Jeff Sauer built coaching success on communication

Monday, 12.01.2014 / 3:00 AM
David Kalan  - Staff Writer

In decades of coaching, Jeff Sauer had to learn many different ways to communicate with his players.

These days, he is using that ability with the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association.

"The big thing with the [hearing-impaired] kids is just giving them a chance," Sauer said. "By giving them a chance, they really bond together well and they really stick up for each other. ... It's rejuvenated me from a coaching standpoint."

Sauer, who will be inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame on Thursday, has worked with the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association, of which he is now president, for more than four decades. His relationship with the organization started when, as Sauer tells it, a parent of a deaf player in the Stan Mikita Hockey School for the Hearing Impaired asked if their son and another player could participate in a camp Sauer was running when he coached at Colorado College. Four days later, Sauer was asked if he would continue working with the school, and he has been a part of the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association ever since.

Sauer has coached the U.S. team at the past three Winter Deaflympics, winning gold at Salt Lake City in 2007.

"In some cases some of these kids haven't had a lot of success in their lives," Sauer said. "When they band together and win a gold medal, it's really a fun thing to see and they take great pride in it."

Sauer takes great pride in his work with the hearing impaired, and his involvement with the U.S. sled hockey team, which he coached to a gold medal at the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia. For hockey fans in his home state of Wisconsin, those achievements are but a small part of his career. In 31 years coaching at the NCAA Division I level, Sauer compiled a lengthy Hall of Fame resume, winning 655 games, to rank seventh all-time, and two national championships with the University of Wisconsin, in 1983 and 1990. Prior to coaching at Wisconsin, Sauer spent 11 years as coach at his alma mater, Colorado College, where he was twice named WCHA Coach of the Year.

He has coached U.S. national teams on multiple occasions, including the 1990 Goodwill Games, the 1989 Pravada Cup and the 1997 Tampere Cup. He was honored with USA Hockey's Distinguished Achievement Award in 2000 and awarded the Lester Patrick Trophy in 2011. When he goes into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame this week, it will be the fifth Hall of Fame to which he's been inducted.

This year's class includes Karyn Bye Dietz, Lou Vairo, and three-time Stanley Cup champion defenseman Brian Rafalski, who Sauer coached at Wisconsin.

"I've said this before: I'm just kind of shocked he hasn't been already inducted," Rafalski said. "I was kind of surprised it just happened this year, especially with all his past work and now his current with the U.S. sled hockey team and the success he's had both in USA Hockey and at Wisconsin."

Sauer and Rafalski's relationship began when Rafalski was a 16-year-old playing with the Madison Capitols of the USHL. Sauer recruited him to play at Wisconsin, and Rafalski said he was fortunate enough to score a hat trick in the first game his future coach came to see. After four years together in Madison, Sauer worked to get Rafalski a tryout with the Milwaukee Admirals, then of the IHL, and although the effort was unsuccessful, Rafalski credits Sauer with landing him on the U.S. team for the IIHF World Championship, which ultimately led to the start of his professional career in Sweden.

According to Rafalski, Sauer was demanding but always had his door open and knew when to push the right buttons. One of Sauer's common tactics was to yell for a former player to take the ice during a game, breaking the tension and loosening up his team.

Sauer, who turned 71 in March, admits that was not always intentional and happens more frequently now.

"I think my memory isn't as good," Sauer said.

In a field that often demands structure, Sauer was judicious about when to enforce it, opting to give players like Rafalski the freedom to be creative on the ice and forcing his players to mature off it.

"He understood what stage of life we were in as young men," Rafalski said. "He really allowed us to resolve things. It was always up to the captains and the players. 'You guys gotta fix this.' He put a lot of the onus on us and the responsibility for us to respond and play well."

Having coached players of such varied physical capabilities, Sauer is adamant that he has treated each of them, disabled or not, the same way. An inability to hear or use your legs has never been an excuse for making a sloppy line change or failing to get back on defense.

"I have never treated [sled hockey players] like handicapped individuals. I've treated them like hockey players from Day One," Sauer said. "I think it's really helped from a respect standpoint from them of me, because I don't coddle them at all. I mean, I really go at them. I go at them just like I would with regular players, and in most cases they listen better than any kids I've got. Same thing with the hearing-impaired kids. They want to be coached."

Sauer's induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame comes after five decades as the quintessential hockey lifer, but it's hardly an end point. Though Sauer retired from coaching at Wisconsin in 2003, he has remained involved with college hockey in administrator role and serves as a consultant for the WCHA in addition to his responsibilities with the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association. He has agreed to stay on with the U.S. sled hockey team through the 2018 Paralympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, provided he feels well enough to do it.

Although the start of the 2018 Paralympic Games is tentatively scheduled to coincide with Sauer's 75th birthday, he says retirement isn't in the cards any time soon. Playing golf in Florida on a daily basis holds no appeal for him. Considering Sauer said the toughest job he's ever had was delivering newspapers, it doesn't seem like it ever will.

"Going to the rink every day and being involved with the kids has really kept me young," Sauer said. "I just enjoy it, I enjoy being around it and it beats working. That's the best thing about it."

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