Bill Mahoney, right, with Tom Carty, two former captains of the Peterborough Petes Junior ‘A’ team. Photo courtesy Peterborough and District Sports Hall of Fame

Coach knew what mattered

By  TIM WHARNSBY, Catholic Register Special
  • February 11, 2022

Few great men know when to step away from something they love. Few fathers understand when it’s time to change teams and focus on family.

Four decades ago, Bill Mahoney appeared to be at the pinnacle of his chosen profession as a hockey coach. He had steered the upstart 1983-84 Minnesota North Stars all the way to the Western Conference final, only to be upended by the eventual champion, Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers. The North Stars stumbled out of the gate the following season, and Mahoney, an Irish Catholic, was fired after a 3-8-2 start.

If Mahoney, who passed away before Christmas after a lengthy battle with dementia at 82, wanted to remain in the game, there was little doubt he would have landed another coaching gig. But even though as man and boy he played and coached a game he loved, Mahoney had enough and chose to pursue a different direction.

He wanted to enter the business world, studying whether he should own a Tim Hortons franchise or a St. Hubert’s chicken restaurant. Donuts won out over chicken. After all, he lived part of his life in Hamilton, Ont., and routinely passed many Tim Hortons with his wife Doreen on his way to Mass at Regina Mundi Parish.

“He had a teammate from his time in Ottawa who went on to become a success in owning Tim Hortons’ franchises out east,” his son Jeff said. “My Dad wanted more control in his life. That’s why he decided to go in this direction.

“He approached owning Tim Hortons’ franchises like a coach. He had a game plan.”

Mahoney wound up owning nine franchises in the London, Ont., area. Jeff now runs six and his sister Karen and her husband David run the other three in the mini-empire.

Mahoney stood behind the proverbial bench in his new line of work and became a success. He stunned his friends. Not that he triumphed in his new endeavour, but that he skated away from hockey.

He was raised in the sports-minded city of Peterborough. Mahoney not only excelled in hockey, he was a deft softball pitcher, a provincial champion in lacrosse and quarterback at St. Peter Catholic Secondary School.

Hockey, however, won out. He became one of the first local teenagers to play for the hometown junior team, the Petes, and captained the team to an upset victory against Dave Keon and the St. Michael’s Majors in the Robertson Cup provincial final.

Mahoney’s talent caught the eye of legendary Montreal Canadiens general manager Sam Pollock. The Canadiens signed Mahoney and moved him to the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens of the Eastern Professional Hockey League.

After a year with Hull-Ottawa, Mahoney chose to pursue a physical education degree, first at Carleton and then at McMaster in Hamilton. He continued to play hockey, leading Mac to the first University Cup in 1962-63, lassoing MVP honours.

He would stay in Hamilton and become a beloved coach of the McMaster program.

“So many of his players have said that he cared about their life away from the rink,” Jeff said. “He coached them on and off the ice.”

Besides his coaching at McMaster, Mahoney developed Huron Hockey Schools with co-owners Brian Gilmour and Ron Mason. Before there were development camps by NHL teams, this summertime venture became the place to be if you were a young player serious about your hockey future and was in business for more than 40 years.

At least 100 coaches who went on to the NHL were involved, like Mike Keenan, Ted Sator, Wayne Fleming, Reg Higgs and Jack Birch, and about 750 future NHL players attended, including Hall of Famers Dale Hawerchuk, Mario Lemieux, Al MacInnis, Scott Stevens, Mike Gartner, Eric Lindros and Chris Pronger.

Birch was a kinesiology student at the University of Waterloo when a professor stood up and informed his class one day that Huron Hockey School was looking for hockey-minded people to help out. Birch volunteered and gained a close friend.

“He was my mentor in everything I did, how I raised my family to my coaching,” Birch said. “He wanted smart people to use their academic knowledge to further the game.”

Mahoney made a move as a coach to the pro ranks as an assistant coach with the Washington Capitals in 1980, then head coach of the AHL Adirondack Red Wings before running his own NHL team in Minnesota.

“Bill was quiet but demanding and very honest,” said Craig Hartsburg, the North Stars captain at the time. “He believed in structure with the focus on defence. It took him time in Minnesota to establish his structure. But eventually, players like Dino Ciccarelli bought in, and that’s why we had so much success.”

Hartsburg, who went on to become a successful coach in junior and the NHL, credits Mahoney’s commitment to structure as one of his strengths in leading the Canadian junior team to back-to-back world titles in 2007 and 2008.

(Wharnsby is a journalist and author in Toronto.)

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