Jeff Sauer spent decades coaching men's hockey at Colorado College and the University of Wisconsin, winning nearly 500 games and two national championships, but these days he finds himself rejuvenated and his love for the game strong as ever through his work with both the United States Deaflympics and the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team.
Sauer, who began his collegiate coaching career more than 40 years ago as an assistant to the legendary "Badger" Bob Johnson, is in the process of putting together a team to play at the World Deaf Championship in Finland at the end of March. He first became involved with the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association when it was established back in the 1970s by Chicago Blackhawks great Stan Mikita, and has been marveling at the accomplishments of its players ever since.
Jeff Sauer brings hockey to deaf and paralyzed individuals through work with the United States Deaflympics and the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team. (Photo credit: Gregg Forwerck)
"The hearing-impaired kids, most play on teams back at home with guys that don't have handicaps," Sauer said. "They're put on the end of the bench or used sparingly. People are either intimidated by the fact they don't hear well or just don't give them the chance to play often.
"When we get them together, and it's kids from all across the country, the chemistry is unbelievable right away. There is specific sign language we use and in most cases communication is easy because it's hockey. They're just normal payers who want to play the game and don't hear well. They bond together well, and we've had success on the international scene."
Highlighting that success was a gold medal won by the U.S. team at the 2007 Deaflympics on their home turf in Salt Lake City.
"The biggest competition on the international scene is Canada and the toughest teams to play are Finland and Russia," Sauer said. "We were relatively young in relation to those teams, and at the international level experience can take its toll on a young team, but we based ourselves on conditioning and being in the best shape, and it paid off for us in Salt Lake."
Through his work with the AHIHA and the USA Disabled Hockey Committee, involvement in sled hockey followed in the past several years.
In this capacity, Sauer has found himself often working with military veterans who lost limbs in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. He raved about their leadership abilities and, similar to his hearing-impaired players, the near instant chemistry they seem to develop with one another.
"Every one of these guys has a story, whether they were disabled from birth or lost a limb in an accident or in war," Sauer said. "These guys have used hockey, and being part of this at the international level, they've taken the bull by the horn so to speak and become advocates for 'your life is not over when this happens' type of thing. … The big thing is they've used [disability] not as a crutch but as hey, losing my legs was not the end of the world, I'm coming back and doing whatever I can to help myself."
"The big thing is they've used [disability] not as a crutch but as hey, losing my legs was not the end of the world, I'm coming back and doing whatever I can to help myself."
-- Jeff Sauer
With the National Hockey League celebrating the 15th anniversary of Hockey is for Everyone Month, Sauer reflected on what the initiative has meant to his players.
"I think it's very important. It's opened up the world of hockey for paralyzed guys, and hard-of-hearing players," he said. "It's often a situation where guys have maybe had to prove themselves more than a normal hockey player. The big thing is they're like sponges learning the game of hockey and being coached. It's really rejuvenated me, the way they want to learn and work hard. It's been a very rewarding situation."
In what came as well-deserved recognition, Sauer was bestowed with the Lester Patrick Trophy in 2011 for his outstanding service to hockey.
"When you look at the list of people who have been recognized, it's neat to be in the same company as those people," Sauer said. "My dad once said I never really had a real job. I coached college hockey for over 40 years, played at Colorado College, I've been involved at all levels including some international coaching at world tournaments. It's been a life of hockey that's been really rewarding and really fun, too, and to be on the same level as some of those other recipients is a real honor."