Congratulations are in order for Wisconsin Badgers greats Jeff Sauer and Mark Johnson who were honored in St. Paul last night by the NHL and USA Hockey as recipients of the Lester Patrick Award for their service to the game in the U.S.
The contributions these two men have made to the sport, particularly on the collegiate and national levels, have only helped to grow both men’s and women’s hockey in this country.
They, and fellow honorees Toni Rossi and Bob Pulford, were made available to the media prior to the event and both men shared their opinion of the sweeping changes to take effect in college hockey in two years.
Though their passion for the Badgers, college hockey, and USA Hockey is similar, their thoughts on the recent evolution of college hockey are not.
Let’s begin with Johnson’s take.
“I remember my freshman year, which was a long time ago, at Wisconsin and the league looked different at that time,’ said Johnson. “You had Michigan, you had Michigan State, you had Notre Dame in the WCHA at that time and my freshman year we played Michigan seven times and ended up winning a national championship.
“The league changed several years after that, it’s now changing again, and I think the scary part, or the uncertainty of the whole situation, is what are the leagues going to look like and what’s the growth going to be like in the next four to five years as these leagues start to take shape and they start playing each other? But you look around college hockey, you look around at the fan base at the different programs, you look around at the passion that a lot of the coaches have working with these players and, when the dust is all settled, I think college hockey will be fine.”
Sauer, on the other hand, admitted to being “old school” and relayed a far more pessimistic view on the subject.
“One thing that we, as old school [hockey people], have done over the course of time is protected one another,” said Sauer. “I’ll be very up front and honest; 15 years ago if Mike Sertich, Gino Gasparini, Jeff Sauer were still coaching and having programs, I don’t think this would have happened.
“I think we would have tried to protect college hockey, we always have. Amo Bessone (Michigan State, 1948 to 1979), Al Renfrew (Michigan, 1957 to 1953), all of those guys, John Mariucci (Minnesota, 1952-1966), protected me as a young coach and kept our programs going. It’s going to have a major change, not so much on the teams at the top, but some of the teams on the bottom. It will be a major blow to them.”
Sauer said the best thing about hockey is that it is a small community in which most people know each other.
“I can name 50 names to Mark, Bob Pulford, or Tony [Rossi] and they know 49 of them and that’s what’s great about hockey, it’s not like that in other sport especially at the college level.”
But Sauer nonetheless feels the sting of what he believes is the demise of the WCHA as he knows it.
“I’m disappointed more in how it happened and the fact that I think if we would have stuck together we would have achieved the same type of success and continued it,” said Sauer. “But the WCHA’s 60 years of history all of a sudden, in one swell swoop, is gone and it’s going to be tough to brand and all of that type of stuff is going to be tough to replace.”