams of pain and immediately headed for the bench, holding his arm in place, his clenched face a mask of agony. I don't think play so much as stopped, he just went off and the game carried on without him. As he disappeared down the tunnel I remember thinking "O golly" - I'm pretty sure it was "golly" that was flashing through my brain at that moment - "That's it, his season's done." And the sonofagun was back out there the next period! "Just had to pop it back in place and it felt fine". Maybe so, but I for one would have forgiven him if he'd taken the rest of the night off. Nuh-uh. Happened a few times that one season. I suspect the shoulder surgeries may have robbed him of a little of his immense strength, which had always been his calling card.
Grier's goal totals bounced around like a pingpong ball in a wind tunnel: 15 goals, then 9, then 20, then 9 again, then 20 again, then 8. His shooting percentage bungeed in a similar fashion. While his offensive output was erratic, his defensive play was nothing but solid. He maintained a solid plus rating every year but one, even when the percentages weren't his friend in the O-zone.
Mike's last year in Edmonton, 2001-02, was the same year that the Oilers finished second in the entire NHL in Goals Against - it's true! - and Grier, Marchant & Co. were a big part of the reason. Unfortunately, they missed the playoffs for the only time in Grier's tenure, and lack of offence was the major reason.
More to the point, that last season had seen Grier join the million-dollar club and he was due to get a further raise, just as the team was looking to lighten payroll and open roster space for some younger players. That 8-goal season looked bad, despite Mike's continuing exemplary play, so in a moment of weakness Grier was dealt to Washington at the outset of the 2002-03 season for a couple of draft picks. He was just 27 with the second half of his career still stretching in front of him.
I always like to follow trade outcomes over the following years, and that one has had a lingering effect on the Oilers. The second-rounder was traded off to the Islanders (the Niinimaa/Torres-Isbister deal) who promptly burnt it on an Evgeni Tunik, but the Oil kept the third-rounder and used it to pick Zack Stortini. The best part is that had originally been Vancouver's pick, something I'll remember with pleasure when Zorg is tormenting the 'Nucks and their fans.
Grier wasn't the first black man to play in the NHL, but the Detroit native does have the distinction of being the league's first African-American. The Oilers had a real cluster of black players for a while there, following in the footsteps of Grant Fuhr, hockey's first black Hall of Famer. One season there were no fewer than five, including Grier, Anson Carter, Georges Laraque, Sean Brown and Joaquin Gage. That remains a mark that has never been approached by another NHL team.
Grier was and is an outstanding role model for a still-emerging minority of black players. To my eye, the respected veteran has always played the game hard but fair, averaging about 40 PiM per season despite his robust style of play. The only blight on his record is an ugly incident with Chris Simon in 1997, which some reports now suggest Grier instigated before Simon escalated. I don't remember any reports at the time of Grier being anything but an aggrieved victim in the case, but then again I was relying on the local media to report on the matter. It is on the record that Simon received a three-game suspension for racist comments while Grier was exonerated.
Early this upcoming season Mike Grier should play his 1000th regular season game, making him the second black man after Jarome Iginla to reach this major milestone. That one mark alone is the sign of an elite career. Mike is a little more consistent producer these days: would you believe 9, 10, and 10 goals, and 22, 23, and 22 points over the last three seasons? He's still plying his trade as an effective veteran winger/PKer/leader, and has been a solid depth player who always seems to be on a real good team, be it San Jose or now back in Buffalo. He's still making between $1 and $2 MM a season as he has every year since he left Edmonton. The Oilers have, in my opinion, paid higher premiums for lesser players to try to fill that role, but so it goes. I'm glad we had him for as long as we did.