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Jeff Sauer, head coach of Badger Hockey, checks the score board as the Badgers take the lead in a game on Jan. 11, 2002, at the Kohl Center. 

Jeff Sauer won two national championships with the University of Wisconsin men's hockey team among a host of other awards gained through a 31-year college hockey coaching career.

That doesn't even scratch the surface of telling you who Sauer was, current Badgers coach Tony Granato said.

Sauer, UW's all-time leading coaching wins leader, died Thursday morning at 73. He had pancreatic cancer, a diagnosis few knew.

What made him unique, Granato said, was what he did after his 20-year tenure at UW ended in 2002. He could have turned inward and backed away from hockey.

"Instead of doing that, he said I have more to give and I'm going to find people that need me and I can help," said Granato, who played for Sauer at UW from 1983 to 1987.

In the years since his college coaching days ended, Sauer led U.S. deaf hockey and sled hockey teams to international championships, continuing a longtime commitment to bring and teach the game to those with disabilities.

"He gave endless, endless, endless — you don't know how much time he gave — energy and love to those kids," Granato said.

Beyond the gold medals won at the Deaflympics in 2007 and the Paralympics in 2014, there were thousands of friendships and relationships for Sauer, said Dan Brennan, the director of sled and inline national teams for USA Hockey.

"I can't even begin to imagine how many it is," Brennan said. "We didn't go into any rink in the last six years together where someone didn't know him or where he just pulled a complete stranger out of the way and talked hockey with him. He treated everybody exactly the same, and everyone felt like they knew him. It was a special gift he had."

Sauer coached the Badgers from 1982 to 2002, winning NCAA titles in 1983 and 1990.

In a college hockey coaching career that started at Colorado College, he won 665 games, 10th all-time.

At UW, he emerged from a large shadow to etch his name among college hockey's greatest with 489 of those victories.

After taking over from legendary head coach Bob Johnson, for whom he played at Colorado College and was an assistant there and at UW, Sauer won the national title in his first season.

He added another title seven years later and an appearance in the 1992 national championship game.

More than 14 years after his departure from UW, he was inducted into the school's athletics hall of fame last September.

He celebrated after the ceremony with a group of close friends at Babe's restaurant.

"I've never seen him more happy," said Rob Andringa, a Badgers defenseman from 1987 to 1991. "And I finally realized now that he was comfortable telling people I have my own shadow. I did it. But he didn't mind being in Bob's shadow at all."

With the 1990 national championship team, Sauer let the seniors take the lead role in guiding things, goaltender Duane Derksen said.

"He was a players' coach," Derksen said.

And he understood locker room dynamics, said Badgers associate head coach Mark Osiecki, who was one of the seniors in 1990.

"I think he understood the athlete," he said. "I think he understood that there were personalities in the locker room and he let the personalities come out."

Sauer, who served as an assistant to the commissioner of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association after leaving UW, wasn't fond of recent changes to college hockey's conference landscape that stripped away some old connections and rivalries.

He was critical of the formation of the Big Ten Conference men's hockey league, which took UW and Minnesota out of the WCHA and fractured relationships.

But college hockey still is a tight-knit community, judging from the national outpouring of reaction Thursday to Sauer's death.

"He was one of the great men of hockey," Minnesota coach Don Lucia wrote on Twitter, "and we were lucky to have him."

"He was a great coach and even better person," wrote Ohio State coach Steve Rohlik, who captained the 1990 UW team.

Not many knew that Sauer was sick recently, Brennan said. Sauer was scheduled to serve as coach of a Badgers alumni team against a group of former Minnesota players last month but canceled because of illness.

Brennan said Sauer didn't look well at a sled hockey training camp in December, but Sauer said he was fine.

"He was a very prideful man, very personal, and didn't want people to know," Brennan said. "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."

Born in Fort Atkinson on March 10, 1943, Sauer learned how to play hockey while growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota. He also played baseball at Colorado College.

Sauer was a longtime supporter of hockey for the hearing impaired and served as president of the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association.

He took over the U.S. sled hockey team in 2011 and found another new calling.

After directing a sled hockey scrimmage after a Badgers game at the Kohl Center in November, he beamed as he chatted with team members and others outside the locker room.

"Those players touched his heart, and he returned the favor back to them," Brennan said. "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."

"Coach Sauer epitomized what it meant to be an ambassador, a hero, and a role model," U.S. sled goaltender Steve Cash wrote on Twitter. "I've idolized him for several years and will continue to."

Sauer's awards include 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.

He 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.

Sauer is survived by his wife, Jamie, and children Chip and Beth. Memorial details are pending.

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Todd D. Milewski covers Wisconsin Badgers men's hockey and the UW Athletic Department for the Wisconsin State Journal.