Old Friends In A New Game: Jeff Sauer And Mike Sertich coach sled hockey

Coaching Icons Jeff Sauer And Mike Sertich Team Up To Work With Sled Hockey Players
By: 
Jess Myers

Anytime Jeff Sauer and Mike Sertich (standing above) get together, the hockey stories and amusing anecdotes are sure to fly.Anytime Jeff Sauer and Mike Sertich (standing above) get together, the hockey stories and amusing anecdotes are sure to fly.

Make a list of everything you can accomplish as a hockey coach and set it next to the resumes of Jeff Sauer and Mike Sertich. It will be quickly evident that there is very little that duo hasn’t achieved behind the benches of dozens of college hockey rinks.

Sauer coached for three decades, first at Colorado College then at Wisconsin, winning more than 650 games and a pair of NCAA titles. Sertich coached for more than 20 years, at both Minnesota Duluth and Michigan Tech, producing a trio of Hobey Baker Award winners and three WCHA conference titles.

Life-long friends, these coaching legends were also fierce rivals for years, facing each other head to head in college arenas, and competing for many of the same recruits in talent-laden high school and Junior hockey rinks all across the Midwest.

Now a decade removed from their college coaching and recruiting days, if you expected both to walk away from the game and fade into retirement, you don’t know Jeff Sauer or Mike Sertich.

Sauer has been involved with several USA Hockey initiatives over the years, and surprised nobody when he was named head coach for the U.S. Sled Hockey Team in advance of the upcoming Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

Sertich retired from college hockey, but not from hockey, even volunteering to coach a Bantam team outside Duluth for several years.

So when Sauer needed coaching help at a recent USA Hockey training camp for the top American sled hockey team, his first call was to northern Minnesota, to an old friend and rival who he knew would be up for the challenge.

Sertich had no idea what to expect, traveling to North Carolina to help coach hockey players on sleds.

What he discovered was the most amazing experience of his storied career. Like so many people who have been around the program, seeing the on-ice ability of the top American sled hockey players changed his outlook on physical challenges.

With more than 50 years of college coaching experience between them, Jeff Sauer and Mike Sertich brought a wealth of knowledge to an already talented and experienced U.S. Sled Hockey Team, that includes veteran players such as Taylor Lipsett.With more than 50 years of college coaching experience between them, Jeff Sauer and Mike Sertich brought a wealth of knowledge to an already talented and experienced U.S. Sled Hockey Team, that includes veteran players such as Taylor Lipsett.

 

“It was the most humbling experience I’ve ever had in hockey,” Sertich said. “Seeing these men and what they do renewed my whole feeling about why we play this game.”

Sauer and his top assistant, Guy Gosselin, have assembled an interesting mix of the best Americans in preparation for the World Sledge Hockey Challenge in Calgary, which the U.S. won, and in advance of defending Paralympic gold next year. Roughly three-fourths of that team is back, with a few key additions. And the coaches are working to get the best out of a mix of abilities and backgrounds.

Dan Brennan is USA Hockey’s manager of the Coaching Education Program and has worked with the sled team since 2006. Over the years he has seen the talent pool continue to grow, not only from hockey enthusiasts looking to try a version of the game suited to various physical challenges, but also from military veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and trying sled hockey for the first time as part of their recovery from injuries suffered in combat.

“It was the most humbling experience I’ve ever had in hockey,” Sertich said. “Seeing these men and what they do renewed my whole feeling about why we play this game.”
—Mike Sertich

“This is the best group of people I’ve ever been around,” Brennan said. “The military dynamic brings instant leadership to the team. They go headfirst into everything, pushing each other and encouraging everyone on the team to work harder and harder.”

In the Americans’ last international competition, the 2010 Paralympics in Vancouver, they went 5-0-0, with five shutouts, and claimed the gold medal. Believe it or not, they’re aiming even higher in the future.

“As a team and as a program, this is the most talent we’ve ever had, which is pretty scary,” said Taylor Lipsett, a forward from Texas renowned as one of the top stick-handlers in the world. Like many American players, he has been delighted by what Sauer’s coaching brings to the program.

“He’s been amazing. I’ve probably learned more from Coach Sauer in the past year than I had in the previous eight years in this program,” said Lipsett, who has dealt with brittle bones for much of his life, but says that ironically, he’s had far fewer injuries and fractures since he started playing sled hockey a decade ago.

“[Sauer] makes the game so simple in the way he talks to players. He never blows up, and brings a much more constructive approach to things, which is great.”

Reunite old friends like Sauer and Sertich on the rink – even for a sled hockey camp – and those around are immediately amazed by the camaraderie and the chemistry the pair brings, and the myriad of great hockey stories they tell.

Lipsett said he could listen to them for hours, and couldn’t shake the notion that these two had recruited and coached two American hockey legends.

 “To these coaches, even guys like Chris Chelios and Brett Hull are just another player, just like us,” Lipsett said.

But for all his great hockey stories and his at-the-ready sense of humor, the first time Sertich hit the ice with the sled team, it was his willingness to stand back and take it all in that most impressed Sauer.

“I brought Sertie down for a weekend last year and the first time he got on the ice with the team, he just stood there, watching,” Sauer said. “After a few minutes, I asked if everything was OK, and Sertie said, ‘These guys are doing more for me than I could ever do for them.’ ”

For Sertich, one of the biggest revelations about coaching sled hockey is that nearly every aspect of the able-bodied game translates to this brand of hockey. There is more circling than the stops and starts more common in able-bodied hockey, and skating backwards is tough, meaning that the defensive game in sled hockey involves more angling. But the players are eager to take in every bit of wisdom and advice these old pros can impart.

“There’s almost nothing you do with an able-bodied team that you don’t do with a sled team,” Sertich said. “It’s just a fascinating game and team. And everything you throw at them is like water on a dry sponge.”

For Sauer, there’s a never-ending sense of wonder at what these athletes can accomplish despite the challenges they’ve been handed, and at how “normal” they are as hockey players, complete with good-natured insults in the locker room.

Some players have noted that, yes, they’ve been dealt a tough hand in life, but if not for their physical challenges, they would never have had the opportunity to compete for Team USA at the top level of international sled hockey.

“There’s certainly no ‘woe is me’ attitude among any of these players,” Sauer said. “They want to be the best in the world, and they work very, very hard to get there.”

And in those special moments when their sleds are gliding up and down the ice, and the crowd is cheering and Team USA is filling an opponent’s net with pucks, Sauer also sees these athletes get something important back – something that may have been taken away, in some measure, by a childhood illness, or an accident, or an unforeseen injury caused by an explosive device in a far-away war zone.

“For many, the toughest part of sled hockey is getting from the locker room to the ice,” Sauer said.

“But once they get on the rink, it’s like freedom for them.”
If that freedom comes alongside coaching from a few of the game’s true legends, a chance to skate for your country, and an opportunity to win gold, all the better.

 

 

Jess Myers covers the Minnesota Wild and college hockey for 1500ESPN.com.

Photos By Gregg Forwerck
Issue: 
2013-01

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