Jeff Sauer was “a good coach … better man”

Friends reminisce about the late UW hockey coach

Jeff Sauer was such a good guy that he even liked hanging out with members of the “mainstream media,” a class not widely admired today.

Sauer, who died February 2 at 73, will be rightly remembered as a giant among college hockey coaches, winner of 665 games and two national championships. Those titles came with the University of Wisconsin Badgers, a team Sauer coached from 1982 to 2002. More recently, he led the U.S. sled hockey team to a Paralympic gold medal in 2014 in Sochi, Russia.

Somehow, with all that success, Sauer never got full of himself. I saw him many times over the years–we met when I profiled him for Madison Magazine 30 years ago–and no matter the occasion, Jeff was always the same: nice to everybody. What a rare trait that is.

“He was a good coach, and a better man,” Bill Brophy said Thursday. “It’s what makes this such a tough day.”
Brophy, a former sports editor for the Wisconsin State Journal, was one of Sauer’s closest friends and part of an informal group of old Madison media hands who lunch and talk smart at Babes sports bar and restaurant on Schroeder Road. The lineup includes former Capital Times sports editor Joe Hart, radio and television veteran Van Stoutt, Tom Oates of the State Journal, and Babes owner Lynn Haker.

On Thursday, Hart recalled the last time he’d seen Sauer, at Babes in early January, when together with Brophy they watched the world junior hockey tournament on television in the bar.

“He loved hockey so much,” Hart said of his friend, “and he was such a gregarious guy. He loved to sit and talk about sports and what was going on in the world.”

Sauer came to those Babes lunches when he could, but his work with USA Hockey and the sled team meant he was often out of town.

“It’s rejuvenated me,” Sauer told me, not long after he became head coach of the sled team in 2011.
I didn’t get by Babes that often either–still typing–but I did one day in 2013, when Sauer was talking about bringing his sled team to the Madison Ice Arena for something called the USA Hockey National Sled Hockey Jamboree.

Sauer and I wound up in a booth chatting for a newspaper column about his work with the Paralympic athletes. He was modest about it–as always–but the truth was that Sauer had been trying to make hockey more accessible for 40 years.

That started back in the early 1970s, when Sauer was running a junior camp in Colorado and a father called to ask if his son, who was deaf, might still be able to participate in the camp. You better believe that Sauer said yes. At some point, the father mentioned that NHL star Stan Mikita had recently started an initiative in Chicago called the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association. Sauer got involved, and when he and I spoke in the Babes booth in 2013, Jeff was the organization’s president.

He talked with great passion that day about the athletes on his sled team, the group that a year later won the gold in Sochi. Every one of them has a story, Jeff said. There were veterans who lost limbs in Afghanistan or Iraq, others with spina bifida, and a 15-year-old rising star from Florida born a bilateral amputee. Sitting on sleds, that in turn sit on skate blades, they shared a love of hockey and a refusal to be defined by their disabilities.
“The chemistry,” Sauer told me, “is better than any team I’ve ever had.”

I remember we also talked that day at Babes about golf–Sauer was a longtime Blackhawk Country Club member and a skilled golfer–and he mentioned my wife, Jeanan, who years earlier had helped produce the “Center Ice with Jeff Sauer” show on NBC-15. Jeanan liked him very much. It seemed everybody did.

Yet almost no one, not even Brophy, knew Sauer was sick with pancreatic cancer. He kept that private, and my guess–no more than that–is that he didn’t want people worrying or treating him differently. It was Sauer who reached out when others needed a hand.

When I was writing my piece about the sled team, I learned about a young Belleville couple, David and Beth Henry, who had a four-year-old son, Dawson, whose feet and ankles were amputated due to a serious blood-clotting condition. Their story had been in the newspaper recently.

Sauer read the story. He managed to contact the Henrys. Might they want to bring Dawson to the Madison Ice Arena when the best sled hockey players in the U.S. were going to be practicing?

The Henrys brought their son. Beth Henry told me, “I can’t begin to tell you how touched I was he reached out. I was blown away.”

Jeff being Jeff.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. See his monthly feature, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.