On Wednesday, August 6, USA Hockey announced the Class of 2014 inductees into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame: Karyn Bye-Dietz, Brian Rafalski, Jeff Sauer, and Lou Vairo. The group will be formally inducted on December 4 in Minneapolis/St. Paul. Additional information will be released over the next few weeks at USHockeyHallofFame.com.
When opening the media teleconference after the announcement, Dave Fischer, USA Hockey’s Senior Director of Communications stated that this was one of USA Hockey’s most favorite days of the year. And the 42nd class represents connections to some of hockey’s most memorable and historic individuals and events. Each of this year’s inductees has actively contributed to the growth of hockey in every level of the sport and with every group.
Perhaps not surprising, when introduced, the inductees all mentioned how humble they were, well, all but coach Sauer, who candidly stated that he was “stunned more than humbled.” He never expected to be considered as an inductee, but he then went on to give his fellow inductees perhaps the highest compliment that someone involved in hockey can receive when called them great teammates.
Consider for a moment that Vairo studied under Anatoli Tarasov, considered “the father of Russian hockey.” Born in Brooklyn, Vairo recalled how Tarasov came to the United States, when Vairo asked, to assist in some dry land training events that were held in 18 cities.
“[Tarasov] was a genius in hockey,” Vairo said.
He also recalled growing up in Brooklyn and remembering always finding a way to play hockey. Sometimes it was street hockey and at others it was because the Monsignor flooded a field. The pride he has in coming from Brooklyn is clear, but it is a healthy pride—not a chest thumping, just a realization of how his origins have helped him along the way.
When Bye-Dietz’s name is mentioned, hockey fans are transported back to the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano when the inaugural United States Women’s Hockey Team won gold. Bye-Dietz was the alternate captain that year. And it was after this impressive victory that there was a increase of interest in women’s hockey. And as high as the emotions could have been for her and her teammates that year, she has also experienced the heartbreak of losing to the Canadians. In her second Olympics, having already beat the Canadians eight consecutive times, the team fell to the Canadians on home ice at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Bye-Dietz was asked if the Miracle Team of 1980 had influenced her. She recalled being glued to the television, at the age of 8, and said it was a huge boost for her.
“I want to do that some day,” she told her parents at that very young age.
And she did. She began by playing on a boy’s youth hockey Mites team. Her jersey listed her as “K.L. Bye.”
In 1998 she was one of the featured Olympians on a Wheaties’ box. And in 2011 she was inducted into the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Hall of Fame. And since being mesmerized by those plucky college kids who believed in themselves and in the work they had invested before mesmerizing a world, she has since been able to talk to some of those players and considers them friends today. So perhaps this story has come full circle. It seems fitting that from their playing on TV that she should be motivated, and from that motivation—not to mention her commitment and hard work—her team’s win in 1998 helped motivate a new generation of players. And not just a new generation of hockey players, but also her involvement in hockey helped inspired girls to realize they too could become a miracle on the ice.
After playing for three years on an athletic scholarship at Colorado College, Sauer would go on to serve as an assistant coach there the year after he graduated. From there he took an assistant’s position with the Wisconsin Badgers. He returned to Colorado in 1971 as head coach until 1982 when he went back to Wisconsin. He would serve there as head coach for twenty years. Sauer is seventh in all-time wins in college coaching. In 1980 he served as a scout under Herb Brooks and then went on to serve as an assistant coach for the U.S. National Team in 1985 and 1992. His most recent head coaching positions have earned his team and the United States gold medals in the 2010 and 2014 Paralympics in sled hockey. In addition, Sauer serves as president of the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association. He’s helped select the last five U.S. Deaflympic Ice Hockey Teams and led the team as head coach in the last three Winter Deaflympics—which included the gold medal winning team at the 2007 Deaflympics in Salt Lake City.
Sauer’s time as a coach means he coached many players, which included his fellow inductee, Rafalski, who played for the Badgers before going on to play in the NHL. However, Sauer considers the gold medal that the U.S. Sled Hockey team won in Sochi at the 2014 Paralympics, combined with the chemistry of that team, as the pinnacle of his career to date. Considering all his accomplishments, that speaks volumes.
In recalling his time in Sochi, Sauer said it was a tremendous honor. He pointed out that given how the Russian people view the handicapped that it was a great showcase for handicapped people and he talked about how powerful the atmosphere was at the arena.
And while team chemistry sounds simple, when you look at the vast age range of his sled hockey team, from a 16-year-old to a 33-year-old, the chemistry of that team was as much to do with his leadership as with the players themselves.
Rafalski played for the Badgers and went on to play on NHL teams with which he won three Stanley Cups (two of them with the New Jersey Devils in 2000 and 2003, and once with the Detroit Red Wings in 2008) and he also played in three Olympics—2002, 2006 and 2010—earning two silver medals. He mentioned receiving a letter in the summer in preparation for the 2002 Olympics—coached by Herb Brooks of the 1980’s Miracle Team that included some exercises to do. And in the letter was perhaps the best known Herbism—The legs feed the wolf.
Throughout his 15-season career in professional hockey where he earned 515 career points, he ranks as 10th-best among American defensemen. And while he signed with the ECHL Florida Everblades on January 3, 2014, he was released 18 days later citing back issues.
He spends the bulk of his time in the Fort Myers area of Florida, where he serves as a chaplain. During the teleconference he mentioned his ten-year-old son and the other class of 2004 players who play together in Florida. His excitement at the growth of hockey in Florida was clear.
All of the inductees were asked about the best advice they got and who gave it to them. And it was clear from the advice shared by each that they had taken that guidance to heart.
“You should always remember you are there to serve the players,” Vairo said Tarasov had told him. “The players are not there to serve you.”
Rafalski remembered guidance from Mike Kemp, who spent fourteen years as assistant and head recruiter at Wisconsin. “Every day you have a choice to get better or to get worse.”
“Don’t blink,” Bye-Dietz said, referring to advice from her Olympic Coach Ben Smith during the 1998 Olympics. “You’re gonna wake up in March and this will be done.”
He was stressing that while they needed to work hard he also wanted them to have fun so that when they looked back they had great memories of the entire time.
“The best group of kids to coach are orphans,” Sauer said facetiously of his dad’s advice. “Because you don’t have to deal with parents.”
However, he went on to stress that the best advice he got was to remember that he was only as good as the guys who were in front of him. Those were the people who did the work that allowed him to come along.
The 42nd class of the United States Hockey Hall of Fame could be a group of people puffed up with pride when you consider all their accomplishments and the hockey greats they have known. But perhaps that is the crowning aspect of why they are a great group—each one of them was truly humbled by the nomination.
And amongst all the stories and advice that was shared by these hockey greats, perhaps a fitting closer to this piece is the advice shared by Vairo that can apply to everyone regardless of what they want to do.
“If you really want to do something. If you believe and persevere,” he said with true emotion. “You can achieve anything, if you stick with it and don’t take no for an answer.”