This Week In The WCHA: Jan. 10, 2002

There are few times when a man of Jeff Sauer’s importance to college hockey decides to hang up the whistle. This week was one of those times. While you’ll find some information on the rest of the WCHA in this column, most of it will talk about Sauer, a coaching icon. Here goes…

Replacing Bob Again?

When he was hired as Wisconsin’s head coach in 1982, Sauer said he couldn’t be Bob Johnson. He was Jeff Sauer.

Nearly 20 years later, Sauer thinks the next Badgers coach should be compared again to Johnson, not himself.

“The first day I sat before a bunch of people like yourselves [reporters] as the new head coach at the University of Wisconsin, one of the first questions that was asked to me was, how do you replace Bob Johnson?” Sauer said. “I told [Wisconsin athletics directors] Otto Breitenbach and Elroy Hirsch when they came out to Denver to interview me for this job that I was not Bob Johnson and I’m not Bob Johnson today.

“Every person in this position over the course of time will and should be compared to Bob and what he did for this program.”

Thing is, that’s just Sauer being modest. Johnson may always be the sentimental favorite among longtime Badgers hockey fans, but Sauer no doubt deserves his place among the greats.

Sauer also addressed the challenge of taking over Johnson’s team in the 1982-83 season, which ended with a national championship.

“From my standpoint, I played against Bob, I coached with Bob, I coached against Bob, the transition for me to come in and try to replace a person of his stature was a really easy transition because I knew him, I knew his personality, I knew how things worked and how he handled people,” Sauer said. “It made the transition very easy. The person that takes my place is going to be compared to Bob, as he should be. Because he’s the person that started this program. But I think it’s ironic that this program has had the success that it’s had over the course of time and really only had two full-time coaches.”

A New Generation

Matt Murray and I don’t really have too much in common. He can play hockey; I can’t. Heck, he can skate; I can’t.

But we’re about the same age and we both grew up in Wisconsin. If you grew up in Wisconsin 20 to 25 years ago and were interested in hockey, you grew up watching Wisconsin hockey.

At 10:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, you sat down in front of the TV to watch Paul Braun open every broadcast with his trademark, “From the Dane County Memorial Coliseum in Madison…” You listened as PB and Bill Howard got into argument after argument and flipped 20-dollar bills onto the table to will goals from the Badgers.

But then, you’ve also probably only known one Wisconsin hockey coach. Murray and I were both alive when “Badger” Bob Johnson was in charge, but we don’t remember anything about that.

When we remember the Wisconsin Public Television broadcasts, we remember Jeff Sauer standing behind the bench, arms folded, maybe standing in the doorway of the bench, waiting for the referee to explain something to him.

“It’s going to be real strange for me, especially,” Murray said. “As long as I’ve been alive, he’s been the coach. Every game I’ve ever watched for this university, he was behind the bench. You hear stories about Badger Bob and all that, but, for me, I never saw that, I never experienced that being my age. So as far as I’ve ever seen, Jeff Sauer’s been Wisconsin hockey.”

What’s Next?

Sauer’s retirement from coaching will take him away from the back of the bench, but there’s no way it’s going to keep him out of a hockey rink.

“I went to watch a major junior hockey game up in Calgary right before Christmas,” Sauer said. “I sat upstairs and I kind of enjoyed sitting there watching the game, not having to be involved, all by myself on a winter night in December in Canada with all the tradition and so forth. I kind of enjoyed that. When I say I enjoy watching, that’s something that I’m looking forward to.”

A Rough First Day

Sauer said the transition to his new job at Wisconsin in 1982 was an easy one. That didn’t make the first day on the job go smoothly.

“The first day on the job, I walked into the office over at the football stadium, I’ve got this nice, big desk,” Sauer said. “Everything’s all fired up, [hockey secretary] Nancy [Olson]’s all fired up, she’s sitting out there. Nancy and I don’t know each other at all. We talked on the phone, we exchanged letters and stuff back and forth. I’m not there 20 minutes — and Nancy will be embarrassed by this story — but I committed my first NCAA violation that day.

“Nancy comes in and there’s a fairly heavy-set student, lady, gal sitting out in the lobby. Nancy comes in and says this gal wants to talk to you. I’m sitting there saying, geez, I feel pretty good. I’m a new coach, I’ve got this big desk, she’s coming in to offer help or whatever.

“She sits down, she says, ‘Can I shut the door?’ I said sure. She shuts the door and looks me right straight in the eye and she says, ‘Three of your hockey players lit my hair on fire in the Big Ten Pub last night. What are you going to do about it?’ Bob had been telling me all summer long that these were good kids and all that kind of stuff.”

That first day, though, Sauer did lock up Howard as goaltending coach. Who knows if the Badgers goaltending tradition would have otherwise included Curtis Joseph, Mike Richter, Jim Carey and others.

The Moments He’ll Remember

Sauer was asked if there were moments from his career that often pop into his mind.

Got a while?

  • The first game he coached, he said, his CC team lost to Denver 11-1.

    “Murray Armstrong was the [Denver] coach,” Sauer said. “I walked off the ice after the game, I said, ‘We’ll be back.’

    “The next time we went up, we won 7-6 in overtime.”

  • “I remember the night in Michigan State where I was in overtime, I was on the ice, I had the puck, I could show you the spot on the ice,” Sauer said. “I went to score the winning goal in overtime and I put it in the second deck.”
  • “Black Sunday,” when his CC team beat the Badgers in a total-goals series 13-12, winning the second game in Madison 11-4.

    The crowd groaned.

    “And there’s people in this room that have a film of that game that would not give it to me,” Sauer said.

  • Even the 7-6 overtime victory over North Dakota this season, one in which the Badgers rallied from a 6-2 deficit in the third period.

    “I think this building needed that,” Sauer said. “We needed — Madison, Wis., hockey fans needed a weekend like that. It doesn’t happen every night, to come back and do that.”

  • He was asked if he remembered his first victory.

    “Do I remember my first win? Yeah, the first win was, uh …,” said Sauer, who then looked to find his son Chip for help. “Where’s Chip? He wasn’t alive either. I have no references to go to.”

    It was then told to Sauer that his first victory was against Minnesota, the team the Badgers play this weekend at the Kohl Center.

    “Was it Minnesota? Geez, it was great. Just great,” he said.

    A Strong Following

    Reaction to the news from around the world of college hockey was quick to pour into the Wisconsin sports information department, which posted some quotes from Sauer’s fellow coaches and former players.

    They included:

  • Michigan Tech coach Mike Sertich, one of Sauer’s closest friends: “I’m very disappointed to hear the news. College hockey has lost a voice and a leader and that hurts. Our league and college hockey certainly won’t be the same without him.”
  • Boston College coach Jerry York: “Jeff is one of the greats of coaching in college hockey. He’s been an inspiration to so many young coaches coming up in the ranks and he’s done so many great things to advance the game of college hockey.”
  • North Dakota coach Dean Blais: “It is always sad when we lose a member of our coaching fraternity. I’m happy that Jeff can still continue to work with Wisconsin athletics while he pursues his passion — golf.”
  • Former player Tony Granato: “Jeff Sauer was one of the most influential factors in my playing career and a springboard for my professional career. He is a model of character and dignity and the perfect coach who carried on the legacy of Badger Hockey.”
  • Former player Dany Heatley: “Coach Sauer is a great person on and off the ice. He’s a coach who really cares about his players and someone who has been a great representative for college hockey. I’m proud to say I played for him.”

    A Man For The League

    Sauer is the kind of person at WCHA meeting that when he speaks, everyone else listens and knows he’s speaking with the best intent of the WCHA in mind.

    That’s the opinion of Denver coach George Gwozdecky, who also praised Sauer for helping to make the league the power it is today.

    “He has really been one of the league fathers,” Gwozdecky said. “Maybe not a founding father, but one of the guys that has really helped take this league from the stages in the ’60s and ’70s and really helped it move on, with his influence in the meetings and using his experience to make sure that this league continue to move forward.”

    Gwozdecky was an assistant for Ron Mason at Michigan State in the mid-to-late 1980s. He compared Sauer with Mason in terms of league-building.

    “There’s only one other guy that I know of who has helped a league flourish like that and put the league at the top of the pedestal and that’s Ron Mason,” Gwozdecky said. “Ron Mason’s impact on the CCHA is, there wouldn’t be a CCHA if it wasn’t for Ron Mason. It wouldn’t have the same credibility if it wasn’t for Ron Mason. And I feel that Jeff Sauer is perceived the same and looked upon the same way in the WCHA. He leaves a great legacy and he’s been one of the great drivers for our league for many, many years.”

    But one of Sauer’s greatest legacies, Gwozdecky noted, is something the college hockey public doesn’t see. Behind the scenes, Sauer puts the league, not his team first.

    “In the eight years that I have been associated with the WCHA as a coach, there is not one time that I can remember that there was ever a hidden agenda as to, geez, Jeff is trying to do this because it’s going to improve Wisconsin’s position,” Gwozdecky said. “And I can’t say that for anybody else, including myself.”


    Don Granato, one of Sauer’s former players at Wisconsin and now the coach of the Worcester IceCats of the AHL, made a good point about the upcoming weeks.

    “He didn’t want a farewell tour,” Granato said, “but now I’m glad everybody knows so they can give him one.”

    So here’s how it goes down for the Badgers down the stretch. After this weekend’s home series against Minnesota, the Badgers play a pair at Minnesota State-Mankato before returning home for a series against top-ranked St. Cloud State.

    Wisconsin hosts Alaska-Anchorage on Feb. 1 and 2; plays at Colorado College on Feb. 8 and 9; hosts Denver on Feb. 15 and 16; plays at Minnesota on Feb. 22 and 23; and hosts Minnesota-Duluth on March 1 and 2 to close the regular season.

    Short, Shorter and Shortest

    So what was more rare: Alaska-Anchorage’s sweep of Michigan Tech last weekend, or what the Seawolves had to do to complete it?

    It was Anchorage’s first WCHA sweep at Sullivan Arena in two years, but the triplet of shorthanded goals the Seawolves scored in the second period of Game 2 was the clincher.

    Yes, three shorthanded goals in one period.

    In 4 minutes, 45 seconds, Eric Lawson, Jace Digel and Dallas Steward scored the first career shorthanded goal for each.

    “I looked at [Joe] Garvin on the bench and said, Holy smokes, I’ve never seen three short-handers in my career, 15 years of hockey,” Steward told the Anchorage Daily News.

    Finish It Off

    Connor James was on the left side of a 2-on-1 break, with the puck, and looked like he was running out of room.

    He had come too close to the goaltender and now needed to pull something out of nowhere.

    So he did. He got the puck on his backhand and flipped it into the top right corner of the net. No problem.

    That’s the ease, on the outside, with which things are coming for Denver this season.

    It also makes it look like the Pioneers are gifted at being opportunistic. Gwozdecky doesn’t see it that way.

    We do have some players who have got some great finishing ability,” Gwozdecky said. “Connor is one of them Jon Foster is one of them. Chris Paradise, Kevin Doell, they have great hands and great finishing ability.

    “Like any team, I think we’re the type of team that we need to work hard to create chances. The more chances you create, the more opportunities you’re going to be able to put the puck in the net. Sometimes, especially forwards, they start looking to score instead of working to score. I think there’s a huge difference in those two things.

    “We’ve got some of our players that have gone through that this year. But you will always see that the guys on our team that have the most scoring chances are the guys that are leading our team in scoring. I guess that makes sense, it’s probably logical. But I think that probably refutes a little bit the idea of being opportunistic. I don’t know of anybody on our team who has one or two or three scoring chances a game and usually bangs home every one or two. That shooting percentage just is not realistic, especially on our team.”