MINNEAPOLIS -- Hockey in Wisconsin and Minnesota was the primary theme when the Class of 2014 was enshrined into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame on Thursday night.
The connections among members of the Class of 2014 with hockey in Wisconsin are pretty obvious. Jeff Sauer coached the University of Wisconsin for two decades, helping to maintain a college hockey powerhouse built by "Badger" Bob Johnson.
One of Sauer's players with the Badgers was a small defenseman named Brian Rafalski, and joined the USHHOF alongside his former coach. A third member of the class was River Falls, Wis., native Karyn Bye Dietz, a versatile star of the women's game who played for the United States at forward and on defense.
There were also plenty of connections to the State of Hockey as well. Sauer grew up in St. Paul, Minn., after moving from Wisconsin at a young age. So too did Philadelphia Flyers president Paul Holmgren, who was honored with the Lester Patrick Trophy along with NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly.
The fourth member of the class, Lou Vairo, was born and raised in Brooklyn and the roots of his path to this night began in New York but his first full-time coaching job came in Austin, Minn.
Each of the newest Hall members was met onstage by three Minnesota natives to present the honorees with their plaques. Jack McCartan, John Mayasich and Dick Meredith were members of the gold medal-winning United States team at the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman introduced Holmgren and Daly as the newest Lester Patrick Trophy recipients.
Bob O'Connor was honored with the USA Hockey Builders Award, which was established in 1999 for individuals who made lasting contributions to the long-term growth and success of USA Hockey. O'Connor, known affectionately by others as "OC," was an assistant coach on the United States team in the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics and served in many other coaching capacities for USA Hockey.
O'Connor told a great story about one of his most famous players. He was coaching a youth team in Edina, Minn., where O'Connor would eventually coach at the high school for 18 years. He recalled one day with his youth team when a boy showed up and asked how he could get on the team.
It was about two months after registration had closed, and the boy who had just moved to town didn't own any equipment, but said he would borrow some from his neighbors. After O'Connor told him to be at the next practice, the boy said his name was Brian Burke.
Master of ceremonies Steve Levy of ESPN interviewed someone important to each member of the Class of 2014 before their speeches. Levy spoke to Bruce McLeod, who was the commissioner of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association for part of Sauer's tenure at Wisconsin. McLeod marveled at both Sauer's ability to find good pizza anywhere in the world, but also not what he accomplished, but how he accomplished it.
Next was Dave Ogrean, executive director of USA Hockey, to talk about Vairo's uncompromising loyalty. Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland spoke about how his franchise would not have won the Stanley Cup in 2008 were it not for the addition of Rafalski.
Last were Bye Dietz's parents. Her father talked about her passion for sports growing up but her obsession with hockey. When she was in sixth grade, an aunt gave her a plaque that said "Girls can do anything. It earned prominent placement in Bye Dietz's bedroom, and her father believes it was a driving force in helping her become one of the greatest women's hockey players in the world.
All of the speeches had moments both lighthearted and serious. Rafalski spoke in depth about his faith, and mentioned his "favorite Gopher" former teammate with the Devils, Erik Rasmussen, who once told Rafalski if he got into a fight, he would have to fight him afterward as well.
Vairo was at ease telling jokes and stories, from picking up a 7-year-old kid named Joey Mullen to take him to hockey practice to thinking his first full-time hockey job was in Austin, Texas, not Minnesota.
Sauer cemented the connections between Minnesota and Wisconsin, and the rivalry both at state and college hockey levels. He noted that there were many former college hockey players in the audience. Many who had played for him at Wisconsin, but some who "did not see the light" and ended up at various Minnesota schools.
"I don't want to embarrass any of them, but I've had several guys come up to me tonight and say, ‘I always wanted to be a Badger,' " which drew plenty of laughter and even some playful boobirds in the crowd.