The shock of their coach’s passing was sudden and hard. But if anyone can take a bigger hit, only to discover even more motivation, it’s the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team.
Head coach Jeff Sauer (Madison, Wis.), 73, died Feb. 2 and left an immediate void with the players, the program and the sport.
“He was like a grandfather figure to me,” defenseman Nikko Landeros said. “Sauer was the best coach I’ve ever had in my life. And he was a better man, a role model.”Early in their relationship, though, there were times when Landeros’ youthful enthusiasm was on full display.
“There were a couple of shouting matches after I talked back,” he said.
In the end, Sauer, a 2014 U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame inductee, made his points stick.
“I can be hardheaded sometimes and he was very understanding,” Landeros said with a laugh last week, taking a break from his preparations to travel to Gangneung, South Korea, for the 2017 Para Sled Hockey World Championship from April 11-20. “Coach Sauer taught me to be a genuine guy and that’s why I’m an alternate captain now."
Guy Gosselin (Grafton, Wis.) returned to the program to help fill the void and will work the bench for Team USA during the world championship. He will attempt to guide the program to consecutive gold medals, matching the achievement of the 2009 and 2012 teams. No other program in the world has even accomplished that feat once.
Gosselin, who served as Sauer’s assistant from 2011-15, understands the impact the former coach had on players. He understands the bond the team shared as they captured six consecutive international titles together, including the World Sled Hockey Challenge last December that turned out to be Sauer’s last stand.
“I am honored they asked me to coach through the world championship,” Gosselin said. “This is a tight-knit group. The guys have been focused [during two recent training camps] and they’re looking good and are prepared mentally.”
During his time coaching with Sauer, Gosselin said they “complemented each other,” and added that while he will coach the team his way, he will follow in Sauer’s footsteps and leave room for the players to take care of business in a familiar environment. “Sauer created a culture, paved the way” for the team’s recent dominance, he said.
Landeros said the players’ familiarity with Gosselin aided the transition.
“It's great that USA Hockey was able to bring Gosselin in,” he added. “For us, he's more than a great coach who knows our style of play. He was close with Coach Sauer, too, so he wants to win in Sauer's honor as much as we do. Hopefully, Coach Gosselin can be with us through the next Paralympics."
(L to R) General Manager Dan Brennan, late Head Coach Jeff Sauer and new Head Coach Guy Gosselin
Under Gosselin, the team came together for two four-day camps to regroup and move ahead, beginning in Charlotte, North Carolina in February. The club held a final camp – its rehearsal before the world championship – in Santa Barbara, California.
“Everyone is fired up,” Landeros said. “It’s going to be a long trip over the pond, but we are ready to go.”
Asked how the California camp transpired, Landeros, a Colorado resident, said once he got past admiring the California climate and its palm trees, he settled into the work with his teammates. He liked what he saw. “We are looking faster,” he said.
Gosselin and Sauer helped Team USA claim Paralympic gold in 2014
Like Sauer before him, Gosselin will be challenged by the rivalry with Canada. Landeros particularly highlighted Canada as one of the tournament’s favorites. Team USA topped Team Canada, 5-2, in the World Sled Hockey Challenge final last December.
Forward Declan Farmer (Tampa, Fla.) collected eight goals among 17 points to finish as the tournament’s leading scorer. He also established a Team USA record for most goals at the event, breaking Landeros’ previous mark of seven.
Landeros is confident Team USA’s offense will continue to flourish. And he knows, backed by captain Andy Yohe, “we are stacked on D with hard hitters and smart players.”
As for the goaltending, there are no questions there.
“It’s awesome,” Landeros said. “Steve Cash is the best in the world and Bo Reichenbach is on my club team so we’re fortunate to have two of the best goaltenders in the world.”
Cash, a mainstay in the crease since 2006, will be attempting to capture his fourth world championship gold medal in five appearances.
Landeros summed up Team USA’s inspiration, simply stating the players are out to honor Sauer’s legacy.
“We have the fire and we want to go out and play for coach and win for coach,” Landeros said. “With coach passing, we want to make the family proud. We have something to prove.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
|Date (U.S)||Opponent||Result||U.S. Player of Game|
|April 12||Sweden||W, 7-0||Brody Roybal|
|April 13||Italy||W, 9-1||Declan Farmer|
|April 15||Germany||W, 9-0||Josh Pauls|
|April 17||Canada||W, 2-1||Kevin McKee|
|April 17||Norway||W, 6-0||Tyler Carron|
|April 19||Korea||W, 5-0||Jack Wallace|
|L, 1-4||Andy Yohe|