This is the second time in a year that I’ve written about the death of a coaching legend, and this is the fifth time in a week that I’ve attempted to say what I’m saying now. Writing about Ron Mason last summer was difficult. Writing about Jeff Sauer feels impossible. Every time I’ve begun this little remembrance, I’ve been halted by my own tears. That’s because I loved Jeff Sauer. Everyone who knew him did, and I was lucky enough to know him a little.
I’m not going to talk about Jeff’s success as a coach or how well he was respected among his peers or even how good he was to the press. I have a couple of stories to tell, stories that reveal a little about Jeff and his place in our college hockey family.
I met Jeff Sauer when I first started covering hockey for USCHO in the 1996-97 season, when he was head coach at Wisconsin and I was learning the CCHA beat. The Frozen Four was in Milwaukee that year and that’s when I met everyone there was to meet. Truthfully, I don’t remember much about my first meeting with Jeff, but I do know that from that point on, we ran into each other frequently, either on the rare occasion when I covered Wisconsin hockey or socially through hockey – in a press box, at a party – and I remembered him every single time.
He, however, did not remember me. Not at all. Every time we were introduced, it was as though he’d never met me before. Half a dozen times or more we’d be introduced, Jeff would shake my hand and look at me as though I were a brand-new acquaintance, and I’d immediately know that this wasn’t my last first introduction to Jeff Sauer.
This included an otherwise memorable night at a gathering in a hotel room in Albany in 2001, one of the epic parties that were once thrown at Frozen Four gatherings, a night during which I was the only woman in the room, at least for a little while. I can tell you who else was there, what I was drinking – it wasn’t soda – what we were watching on television and something about the hockey NIT and a phone call or two to ESPN, but I won’t. I will tell you that Jeff was standing near the door, also not drinking a soda, and there were maybe 20 people in the room – the night was young – and Jeff suddenly noticed my presence and blurted loudly, “Hey! There’s a chick in the room!”
Everyone laughed. I’m sure someone told him who I was. At the time, I was also sure that he’d finally remember me when we next met. I was wrong.
Our next encounter was a few months later after the Cold War game at The Mayfair, a great little place in Haslett, Mich., and a favorite haunt of Ron Mason’s. In fact, I told part of this story when I wrote about Ron last summer. When I was writing about that night and something that Ron had said to me, I was thinking about this encounter with Jeff Sauer, too. I didn’t realize then that I would be telling this story so soon.
That night in 2001, I walked into The Mayfair with my good friend, Neil Koepke, who works now for Michigan State hockey but who at the time was covering the Spartans for the Lansing State Journal. I was apprehensive because I didn’t know Ron Mason socially, but Neil assured me that Ron would be happy to see us and of course he was. And there standing next to him was Jeff Sauer, who once again looked at me as though I’d never existed before that very moment.
Ron was gracious enough to introduce me to Jeff, who shook my hand. When Ron introduced us, though, he said to Jeff, “Do you know Paula?” and when the inevitable, “No, I don’t think so,” came, I was resolved to put a stop to this cycle of first-time niceties.
When Jeff extended his hand, I took it and held it and said, “Coach, now you know that’s not true. We’ve met at least a dozen times before.”
Jeff’s eyes opened wide, absolutely mortified that he didn’t remember me. My intention wasn’t to embarrass him, though, so I followed that quickly with, “It’s okay if you don’t remember me. I understand that every time you meet me, you’re so overcome with my beauty that you forget the encounter.”
Well, Jeff threw back his head and laughed and hugged my shoulders. It was the beginning of a lovely friendship. When Jeff found me on Facebook – a site on which he defined himself as “self-employed” – he added me immediately and sent a note about my unforgettable beauty. Every time I saw Jeff, not only was I greeted like family, but there was as much conversation as time would allow.
And he wasn’t like that with me alone. He was like that with everyone lucky enough to know him.
The last opportunity for that conversation came during what we now know to be the last-ever WCHA Final Five in Grand Rapids in 2016. When I arrived in the press box, I was delighted to find Jeff seated there with Greg Shepherd, the WCHA supervisor of officials, and Brett Rutherford, a former CCHA referee and a current supervisor of officials for the NCHC – three great guys who can talk a lot about college hockey. For the whole weekend, though, whenever the chance presented itself, Jeff and I would talk about all kinds of things, mostly about his experience with the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team.
Jeff glowed when he talked about that team, a team that had tremendous success from the start of Jeff’s tenure in 2011. For Jeff, though, that experience was all about his players and their resilience, determination and fierce competitive spirit. In our conversations about the sled team, Jeff told me repeatedly – modestly – that the team coached itself. It was never about what he was doing with them; it was always about what those players did for Jeff.
Jeff’s death from pancreatic cancer came as a surprise to nearly everyone. There is a good deal of talk this week about how sick Jeff was and when he learned of his diagnosis – the speculation is that he learned recently — and how he told practically no one. I was trying to set up an interview with him for an article that the American Hockey Coaches Association wanted, something to preserve Jeff’s impressive legacy. Jeff and I were playing electronic tag during the entire time he was very ill. I never knew.
To my very great sadness, that interview never materialized. To my everlasting sadness, Jeff Sauer is gone. I can never give him the memorial he deserves. All I can do now is share a few stories about a man who taught me what it is to be truly unforgettable.