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A roundtable on Mike Grier’s historic moment

When we look back at the pivotal moments in the history of the game, we’ll remember July 5, 2022.

Like so many other dates linked forever to momentous, long-awaited steps forward for the hockey world, this one too will have its place on that path: the day Mike Grier was officially named GM of the San Jose Sharks, and in turn, the day he became the first Black general manager in NHL history.

It took a century for this moment to arrive. And for many throughout the hockey world, watching the league from afar or plying their trade within it, it’s not one to be glossed over or lost in the shuffle. It’s cause for celebration — not because it ticks a box, but because it’s a shift that speaks to a larger wave of progress being seen in the game of late.

And as was the case for the trailblazers who made their marks as players, as coaches, as referees, it’s a shift that opens the door for the ones that will come next.

To get a better sense of the significance of this moment and the momentum we’ve seen envelop the sport, we turned to six changemakers who’ve long been dedicated to growing the game and building a more diverse hockey world, and asked them to share their perspectives:

Kim Davis is the NHL’s senior vice president of social impact, growth and legislative affairs, and has long served as the leading voice within the league when it comes to efforts to diversify the game.

Dr. Tunisha Singleton is the president of Black Girl Hockey Club’s board of directors, and an expert when it comes to understanding sports fandom, and the relationship between sport and society.

Damon Kwame Mason is a filmmaker whose award-winning documentary Soul on Ice told the story of Black athletes’ contributions to hockey’s history. He now works with the NHL to promote diversity within the game, and highlight minority voices in the hockey world.

Bryant McBride is the co-founder of the Carnegie Initiative, an organization working to promote inclusion in hockey. McBride became the NHL’s first Black executive when he joined the league as its vice president of business development in the early ‘90s.

Nathaniel Mata is a San Jose-born lifelong Sharks fan, and the CEO of RGV Roller, a non-profit in the Rio Grande Valley working to promote inclusion and accessibility in the game through roller and ball hockey youth programs.

Evan F. Moore is a Chicago-based journalist and author who co-wrote the book, Game Misconduct, an in-depth look at hockey culture’s flaws and the path to finding progress in the sport.

(Interviews for this piece were conducted separately. They have been edited only for clarity and brevity.)

SN: We saw Mike Grier officially announced as the general manager of the San Jose Sharks, making history as the NHL’s first Black GM. What do you think this moment means for the sport, and for hockey’s BIPOC community?

Singleton: It’s huge. The importance can’t be understated. I was getting text messages from my family members who don’t watch any hockey whatsoever, because it was even impressive for them — for outsiders, my family that never really watched hockey because they never felt like they should watch hockey, or that it was for them.

Moore: For me personally, it took me back to 1991, when I first saw a Black hockey player — it was in Jet magazine, when I saw Tony McKegney — and how I felt: ‘Wow, there’s one of us in the sport.’ I already liked the sport anyways, but it was kind of more solidified seeing him in a Blackhawks jersey. It meant everything. And fast-forwarding to [Tuesday], it’s a great moment for everyone in hockey spaces who’ve been working towards something like this.

Mata: When you see a first after the league’s had a hundred years, it’s kind of a jaw-dropper. It’s like, ‘Really? That long?’ But of course we know the reality of the sport is that minorities have a little bit of a harder time breaking into this league — as a player, as an executive, as a coach, a scout. … So, for Mike to do this, it lets other fans around the sports world say that that the NHL isn’t archaic. You know, there are minorities that play the game, that are executives in the game. It starts to show that it’s not a fluke anymore. It’s not just PR. It means something. … As a Black hockey fan, seeing my favourite team pick a former player to be the first Black general manager, it’s just really special to see.

Mason: It’s showing that our game can grow, showing that our game has the ability to now look at a broader spectrum of candidates that are right for the job, and not just go into the same old batch of guys who have been there, done that, been there, done that — and that cycle keeps repeating.

Davis: Mike Grier becoming the first Black general manager in NHL history gives testament to the recognition of talent, and the importance of access and opportunity regardless of difference. This moment is an important one, specifically for the BIPOC community, because ‘If you see it, you believe you can be it.’ 

Singleton: This is new. This is unprecedented. And the value that is behind that is absolutely tremendous.

McBride: I think, to frame it correctly, I have to talk about two Mondays in the summer of 2022. Last Monday, Herb Carnegie was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder. A week later Mike Grier was chosen as the first Black GM. It’s momentum. There’s something real happening now.

Mike Grier, middle, poses for photos with his wife, Anne, from left, and their children, as Grier is introduced as the new general manager of the San Jose Sharks. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

SN: It feels like that momentum has continued to build and build over the past couple years. The game’s finally begun to move forward. What does this moment mean to you in the context of that wider momentum we’ve seen picking up?

Moore: The face of hockey is changing, whether the old guard or the gatekeepers like it or not.

Mason: We’re in a place where we’re recognizing talent from all different parts of the hockey world, you know? And we’re making right some of these past ills of hockey’s [past] generations. With all the hirings and the acknowledgement, I just think it’s inspiring. It just goes to show that the game is growing. The talk is not just cheap.

Mata: I think we’re starting to see owners understand that it’s not just, ‘Let’s take a risk.’ It’s, ‘Let’s get a new perspective, of somebody that also loves this game but maybe sees it from a different lens.’ … What can we do as Black fans and minority fans but push forward and push forward? Yeah, it might have taken too long, but I’m just so proud of our organization for making this choice. And I’m just hoping that the league can continue to take steps in the right direction.

Singleton: I couldn’t be more proud of Blake Bolden and Saroya [Tinker] as well. Because we’ve grown ourselves at Black Girl Hockey Club. … And growth needs growth, right? You have to lead from the front. As long as we’re all serving the same purpose, then we can start to see how little seeds of change can be made. And they’ll start to grow and grow and grow. That is what we’re seeing now with this type of momentum. It’s all great and it’s all for the greater good of making sure that hockey is an inclusive, welcoming sport, because otherwise we’re robbing people of a really fun frickin’ game, right? Why shouldn’t we all be able to just enjoy this, experience this, play this, feel welcome, you know?

Davis: The word I use often when talking about the momentum and movement underway is intentionality. The league has become very intentional, and very focused on talent — where it is and how to access it — so there is a deeper and more diverse pool of qualified candidates, and so people feel there are opportunities. A lot of this momentum is a result of our being open to input from across, up, and down the hockey ecosystem, and acting on the feedback. It is indeed a movement of supporters who understand that our ability to grow our sport and our business depends on our embracing growth segments and making our sport more culturally available.

McBride: I got to the NHL as the first Black executive in 1993. That’s 30 years ago. I was really early, in a bunch of ways. I’m tired of being early, and I’m tired of being a first. Ask Willie [O’Ree], he’s tired of being a first, too. You just want this to be the norm. That’s where we want to get to, when it’s the norm. Where there’s great players of colour, and there’s great people in management, but it’s just the norm. And it’s becoming that way — Hayley Wickenheiser, Cammi Granato, you go down the list and the last two, three years, the number of women that have been put in positions of authority and power, it’s incredible what’s happened. It’s just the beginning. You can feel it becoming the norm. That to me feels like progress.

Mason: Just keep in that direction, and that’s going to be, in my opinion, one of the biggest keys to growth. You know, once it’s normal to see a Black man or a Black woman in the head offices of the NHL, or these teams, that’s going to be something that’s going to be inspirational and allow it to grow. As long as we can keep seeing all these different people getting opportunities, I don’t care what colour you are. But as these marginalized communities get opportunities to represent in all different facets of hockey, then we’ll be in the right direction and then we’ll grow. That’s all I want.

McBride: It feels like the fuse has just been lit. And it’s amazing to think about what’s coming. I can feel it. And maybe I’m an optimist, but from the time that I’ve been in this game and been around and following these issues, I’ve never felt more momentum. Never.

Mason: Kim Davis has a great mantra, which is, ‘This is a movement, not a moment.’ And all these things keep telling you that we’re still moving, we’re still moving. It’s a movement, man. And we’re moving forward, not backwards.

SN: Looking forward, what stands out most to you about the task ahead for Mike Grier, in terms of balancing the hockey side of things — getting the Sharks back on track — and the bigger picture of carrying this responsibility as a trailblazer?

Moore: You know, as per hockey history, when we get in these positions — whether it’s being a centreman or being anyone that’s in the pressure cooker in a hockey-dominated market — you don’t always get a fair shake. We’ve seen that over time. You don’t want their fan base to say and do things and not give Grier the same grace that they gave his predecessor, Doug Wilson. We want to be treated the same. … He’s pretty much going to have to be in charge of a full rebuild, maybe jettison some popular, expensive, older players — I just hope their fan base gives him time to right the ship.

Singleton: That is what’s going to be the immediate challenge, right? We’re all going to make mistakes. We’re supposed to. That’s how we are wired as humans. And as professionals and leaders with responsibilities, we have to make the executive decisions and we live and die by that sword. And with one mistake, we face ridicule, we face criticism. And now, [there are] even more eyes on this. Now, with the history, there’s going to be even more pressure and expectation.

Davis: Mike was hired because he is a demonstrated leader with the leadership, skills and attributes to win. That’s what he brings and this will be his No. 1 mission.

McBride: He deserved it. He’s qualified. His thousand games, the time he spent as a scout, as an assistant coach, as an advisor to a team that went deep in the playoffs, a very respected franchise, the Rangers. And the way that Mike has carried himself for 30-plus years in the game. When he was a student at BU, one of the things that people noticed about him and spoke about was the way that people gravitated to him. He’s an exceptional leader.

Mata: It’s not, ‘We’re giving it just for that sound bite, for that moment, for the headline.’ It means something. They chose him because they want the team to go in a better direction. They want the team to go back to its heyday, its glory days. And they brought back a player who was there for the Presidents’ Trophy.

Davis: The words ‘character’ and ‘integrity’ were used by his brother Chris to describe Mike. The outpouring of support and congratulations he received from across the NHL, hockey, and sports community proves those words to be accurate. For someone as respected and qualified as Mike, being a ‘trailblazer’ is just another adjective in his long list of accomplishments.

Moore: He’s going to be under a lot of pressure. If you’ve ever been a person of colour, one of the few in a situation … you’re always constantly thinking of, ‘Every move that I make is going to be scrutinized, going to be watched. All my mistakes will be scrutinized and they’ll be blown up, and maybe my successes will be minimized.’ But also he’s probably thinking, ‘Hey, I got to do this, because I don’t want the door slammed on the next Mike Grier.’

Mason: I look at it with three lenses. One, his job is to get the San Jose Sharks back into playoff contention, and put together a winning team. That’s his first priority, and that’s what he should be looking at right now — do the job. Second of all, take care of your family and make sure the community understands the significance, and what you mean to them, in San Jose. You know, his presence is going to be great for the Black community, and it can lead to fandom and love for the game. And then thirdly, we hope that his support system is there. Not just through the Sharks, but his support system all across the league, all across the hockey spectrum. He needs a great support system, and with a great support system, he’s going to grow. He’s going to learn more and he’s going to do well.

Singleton: What we hope now is that the Sharks have put in place the right type of system to enable him to thrive and to not have to succumb to unfair pressures and expectations, and that automatic ridicule that’s just natural and that’s going to be there. I have all the faith in the world that the Sharks have done their due diligence in putting in the type of system and organizational infrastructure to support him.

We’ve worked with the Sharks in the past. Their VP of Communications, Scott Emmert — we have a leadership and development program within Black Girl Hockey Club that I created last summer, and within that committee for leadership and development, we have a mentorship program. And Scott was the first one to sign up and be a mentor. We paired him with a young undergraduate, and he worked with her for six months. And not just him, everyone in the upper office of the Sharks.

As an organization, as a whole, in every department — when it comes to business intelligence, to comms, to now hockey ops — I really believe that they’re asking the right questions.

SN: There are some out there who still don’t seem to understand the importance of representation, the impact it can have. For those who might doubt the importance of this moment, what impact do you think Mike Grier’s ascent will have on fans, on young athletes, on others who aspire to one day be GMs themselves?

Mata: It means so much to so many fans. There’s going to be people that are exposed to hockey just seeing this. The same way as P.K. Subban, he brought something that might bring fans in that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. I think the sport can grow from that.

Singleton: My parents, my brother, my family that didn’t watch before, it makes them proud. It makes them now not so automatic in wanting to turn it off.

Mata: It’s massively important, because you can’t be it if you don’t see it. I’ve never seen a Black hockey general manager. You know, I always make jokes around here in the hockey community like, ‘I want to be a GM.’ The vision to put together a team is a massive one. It’s a difficult task, I know. But Black people can do it. Black people can do anything. Minorities can do anything. … Seeing Mike in this position, it’s let hockey fans all over the country, all over the world, know that it’s possible.

McBride: Seeing Mike in that spot, seeing [Nazem] Kadri in that spot, seeing Manny Malhotra in that spot, Anthony Stewart — there’s so many players, you can just go on and on now. That wasn’t the case 20 years ago, 10 years ago, even five years ago. So, it feels like it’s accelerating. That’s what it feels like. And that’s a visceral kind of feeling.

Mason: I think the biggest meaning for Black hockey culture is that it’s showing young Black athletes in the game of hockey that the possibility of being more than just a player is now realized, you know? Mike was a player, he’s been behind the bench, he’s kind of done all those [roles], and he’s in the C-Suites now. So, you know, young athletes like the Akil Thomases and the Quinton Byfields, they can now say to themselves, ‘After my career is done, I could possibly be a GM.’

Moore: Kids definitely need to know that there’s other roles they can aspire to in sports that are off the field or off the ice. They can do it too. Because there are some folks unfortunately that still believe that, you know, they’re good enough to be players or maybe an assistant coach, but maybe not run the show. … I think hockey can learn from the mistakes that have been made in other sports, and maybe actually be progressive for a change, instead of holding on to old ideas.

Davis: Representation is one of the best ways to break the bias within an organization. There is power to having diverse voices around a decision-making table. It brings innovation and creativity. It helps us all become aware of things we may have never considered. Exposing leaders who are in positions of power to diverse talent and experiences will move everyone forward. I hope this moment inspires the next generation of talent to continue to push and work hard for a seat at the table.

Singleton: It’s 100 per cent why I helped create our leadership and development committee and launched our mentorship program. We launched this program to create meaningful relationships for Black professionals of any gender identity, to link them with professionals in hockey in any space. … And what I’ve noticed is that so many of our mentee applications, they’re not just kids, they’re folks in their 30s and 40s as well, because they’re using this as an opportunity to pivot and change professionally, probably because they never thought that they could work in hockey before. So, Mike is showing that, yes, you have a place.

Mason: We’re in an exciting time, man. Things are moving in a great direction and we’ve got great people representing, and it’s just inspiring. … That is encouraging, to see that we’re branching out, and well-deserving people who wouldn’t have had a chance years ago are getting these opportunities. Because it’s all about opportunity.

Mata: There’s always the naysayers that are going to say, ‘It doesn’t matter. Who cares about [his] race?’ Of course it matters. You’ve never seen it before. And hopefully you see it more often. It just shows that it’s possible, and shows that the time is now for players of colour, for women, for minorities to make an impact in the sport that we love. And not just to be consumers, but to be active participants on the ice and in the front office.

Singleton: Mike is now just being illustrative of the point that we can do anything that we set our mind to. And the Sharks are illustrating it as well, that we are creating visible change. We’re improving the culture one move at a time, because the amount of things that need to be done can’t be fixed with one swing at the bat. We’re talking about just implementing one seed at a time, doing one thing at a time, and hoping, and seeing something sprout. For the youth, for our kids, by the time these things can start to manifest.

That’s how you build culture.

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