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Playing days at an end, Grier looks for new goals

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / December 11, 2011
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As always, Mike Grier was game, but he also wanted to be selective. If he were going to continue his NHL career, the 36-year-old winger wanted it to be back in Buffalo, one of the four cities he called home over his 1,060-game career, or here in Boston.

“I felt I wanted to be with a good team, have it be comfortable for me and my family,’’ said Grier, married with three kids now and settled in Needham, not far from the St. Sebastian’s campus where he played his high school hockey. “I figured if I knew the team, felt it was where everything fit for me and my family, then great, but . . .’’

So some 15 years after departing the Boston University campus, Grier called it quits a couple of weeks ago, after enjoying a career in which he was a valued and respected teammate wherever he played, beginning in Edmonton, then to Washington, Buffalo, and San Jose. He wrapped up with a two-year return tour with the Sabres, and left there in the spring, realizing the time might be at hand to consider career alternatives.

“I limped around the last few games,’’ he said. “So, yeah, I felt that might be it. My knee hurt a little and I ended up needing wrist surgery, too. But everything was fine. I would have played again, but when Boston and Buffalo didn’t show a lot of interest, it was, ‘OK, I guess it’s time.’ ’’

The NHL was not a racially diverse workplace when the African-American Grier made the leap directly from college to pro. It is increasingly common now, nearly a generation later, to see players of color on NHL teams and throughout minor league pro hockey. But it remains predominantly a white sport, which speaks in part to the high cost of learning the game as well as playing it in the amateur ranks.

“When I started,’’ mused Grier, “oh, let’s see, I think it was pretty much me, Jarome [Iginla], [Donald] Brashear, and Anson Carter. I think that was it. [Georges] Laraque came along a little later. It wasn’t a ton of guys.

“So, yeah, it’s evolved nicely, you see more and more guys now, like Wayne Simmonds [in Philadelphia], Dustin Byfuglien [in Winnipeg].

“As a group, I can’t say it was something we talked about a lot with each other, and with Jarome, part of that was because he played in Calgary and I was with Edmonton, and it was the Battle of Alberta and all that . . .

“We didn’t talk a lot. But you always felt there was that connection, that respect with all the guys.

“I don’t know that I’d go as far as to call any of us pioneers. When I think of that word, I think of Willie [O’Ree] and Jackie Robinson. Those guys had to deal with a lot more than I had to go through, but I think we helped pave the way a little bit and there’s some satisfaction in that. I think we were all pretty good role models, too.’’

The Canadian-born O’Ree broke the NHL’s color line when he debuted with the Bruins in the 1957-58 season. Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. For myriad reasons, baseball made far greater advances racially in the 40 years after Robinson’s debut than hockey did in the same span of years between O’Ree’s debut and the start of Grier’s career.

Where does Grier’s career go now? He isn’t certain, saying only that he is open to considering all opportunities. Not surprisingly, he’d like to stay in the game, be it in coaching or management. His goal is to one day be in a front office, ideally as a general manager - a career path similar to that of his father, Bobby Grier, the former Patriots vice president of player personnel who is now in the Houston Texans front office.

His dad pushed him away from pursuing football as a kid - not that he regrets the parental advice - and now he gets to make all the decisions on the next career.

“I loved football, but I never really played it,’’ said Grier, whose NHL playing size - 6 feet 1 inch and 225 pounds - might have needed some filling out for a pro football career. “Truth is, I was too big at the time to play peewee football, and I just like hockey and baseball more.

“When it came to football, my dad saw both sides of it - the success on one side and all the injuries and hard work on the other.

“When he saw how much I liked hockey, actually it became a neat thing, sort of this bond for us to talk about something that wasn’t football. He grew up in Detroit, too, when it was all Gordie Howe and the Red Wings, so he had that appreciation for the game.’’

These days, Mike Grier is helping to teach his eldest son, Jayden, age 7, the ins and outs of the ice game. No telling if daughter Brooklyn, 4, will be a winger one day, too. Tristan, 11 months, has yet to declare. It’s all good for Mike and Anne Grier as they await the next turn in life.

Maybe, as a reporter kidded Grier last week, he’ll make his way up Commonwealth Avenue and knock Jack Parker off the puck as BU coach.

“Yeah, right,’’ laughed Grier, one of Parker’s many alum-admirers. “There’s a long line there, I think.’’

HARD TO FIGURE

Kaberle deal is a stunner

Few deals in recent memory have carried the “wow’’ factor of Friday’s move that saw the Hurricanes wheel ex-Bruin defenseman Tomas Kaberle to the Canadiens for Jaroslav Spacek. It wasn’t so much what either will mean to their respective clubs, but the fact that the Hurricanes found anyone willing to take the vastly overpaid, underperforming Kaberle.

Carolina, in a deal that made some around the NHL wonder if management actually watched the 2011 playoffs, signed Kaberle as a free agent in July after watching him nearly fall off the Boston depth chart in the spring. The 33-year-old former Maple Leaf was 0-11-11 in 25 playoff games with the Cup-winning Bruins, coach Claude Julien tucking/hiding him into third-pairing minutes by the end of the memorable championship run.

But then came the gift-bearing Hurricanes, who plucked Kaberle off the market for a stupefying three-year deal worth a total $12.75 million. Free agency often builds a premium into the pay scale, but it was a huge overpay, by double or triple the value he displayed here.

When the end came Friday, the once-slick point man was a horrendous 0-9-9 and minus-12 in 29 games, and the Hurricanes couldn’t wait to unload him. Otherwise, they would have been faced with ditching him to the minors for payroll relief or buying him out in June.

Why the Habs? A question that may live in bleu-blanc-rouge infamy.

It’s likely they won’t get their No. 1 blue liner, Andrei Markov, back until after the All-Star break in late January. With Markov yet to play because of knee woes, the Habs felt they needed to add to their back end. Weren’t they watching the playoffs?

Spacek is 37 and this could be his final season playing in North America before returning to the Czech Republic.

But even with his limited contribution (0-3-3 in 12 games, hindered by injuries), Spacek’s expiring contract ($3.83 million) made him an asset when compared with the albatross of the Kaberle deal.

We have seen this scenario on Causeway Street, of course. When the Bruins were opening their new building, they made a big splash in the summer of 1995 with the acquisition of fading Penguins power forward Kevin Stevens.

About six weeks into the season, with Stevens on the books for five years/$15 million, the Bruins couldn’t wait to get rid of him. Finally, halfway through the season they found a taker in the Kings, who dished Rick Tocchet here in a one-for-one swap of expiring goods.

Tocchet was out of here halfway through the next year, dished to the Capitals. Stevens lasted 1 1/2 seasons in Los Angeles before the Kings dumped him on the Rangers for a Luc Robitaille redux.

Worn-out parts have a way of remaining worn out. On both sides of this deal, this may prove a prelude to an offseason change in management.

ETC.

Roster shuffle will continue

These things can change abruptly, as they did Thursday night when Daniel Paille was concussed, leading to Jordan Caron suiting up last night in Columbus. But the Bruins plan to move Caron and Steven Kampfer up and down between Boston and Providence all season. “It would be nice to have them play at [the NHL] level,’’ said general manager Peter Chiarelli, prior to Caron swapping in for Paille. “But either way, I want them to play. I explained to them both at the start of the season that, ‘Look, if you’re not in the lineup, then here is what we are going to do.’ ’’ Prior to Thursday’s game against Florida, the Bruins also signed top blue line prospect Dougie Hamilton, whom they believe will challenge for a varsity spot in September. Ostensibly, that would kick Kampfer one healthy link down the food chain, but both Johnny Boychuk and Joe Corvo are on track to become unrestricted free agents July 1. One or both could be gone. “Everyone says they want to come back,’’ said Chiarelli. “That’s great to hear. For now, though, my plan is to move all contract talks to the back seat until we see what happens with the new CBA.’’ The current CBA expires Sept. 12, 2012. The league and its players have yet to begin talks, but Players Association boss Donald Fehr said when he took the job that he expected to get to the table likely in the spring of 2012.

New world order

No argument here with the geographical realignment that the Lords of the Boards devised, leaving the NHL with four yet-to-be-named conferences. The Bruins will stay joined at the hip with their current Northeast Division brethren (Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Buffalo), in a conference that also will bring aboard the Lightning and Panthers. The romantic in me would have preferred picking up a team in Quebec City, but who’s to argue with a pair of pina coladas as a consolation prize? Current plans have the first two rounds of the playoffs being staged within the conferences, making for heated rivalries, tribal wars. For those of us who watched how that played out in the old Adams Division days, it sounds like a whole lot of Buffalo and Montreal first-round series again. Heated, yes, but also very redundant. The Bruins drew the Habs in the first round for four straight years (1984-87) and faced them again in varying rounds the following five years.

Blue Jackets need help

Ex-Penguins GM Craig Patrick, in mothballs since June 2006 when Ray Shero took over the corner office, was hired as a senior executive adviser in Columbus, where he now will assist Scott Howson. Going into last night’s game against the Bruins, the Jackets were dead last in the overall standings at 8-16-4 and 20 points. Nowhere to go but up, which is about where they stood when Howson became GM in June 2007. Patrick, whose Penguin clubs won back-to-back Cups in ’91 and ’92, is now 65 and not likely to supplant Howson as GM. But if things remain flat-lined, one scenario could see Howson sent packing and Patrick filling the GM job on an interim basis.

Loose pucks

As of yesterday, Ottawa’s Zenon Konopka and Philadelphia’s Zac Rinaldo led the league with 99 and 91 penalty minutes, respectively. Anger management must be a “Z’’ thing . . . If you are looking for a stocking stuffer for the puck-stopper in your house, you might consider the DVD “Goaltending Today: Traditional Values Through New Techniques.’’ Joe Bertagna and Mike Morrison explore the mysteries of the glove hand, blocker, and 5-hole. Go to: ChampionshipProductions.com . . . Immediately following the Bruins’ 3-1 win in Pittsburgh Monday night, superstar Sidney Crosby decided it best to pull out of the Penguins lineup for at least a couple of games. Yet another reminder how difficult it is for brain injuries to heal. Had it not been for the two significant knocks Crosby took within four days last January, the spotlight on concussions these last months likely would not have been nearly as intense . . . Blue Jackets defenseman James Wisniewski was suspended for the first eight games of the season. In the lineup last night against the Bruins, the backliner was a minus-15, with only Carolina’s Eric Staal (minus-18) worse among the league’s 753 skaters. It’s that kind of free agent signing that had the Jackets bringing Patrick aboard as adviser . . . If the Bruins were making that move for Kevin Stevens in today’s market, his five-year deal likely would be upward of $35 million, or about 133 percent over what he received. I’ll leave it to the Sunday morning slide-rule committee to tell me if the cost of admission has gone up at the same rate, but it feels about right . . . When the Senators flipped Dany Heatley to San Jose in 2009 in a deal that included Milan Michalek going to Ottawa, no one figured that Michalek would be tied with Phil Kessel (as of yesterday) for the league lead in goals (18) or that Heatley (8 goals) would be playing for the Western Conference-leading Wild . . . It’s always hard to find goal scorers. But consider, as of yesterday morning, there were 18 forwards with 13 or more goals this season. Ten of those players are not with the club that drafted them: Kessel, Michalek, Patrick Sharp, James Neal, Radim Vrbata, Matt Moulson, Kris Versteeg, Scott Hartnell, Joffrey Lupul, and Marian Gaborik . . . If the league is going to put proud family names over the four divisions, then “Gretzky,’’ “Howe,’’ and “Orr’’ are slam dunks. Gotta think “Richard’’ and “Beliveau’’ would be naturals, too. Question is, with Boston and Montreal in the same conference, will it be Orr, Richard, or Beliveau? Mind you, wars have been waged over lesser issues. And given how the game has become so dominated by goalies, maybe it would be best to go instead with, oh, “Sawchuk,’’ “Plante,’’ “Dryden,’’ and “Hasek’’?

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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