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Sauer helped turn Wisconsin into hockey hotbed

by Corey Masisak

MINNEAPOLIS -- Jeff Sauer was born in Wisconsin but spent most of his childhood growing up across the river from here in St. Paul.

His dad was a high school hockey coach in the area, and he became a high school hockey player in the state where the sport is king. When Sauer was enshrined in the United States Hockey Hall of Fame on Thursday as part of the Class of 2014, it was for his success with USA Hockey and at the University of Wisconsin, where he coached the Badgers for two decades.

"They offered dad the hockey coaching job at St. Paul Central when I was five years old and he had never skated," Sauer said. "We put in a rink in our back yard. Dad and I learned how to skate at the same time.

"I worked for Bob Johnson and was an assistant for him at Wisconsin. I went to Colorado [College] and when Bob left they asked me to replace him. It was a pretty natural progression. I know Bob was asked that question all the time, 'How did you get there?' They were looking for good hockey people and I guess they thought we were pretty good and we ended up doing a pretty good job."

In large part because of Johnson's and Sauer's work with the Badgers, Wisconsin became a state known for producing hockey players. A generation or two ago, U.S. hockey was dominated by the "three M's" -- Minnesota, Michigan and Massachusetts -- but more and more Wisconsin-born players are finding success at all levels of the sport.

The United States entry at the 2014 Sochi Olympics had three players from Wisconsin on the roster, Ryan Suter, Phil Kessel and Joe Pavelski. Suter and Pavelski played for the Badgers, though Kessel made a much-publicized move to the northwest to play for the University of Minnesota.

In all, 17 former Badgers have played in the NHL this season, including a pair of Minnesotans who went in the opposite direction of Kessel: Derek Stepan and Ryan McDonagh.

"We always seemed to be second fiddle to Minnesota when it came to hockey, but if you really look at the development situation and where it is going, the number of players now that are from Wisconsin that are not only playing at the college level but have played in the Olympics, in the National Hockey League," Sauer said. "There are some real key players from Wisconsin.

"In the state of Wisconsin, we used the model of Minnesota with continuing to promote high school hockey, promote the development following the USA Hockey guidelines. I think the people in Wisconsin are like the people in Minnesota in that they recognize that development and skill development is the most important thing."

Sauer coached another member of the USHHOF Class of 2014, defenseman Brian Rafalski, at Wisconsin. He's been connected to the sport at all levels in the state. He noticed as his tenure progressed, there were fewer recruiting trips to Minnesota and Michigan and shorter drives to places closer to home as the number of college-level prospects in Wisconsin rose.

"Probably the last few years that I was there, yeah," Sauer said. "I coached for 20 years. Early on there weren't many players from Wisconsin, but eventually there were five or six guys each year were Wisconsin guys. They were from the Madison area, Superior, the Eagle River area, all of the big areas for hockey in the state."

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