A Family Legacy
Goaltending coach Brian Mahoney-Wilson is following in the footsteps of his grandfather, great uncle, and father, all of whom had connections to the Red Wings organization.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Brian Mahoney-Wilson practically has to pinch himself to make sure he’s not dreaming.
As the goaltending development coach in the Red Wings organization, he is working for the same storied franchise that once drew on the talents of his grandfather, Larry Wilson, and his great uncle, Johnny Wilson.
Larry Wilson, a member of the AHL Hall of Fame after a long and distinguished career that spanned 15 seasons as a player and six more as a head coach, saw his name etched onto the Stanley Cup as a member of the 1949-50 Red Wings. He also served as the interim head coach of the Red Wings during the 1976-77 season.
His older brother, Johnny Wilson, is known as hockey’s first “iron man.” Besides winning four Stanley Cups alongside such legends as Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Red Kelly, Alex Delvecchio and Terry Sawchuk, he set an NHL record by appearing in 580 consecutive games between 1951 and 1960, never missing a game through eight consecutive 70-game seasons.
Mahoney-Wilson, known as “Beemer” due to his BMW initials, heard a lot about both men from his father, Randy Wilson, who played hockey at Providence College and was drafted by the Red Wings in 1977.
Beemer’s father played a few games for his grandfather when the latter was coaching the Kansas City Red Wings during the 1978-79 season. Larry Wilson was named the first head coach of the AHL’s Adirondack Red Wings in 1979 but never got to see the ice in Glen Falls. At the age of 48, he suffered a massive heart attack and died.
“I never knew him but the stories live on,” said Mahoney-Wilson, who has been told that his grandfather was “an all-around good person” and a good ambassador for the game of hockey. “I heard the stories every day growing up.”
His grandfather’s legacy in hockey continued through Larry’s son, Ron Wilson, who was Anaheim’s inaugural head coach before moving onto Washington, San Jose and Toronto during a 20-plus season coaching career.
“Seeing my uncle coaching in the NHL for 20 years and knowing my family’s dynamic with the Red Wings and its history led me to want to play hockey at a young age,” said Mahoney-Wilson, so named because his mother wanted to keep her maiden name.
Beemer says he always wanted to be a goalie.
“As a fan of the Bruins, I would watch Andy Moog on TV and I became enamored with the position,” he said. “For me, he was the ideal goaltender. There was something special about his equipment – the mask with the big Bruins bear painted on it and the old Vaughn pads that he wore.”
His earliest memories are playing between the pipes.
“Right from the very beginning, I took a liking to the position,” he said. “I stood in front of a Fisher-Price hockey net and my mom would throw tennis balls at me while my dad was at work. . . and the rest is history.”
Mahoney-Wilson eventually would play college hockey at Lake Superior State University, a decision that was cemented when he spotted an old photo of his grandfather and great uncle sitting on a hockey net together in a Sault Ste. Marie bar-restaurant during a visit to the school.
He played four years (2007-11) for the Lakers, but his playing career was ultimately shortened by three hip surgeries in the space of 18 months. Drafted by the San Jose Sharks in 2004, he played only one year of pro hockey, appearing in 28 games with three different teams in the Central Hockey League.
“I knew my threshold as a player was probably going to be the lower end of the ECHL or CHL, so I figured the next best thing was coaching,” he said. “Coaching was the next logical step because I had watched my uncle coach for such a long time, plus my grandfather and great uncle had coached as well.”
Mahoney-Wilson decided to become a specialty coach. “I had been working in goalie camps probably since I was 13 years old,” he said. “Over the years, I was fortunate to learn from a lot of great minds – people like Brian Daccord, Warren Strelow, Wayne Thomas, and Francois Allaire.”
Daccord was especially influential. “He was the Boston Bruins goalie coach in the early 2000s and is now a consultant to the Toronto Maple Leafs,” Mahoney-Wilson said. “He runs several schools in the New England area and he gave me the chance to be a director on one of his staffs after I finished playing.”
In 2013-14, Mahoney-Wilson served as an assistant/goaltending coach with the South Shore Kings in the USPHL. The following year, he served in a similar position with the United States Military Academy. “Brian Riley gave me a great opportunity as a volunteer at West Point and I think that lifestyle rubbed off on me – the dedication and structure, the regimentation, and the attention to detail.”
Mahoney-Wilson joined the hockey program at Notre Dame for the 2015-16 season under head coach Jeff Jackson. “I gained so much knowledge from being an assistant at the school, serving as an ‘eye in the sky’ while working with goalie Cal Peterson, now a Los Angeles Kings prospect.”
His big break came when Jeff Salajko was promoted to his current position as the Red Wings’ goaltending coach following three seasons (2013-16) as the goaltending development coach for the Griffins.
“From a family perspective, it couldn’t have worked out any better when I got the opportunity to interview with the Red Wings,” Mahoney-Wilson said. “It was a great process for me, meeting with Ryan Martin and Ken Holland, and they showed great faith when they offered me the job.”
Working with Salajko has been an ideal situation for Mahoney-Wilson.
“Sal is a very personal guy,” he said. “He has great relationships with his goaltenders and I’ve learned how important those relationships can be. He’s also very detailed in his approach and I think we’ve been able to learn from each other.
“Both Sal and I expect good work ethic and attention to detail from all of our guys, whether they’re prospects or NHL goaltenders.”
The two coaches typically connect once a week, depending upon Salajko’s schedule and workload. “We’re always sharing how our guys are doing and what could be better for them,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can to put them in a position to succeed.”
The Griffins captured their second Calder Cup during Mahoney-Wilson’s first season in Grand Rapids.
“Sal had worked with Jared Coreau for three-plus years to help him become an established goalie,” he said. “When Jared and I started working together, we modified a few things that could help him have even more success and he was very good for us. There were at least two games in every playoff series where he was a major factor.”
The Griffins have had 10 different goaltenders appear between the pipes the past three seasons, which has meant that Mahoney-Wilson has had to learn how to adjust his coaching techniques accordingly.
“You learn through your goaltenders’ play,” he said. “We’ve had a number of goalies the past three years – Canadians, Americans and Europeans – and they’ve all been different in their approach, both on and off the ice. You could say that, at age 33, it’s given me a lot of experience in diversifying my goalie portfolio.”
For Mahoney-Wilson, goaltending is a lot like the stock market. “Every goalie goes through ebbs and flows during a season. They’re going to encounter dips – they all do – but you want their stock to keep trending upwards.”
To achieve success, a goalie must be willing to invest the necessary time.
“It’s like a long marathon,” he said. “To get to the NHL, you need a lot of things to go right. You’ve got to have the right mindset and be really good at what you do. There’s no set method in how to do things the right way, but there are standards that must be met. It all starts with work ethic.”
Mahoney-Wilson points out that it is rare to find an NHL goalie who hasn’t spent considerable time in the minors. Guys like Carey Price, who only played a handful of games in the AHL, are the exception to the rule. More common is the experience of a goalie like 2019 Stanley Cup winner Jordan Binnington, who spent the better part of six seasons in the minors before making a name for himself in St. Louis.
“You want them to have a little swagger, but you also want them to understand that they have to work hard to achieve success,” he said. “If their work ethic is high-end, they should see success in time.”
Goalies excel through muscle memory achieved through repetition. Practice, practice and more practice is essential to improve their passing, post play, rebound placement, crease movement, and other skills.
“There are so many elements to cover,” he said. “That’s why the process usually is so long.”
Every detail should help a goalie achieve one thing – stopping the puck. How they get there is not always the same.
“You try to get to know them as people so you know how to coach them,” he said. “At the same time, they’re also coaching you in terms of how to coach them. You can’t approach them with ‘It’s my way or the highway.’
“Each guy’s personality is different. How they learn is different. How their body works in the crease is different. You have to identify their strengths and weaknesses and then try to take steps in the right direction through positive reinforcement.
“From a coaching perspective, you’ve got to make them feel good. You can’t just pound away at their deficiencies. If you took that approach, you wouldn’t be building them up for success. You want them to harness their strengths while also identifying areas for improvement. It’s a give-and-take relationship.”
Video is one of the most important tools at his disposal.
“We identify clips from every game and then look at their strengths as well as a couple of teaching points,” he said. “I’m looking for things to help them improve, whether it’s their overall stance, depth or angle play, or maybe a situational read of the play. If I see something that may be useful, I may show it on an iPad, but it’s ultimately up to them whether they want to apply it or not.”
Mahoney-Wilson works extensively with the goaltenders in Grand Rapids while keeping an eye on the Red Wings’ prospects in Toledo. Besides attending all of Griffins games, he will typically see four or five Walleye games each month.
In previous years, he also scouted potential draft picks and interfaced with Red Wings goaltending prospects in college and junior hockey. Those tasks are now largely covered by Phil Osaer, the Red Wings’ new head of goaltending scouting and development who came from Tampa Bay, where he had filled a similar role for general manager Steve Yzerman. “Phil is a huge asset for both Sal and me because he can offer another perspective,” he said. “It’s invaluable to have another set of eyes.”
The hiring of Osaer, a Livonia native and one-time St. Louis goaltending prospect, enabled Beemer to become full-time in Grand Rapids. Unfortunately, he has also found himself acting as the Griffins’ video coach since November after the unexpected death of Bill LeRoy. The task has given him a fuller appreciation of the game.
He also scouts opposing team goalies while reviewing various analytical data on all of the Griffins’ goalies. While he no longer needs to be in constant touch with every Red Wings goaltending prospect, he continues to reach out to them with Osaer’s consent since they may eventually find their way to Grand Rapids or Toledo.
And while some fans bemoan the future of the Red Wings in net, Mahoney-Wilson believes the talent will eventually rise to the top.
“Every year is a new year and there are lots of prospects, whether they belong to Detroit or other teams,” he said. “At some point, you hope that one guy will step up and make it his opportunity. As a goalie coach, you don’t know who that is, so all you can do is teach and show them the right direction.
“Ultimately, it’s up to the athlete. You’re looking for the one who absorbs things and applies them, the one who can persevere and work through adversity. At the end of the day, it’s up to them to create their success.
“There’s no crystal ball. All you can do is try to help them to improve. It’s up to them to make sure that their commitment level is there. We’re waiting for that one guy to step up. That’s what we need.”
This year started with Beemer working with veteran Calvin Pickard, who signed a two-year contract with the Red Wings after eight seasons with several NHL and AHL teams, and first-year pro Filip Larsson, a sixth-round draft pick in 2016 who played one year at the University of Denver.
Larsson, not surprisingly, has experienced the growing pains of learning to play pro hockey.
“There’s a big difference between college and pros,” Mahoney-Wilson said. “Like any athlete, you have to go through struggles to improve. The loss of confidence can hit you like a tornado. All you can hope for is that the experience will make him better.
“It takes time. You’ve got to be patient, but there are days when you want to kick them in the butt. Other days you want to put a hand on their shoulder. But you have to realize that it’s a long process. Things don’t click overnight. It’s tough to say that, but it’s the reality.
“I’m doing my best to teach work ethic and technique. Hopefully, it applies, but it’s ultimately up to the athlete to find their way through their successes and failures. Some guys get it and some guys don’t.”
Ultimately, Mahoney-Wilson wants every one of his goalies to excel.
“Seeing the success of others is what coaching is all about,” he said. “Seeing the fruits of all of the hours you put into your goalie sessions is what’s important. You want to see them having fun at what they’re doing but ultimately you want to see that they’re trending in the right direction.”
That he gets to work for the same organization that has been special to the Wilson family for so many years is something that he cherishes every day.
“It’s incredible,” he said. “There’s not a day that I take it for granted. I’m hungry to come to work every day and it’s an honor to be employed by a prestigious organization like the Detroit Red Wings and be a part of the ‘Winged Wheel.’
“That I’m now part of the family legacy that extends more than 50 years with the Red Wings is something that is close to my heart. It’s pretty cool.”