Legendary Wisconsin coach Sauer succumbs to pancreatic cancer at 73

Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer (Wisconsin Athletics)
Longtime Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer passed away on Feb. 2, 2017, at the age of 73 (photo: Wisconsin Athletics).

Former Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer, who led the Badgers to two national championships, died Thursday morning.

He was 73.

Sauer had been suffering from pancreatic cancer, said Dan Brennan, the director of sled and inline national teams for USA Hockey.

Sauer coached the Badgers from 1982 to 2002, winning NCAA titles in 1983 and 1990 and recently, coached the U.S. sled hockey team, winning the Paralympic title in 2014. He also guided the U.S. team at the 2007 Winter Deaflympics to a gold medal.

“Those players touched his heart, and he returned the favor back to them,” Brennan told the Wisconsin State Journal. “They’re devastated right now. He meant the world to them. They played their hearts out for him because they had so much respect for him.”

In a 31-year college career that began at Colorado College, he won 665 games, good for 10th all-time.

Sauer was inducted into the USA Hockey Hall of Fame in 2014 and into the UW Athletics Hall of Fame last year. He also collected the Distinguished Achievement Award from USA Hockey in 2000, the John “Snooks” Kelly Founders Award from the American Hockey Coaches Association in 2004 and the Lester Patrick Trophy from the NHL in 2011. Sauer also was inducted into the Wisconsin Hockey Hall of Fame, Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame, the Colorado Springs Sports Hall of Fame and the Colorado College Athletic Hall of Fame.

The WCHA released a statement Thursday afternoon:

“The Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) joins the hockey family in mourning the passing of Jeff Sauer, a legendary coach and ambassador for the game; and, above all, a wonderful person. Quite simply, Coach Sauer had an indelibly positive impact upon everyone whom he met, from players and fellow coaches, to equipment managers and trainers; from sports information directors and media, to administrators and fans. Words cannot express our sorrow at his loss, nor the gratitude for the joy he brought to our lives.

“Coach Sauer’s love for hockey and desire to grow the game was evident throughout his life and career. From his playing days at Colorado College, through his coaching career with the Tigers and Wisconsin; and, most recently his extensive involvement with the U.S. National Sled Team and the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association, Jeff embodied the kindness, generosity and heart that makes our sport truly special.

“All who knew Coach Sauer, on and off the ice, are better for the experience. We are blessed that he was – and always will be – part of the WCHA family.

On behalf of the WCHA and all our member institutions, our thoughts, prayers and best wishes are with the entire Sauer family.”

“When you talk about positive people that genuinely care, Jeff Sauer is at the top of the list,” added Jim Smith, president of USA Hockey. “He’s a giant in our sport overall, but particularly from the USA Hockey perspective, he really made a difference on the advancement and visibility of disabled hockey.”

“There are few like Jeff,” said Dave Ogrean, executive director of USA Hockey. “He brought an infectious joy to our sport every single day. Our heartfelt condolences go out to his wife Jamie and the entire family.”
“He always cared so much about his players,” said Jim Johannson, assistant executive director of hockey operations for USA Hockey of Sauer, who he played for collegiately at Wisconsin. “Our sport at all levels benefited from Jeff’s unending passion and commitment.”

“Coach Sauer will be dearly missed by all those who were fortunate to have known him,” added Brennan. “He was a great coach who always made hockey fun and he treated everyone in the game and in life as his equal. Our national sled hockey players loved him as did so many who were fortunate to play for him and coach at his side.

“Our great game lost a genuine legend today.”

Sauer’s illness was kept private up until recently.

“He was a very prideful man, very personal, and didn’t want people to know,” Brennan added. “In true Coach Sauer fashion, he didn’t want anybody to worry about him. He was always concerned about other people far more than himself.”

Sauer grew up in St. Paul, Minn., and played baseball and hockey at Colorado College.

“Our entire athletic department family is saddened to hear of the passing of Coach Sauer,” UW director of athletics Barry Alvarez said in a statement. “Jeff was a hockey man through and through. He had a passion for the sport and for coaching, and his imprint on the game will be felt forever through the lives he touched. Our hockey programs at Wisconsin benefitted greatly from Jeff’s influence. I want to extend the condolences of Wisconsin athletics to Jeff’s family, friends, colleagues and former players.”

“Coach Sauer’s record speaks for itself, but he’s just done so much besides coaching hockey,” current Badgers men’s coach Tony Granato added. “That is the part I will miss most about him. He was about caring for people and sharing. I watched him volunteer endlessly for both the U.S. Sled Hockey and Hearing Impaired teams and watched him do anything that was asked of him for any special situation that was needed.

“He was just a great person and anyone that has had the pleasure of knowing him, playing for him or that was touched by what he gave us was just so lucky to have him as a coach and friend.”

Sauer is survived by his wife, Jamie, and children, Chip and Beth.