Legendary college hockey coach Jeff Sauer dies at 73

ST. PAUL -- Jeff Sauer, who led Wisconsin's men's hockey team to two NCAA championships, died Thursday morning at the age of 73. Sauer, a Wisconsin native who grew up in St. Paul, started his 31-year coaching career at his alma mater Colorado Col...

Jeff Sauer

ST. PAUL - Jeff Sauer, who led Wisconsin’s men’s hockey team to two NCAA championships, died Thursday morning at the age of 73.

Sauer, a Wisconsin native who grew up in St. Paul, started his 31-year coaching career at his alma mater Colorado College in 1971 and led the Badgers to titles in 1983 and 1990. According to the Wisconsin State Journal, he was suffering from pancreatic cancer.

Sauer was remembered by friends and colleagues as a fierce competitor, but also as a friendly person who was thrown into an intense rivalry between Wisconsin and Minnesota.

At Wisconsin, he succeeded Bob Johnson, the famed coach whose spats with the Gophers and former coach Herb Brooks were well known.

But while Sauer was at the helm, an intense public rivalry was mitigated between coaches because so many held Sauer in high regard.


“I didn’t grow up with the Minnesota-Wisconsin rivalry,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “So when I came to Minnesota it was hard for me to embrace it because I liked Jeff so much. It never felt like an end-all rivalry because he was such a good person.”

From 1982 to 2000, Sauer led the Badgers to three NCAA Men’s Frozen Four appearances, 12 NCAA tournament berths, six Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoff titles and two WCHA regular-season crowns. It was a stretch that included several memorable Gophers-Badgers match-ups, including for the 1983, 1988 and 1990 WCHA championships.

“People probably thought we didn’t get along, but we did,” said former Gophers coach Doug Woog. “Jeff was a good guy – maybe to the fault of being too good. If anybody criticized Jeff, they said, ‘He’s too nice.’ I don’t know how anybody could be too nice, but I don’t think anybody disliked Jeff. He took care of a lot of kids.”

He played high school hockey at Washington High School in St. Paul, graduating in 1961, and continuing his hockey career at Colorado College.

Woog competed against Sauer in high school, college and eventually across benches as coaches.

But he said even long after both retired from coaching, they still joked about their high school hockey games against each other.

In one instance, a spring hockey game at Woog’s South St. Paul High School against Sauer’s Washington High School was ended early because of warm weather and poor ice conditions. In the decades that followed, they still argued about who would have won that game.

“It was always a joke between Jeff and I that we won the game, no we won the game,” Woog said. “We contended to the end that our school would have won.”


Sauer endeared himself to fellow coaches, Lucia said, because he was passionate about helping smaller programs.

When Lucia got his first coaching gig at Alaska-Fairbanks, Sauer offered advice. When Lucia coached at Sauer’s alma mater Colorado College, he offered to help in any way possible.

“He was one of those ambassadors that even though he was at Wisconsin, he was concerned with all the other schools too,” Lucia said. “It wasn’t just the big schools. A Division III school was equally important to him. He always looked out for the little guy.”

Sauer most recently had been coaching Team USA’s sled hockey team. Under his guidance, the U.S. won the gold medal at the 2012 International Paralympic Committee Ice Sledge Hockey World Championship and the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.

“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,” read a statement from the WCHA. “Words cannot express our sorrow at his loss, nor the gratitude for the joy he brought to our lives.”

Sauer also was president of the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association and led the U.S. to gold at the 2007 Deaflympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“We are saddened to learn of the passing of Jeff Sauer,” the Badgers’ hockey program said on Twitter. “He was a great friend, representative of Wisconsin & incredible ambassador for hockey.”

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