It’s no coincidence that the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team will be back in Madison at the same time a foundation named after its former coach has a major kickoff event.
The sled team and the Coach Sauer Foundation are linked through Jeff Sauer, the former University of Wisconsin men’s hockey coach who found inspiration in coaching the disabled players until he passed away last February.
The foundation’s missions, rooted in causes that were close to Sauer, are to provide more opportunities to play hockey and to support programs to develop players, coaches and officials in all areas of the game.
A sold-out banquet Thursday at Blackhawk Country Club, an online auction and a raffle during the sled team’s exhibitions Friday and Saturday at Madison Ice Arena will benefit the newly formed nonprofit.
“Knowing that this is the kickoff of the Sauer Foundation, it’s very special for us and pretty much a no-brainer to attend,” said Dan Brennan, a longtime Sauer friend and the director of sled and inline programs for USA Hockey.
A pool of 35 players from the national sled team and a developmental program will train as they continue preparations for the Paralympics in South Korea in March. Scrimmages at 7 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday at MIA are free and open to the public.
The team also will have a 10-minute exhibition after Saturday’s UW men’s hockey game against North Dakota at the Kohl Center.
The week of the training camp was a good fit to have the Coach Sauer Foundation’s kickoff banquet, said executive director Chip Sauer, the coach’s son.
“Once dad became involved with the sled team, it really changed his whole outlook on life,” Chip Sauer said. “It was really a meaningful experience to him to be involved with that group.
“Finding out that Dan Brennan was going to bring the team here for training camp and knowing that we were going to have this gathering of the sled community and the USA Hockey people, it seemed like a good critical mass to speak to the spirit of what we’re trying to get at: people who give back and help people.”
The foundation hopes to raise $30,000 to $40,000 this year, Chip Sauer said, to support its efforts in continuing Jeff Sauer’s work with opening up hockey to more people.
It plans to sponsor a regional disabled hockey festival in March at MIA. A scholarship fund will help to pay hockey and equipment fees for families with financial hardships.
And the foundation wants to work with the Wisconsin Hockey Coaches Association to establish an award in Jeff Sauer’s name that would recognize players for humanitarian efforts.
During and after his 34-year collegiate coaching career at UW and Colorado College, Sauer worked with players through the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association. He also served as the organization’s president.
In 2011, Sauer became head coach of the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team, an experience that he said rejuvenated him as a coach. That team won the Paralympic gold medal in 2014.
“He was the perfect guy at the perfect time,” Brennan said. “We had all the right pieces together but we needed his leadership. There’s a calmness and a patience about him that I envied so much.”
Sauer, who died Feb. 2 from pancreatic cancer at age 73, is in the memories of the staff members and players of the sled team, Brennan said.
They wear stickers honoring Sauer on their helmets and have photos of him around their training areas.
In the coaches’ dressing room, the skate mat with Sauer’s name on it still gets a place on the floor.
“He’s just been such a tremendous influence on not only our players but our staff,” Brennan said. “He’ll never be forgotten, and he’ll always be with this team.”