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Sauer has seen everything in his 40 years of coaching

by Michael Blinn /
With 40 years and 655 wins at the college level, it's safe to assume Jeff Sauer has gone through it all -- at least he thought had, anyway.

He's coached his way to two national championships, a silver medal at the 1990 Goodwill Games, and the medal round at the 1990 IIHF World Championship. His resume is stocked with awards won over a lengthy career and he has produced an All-Star team of players to hit the NHL and international ranks.

All that, and Sauer still found himself in disbelief when he answered the phone and heard NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on the other end.

"I looked at my phone and saw it was a call from Gary Bettman," Sauer said. "I thought it was someone playing a trick on me."


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What Bettman called to discuss was no joke. Instead, he told Sauer he was to be a recipient of the 2011 Lester Patrick Award for outstanding service to hockey in the United States.

Sauer will be honored along with Bob Pulford, Toni Rossi, and Mark Johnson, with whom Sauer holds a special bond. In fact, it was Mark's father, Bob, who jump-started Sauer's coaching career.

"I played for Bob Johnson, coached with him, coached against him," Sauer said with a laugh. "I've known Mark and Peter Johnson since they were born. I babysat them a number of times."

After exhausting his eligibility as a player at Colorado College in 1965, Sauer volunteered to serve as assistant coach of the Tigers with the elder Johnson while finishing his degree. After graduation and a stint in the armed forces, he followed the man known as "Badger Bob" to Wisconsin -- his home state -- as a full-time assistant from 1969-71.

"I never had to pay my dues as a high school coach or anything like that," Sauer said. "My father always told me that I never had a real job. There hasn't been a day that I didn't enjoy going into work."

Sauer eventually returned to Colorado College and took over the team in in 1971. Over the course of 11 seasons, Sauer compiled a 166-226-11 record, twice taking home WCHA Coach of the Year honors (1971-72 and 1974-75), and winning a league co-championship and earning an NCAA postseason berth in 1978-79.

In 1982-83, he headed back to Wisconsin, where he cemented his legacy as a top-notch coach: When he retired in 2002, Sauer had put together a 489-306-46 record with 16 seasons of at least 20 wins, two regular-season WCHA titles, two postseason tournament championships, 12 NCAA berths, and three Frozen Four appearances, winning national championships in 1982-83 and 1989-90, while taking the runner-up spot in 1991-92.

With 655 career wins, Sauer is eighth on the all-time NCAA wins list, behind Ron Mason (924), Jerry York (882), Jack Parker (855), Rick Comley (783), R.H. Peters (744), Red Berenson (734), and Len Ceglarski (689). He'll also join York, Parker, Berenson and Ceglarski as Lester Patrick winners, and join an exclusive club of former Badgers to earn it: Bob Johnson, Mike Richter, and Patrick classmate Mark Johnson.

"I never had to pay my dues as a high school coach or anything like that. My father always told me that I never had a real job. There hasn’t been a day that I didn't enjoy going into work." -- Jeff Sauer
His success confirms that coaching was a natural evolution for Sauer, who picked up hockey as a 4-year-old when his family moved to St. Paul, Minn.; he quickly became a rink rat while his father, a teacher, coached local hockey and football teams.

"I spent time on the benches and the fields, following my dad around in football and hockey," Sauer said.

All that time must have made an impression, as Sauer's success is still apparent across hockey today. Among his alumni are current NHL players Dany Heatley, Rene Bourque, Steve Reinprecht (playing in the Canucks' farm system) and Brad Winchester, while former Badgers Richter, Chris Chelios, Curtis Joseph, Brian Rafalski, Scott Mellanby, Tony Granato and numerous others had decorated NHL and international careers -- and they know who to thank for it.

"He had good interaction with the guys and was a guy you wanted to play for and play hard for," Winchester said. "He was good in letting guys play to their strengths. He certainly did a lot for the Wisconsin program."

Mark Johnson, now the coach of the Wisconsin women's hockey program, saw Sauer's effectiveness firsthand.

Jeff Sauer stays active in the hockey community, working with WCHA on-ice officials, and coaching the USA Deaf Olympic and USA Sled Hockey teams. 
"Jeff's done a lot for USA hockey," he said. "He certainly did a lot for Colorado College when he was the head coach there for 11 years. When he came over to Wisconsin he had big shoes to fill, but I thought he did it in a very classy way and won some championships and did a great job of continuing the great tradition of Wisconsin hockey."

He was recognized in 2003, a year after he retired, with the John "Snooks" Kelley Founders Award from the American Hockey Coaches Association, presented to individuals in the coaching profession who have contributed to the overall growth and development of the sport of ice hockey in the United States.

Since getting out of the NCAA coaching game, Sauer has kept himself busy, working with Stan Mikita and the gold-medal winning USA Deaf Olympic Team, and he recently took over head coaching duties with the U.S. sled hockey team. He keeps himself busy with the role of assistant to the commissioner in the WCHA, in which he deals primarily with on-ice officials, now in a much different way than the first 30-plus years of his career.

"The bottom line is that I've done a lot behind the scenes in the WCHA -- I've got a little experience," he said with a laugh. "And I've been given the opportunity to stay involved. It's funny; I spent years standing on a bench yelling at officials who didn't listen to me. Now, they all want to know what I think, what I saw. I think their greatest pleasure is that I buy them all a beer on Friday after games."

The WCHA officials may be easy to please, but Sauer derives his happiness from his achievements, though they may not be the most obvious ones. In fact, it's his more under-the-radar ones that stick with him more.

"It's one thing to coach a Chelios, it's another to coach a borderline player and see them have success out in the business world," he said. "All coaches get into the business because they have a true concern for those they're coaching. I've had a number of guys go on to the NHL and professional hockey, but the guys that didn't continue their careers that are now having their kids be recruited -- I hope I rubbed off a bit on them. That's what really makes me proud. "
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