Mauldin grew up in Holliston, Massachusetts, Grier’s hometown, and watched him rise from a high school hockey sensation to a become a star at Boston University, a veteran of more than 1,000 NHL games and one of the few Black coaches in the NHL.
“I got to watch him firsthand in my hometown,” Mauldin said. “For me, it was great to have someone who looks like me, someone to follow the path and to really motivate me that, ‘If you can do it, I can do it, too.”
Mauldin followed Grier’s path from Holliston to the NHL, playing 36 games with the Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Islanders and Colorado Avalanche and scoring 10 points (five goals, five assists) from 2003-04 to 2010-11.
He made history by following Grier into the coaching ranks when he joined USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program’s Under-18 team in late October as an assistant, becoming the first Black coach in the program’s 24-year history.
“I never really sought out to be that person, but it’s an honor,” Mauldin said. “For everyone or anybody, you need somebody to look up to or someone to follow. I guess I can be that person for somebody out there. It’s pretty cool to have that honor, and hope I can make the most of it.”
Grier called Mauldin’s hiring “an important step.”
“Good for him for getting his foot in the door,” he said. “It’s definitely good to have a person of color in such a high-profile job that I’m sure a lot of young coaches would love to have.”
Mauldin joined the USNTDP after a 16-year career playing in the NHL, the American Hockey League, and for teams in Switzerland, Germany, Croatia and Norway.
The 5-foot-11, 195-pound forward was selected by Columbus in the seventh round (No. 199) in the 2002 NHL Draft. He played at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where he scored 94 points (48 goals, 46 assists) in 98 games from 2000-04.
Dan Muse, coach of the USNTDP Under-18 team, said Mauldin’s wealth of experience in North American and international hockey made him an attractive candidate for the job.
“I feel like it was a home run there, Greg being able to come in as an assistant coach,” Muse said. “The obvious thing is his experience with the game; he’s had such a long playing career. When you got beyond that experience, you had the feeling with Greg, based on his personality, what he values combined with the kind of person that he is and the character that he has, that it would translate to him being a great mentor for the players in this program, a great teacher and a great coach.”
Mauldin, who played last season for the Stravenger Oilers in Norway, is settling in at USNTDP headquarters in Plymouth, Michigan, learning the ropes and making the transition from player to coach.
“Right now, it’s been a lot of video work, meeting with players, critiquing some stuff,” he said. “Video work is a lot tougher than I thought it would be, figuring out the programming, but it’s coming along.”
He said he landed the job “kind of by accident.” Mauldin intended to return to Norway to play another season at age 38 when Lawrence Feloney, a friend and video coach for the Nashville Predators, told him about the USNTDP opening and about Muse, who was hired in August from the Predators’ coaching staff to lead the Under-18 team.
“He’s, like, ‘I’ll put you guys in contact.’ I didn’t think anything of it,” Mauldin said of his chat with Feloney. “That was on a Thursday. Dan and I talked for about an hour that Thursday.”
That conversation in early October led to a Zoom interview with Muse and other USNTDP coaches the following Saturday.
“I thought that went really well, and I really felt that I wanted the job,” Mauldin said. “It’s USA Hockey, and I had never been part of USA Hockey before. I knew at some point I’d have to retire, and I thought this would be a pretty good way to start my coaching career. The Under-18 national development team is a pretty good gig. To work with some of the best 17-year-olds in the country, that’s hard to pass up.”
It’s an opportunity that Mauldin never imagined when he began playing hockey at age 6 after his mother took him to a Boston Bruins alumni game.
“It just seemed completely different than anything else,” he said. “I met all the players, got autographs and fell in love with it. Right away, I wanted to skate. My parents got me a pair of skates from the Salvation Army, and it went from there.”
The Bruins alumni might have introduced Mauldin to hockey, but Grier showed him what he could be in the game. The fellow Holliston resident scored 120 points (59 goals, 61 assists) in 114 games with Boston University from 1993-96.
The St. Louis Blues chose Grier in the ninth round (No. 219) of the 1993 NHL Draft. He went on to score 383 points (162 goals, 221 assists) in 1,060 games during 14 NHL seasons with the Edmonton Oilers, Washington Capitals, Buffalo Sabres and San Jose Sharks before retiring in December 2011.
Grier served on the New Jersey Devils coaching staff from 2018-20. He was one of three Black coaches in the NHL during that time, along with Tampa Bay Lightning video coach Nigel Kirwan and goalie coach Frantz Jean; Grier was the only one to work behind the bench during games.
However, Grier decided not to return to the Devils this season, which is targeted by the NHL to begin on Jan. 1, 2021, to spend more time at home with his family during the coronavirus pandemic.
Mauldin said Grier was so revered in Holliston when he was a kid that he and his buddies would remove their hats out of respect when they passed by Grier’s house. Some of Mauldin’s biggest thrills were meeting Grier in a Holliston parking lot and getting his autograph, then playing against him in the NHL years later.
“To have those moments and so many years later to play against him and to be able to thank him for just kind of helping me to see that it can be done,” he said, “and, in a roundabout way, pushing me to want to get to where he got, is so special.
Photos courtesy: Lars Kristian Aalgaard, Jamie Sabau and UMass Athletics