What if Michael Sauer’s career hadn’t ended so early?

WASHINGTON, DC – APRIL 23: Michael Sauer #38 of the New York Rangers handles the puck during Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Washington Capitals at the Verizon Center on April 23, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)

Welcome to another edition of Blueshirts Briefs, a series profiling individuals who worked a short shift for the New York Rangers.

Michael Sauer did everything the New York Rangers could’ve asked of a young defenseman. He used his 6-foot-3, 213-pound frame to clear the slot. He hit with enough force to make opponents think twice about accepting passes in open ice. And he surprised many with exceptional speed, mobility, and a heavy shot.

There wasn’t much the St. Paul, Minnesota, native couldn’t do.

Nonetheless, he didn’t last long as an NHL player. A concussion and persistent aftereffects saw to that.

The injury that ended his playing career at age 24 came on December 5, 2011, at Madison Square Garden in a match against the Toronto Maple Leafs, when hulking defenseman Dion Phaneuf’s shoulder introduced itself to Sauer’s chin. Phaneuf, a rock-like 6-feet-3 and 218 pounds, hit Sauer with such force, the young Ranger lost his helmet and fell into the boards, smashing his head.

NEW YORK, NY – DECEMBER 05: Dion Phaneuf #3 of the Toronto Maple Leafs hits Michael Sauer #38 of the New York Rangers in the third period at Madison Square Garden on December 5, 2011 in New York City. The Leafs defeated the Rangers 4-2. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Phaneuf wasn’t penalized and Sauer skated off the ice with minimal assistance but never played another NHL shift. What followed for Sauer was debilitating headaches, chronic fatigue, and vision impairment. Diagnosed with a concussion, the Rangers and Sauer hoped the aftereffects would eventually subside, allowing him to return at some point during the 2012-13 season.

However, the aftereffects persisted and kept him from playing. His contract with the Rangers expired following the 2012-13 season and he became an unrestricted free agent after the team didn’t make him a qualifying offer. His symptoms stubbornly stuck around and after no other teams came calling, he retired.

What might have been

Rangers fans can’t be blamed for wondering how the team’s fortunes and Sauer’s career might’ve unfolded if he hadn’t been injured. Sauer had formed a strong shutdown tandem with Ryan McDonagh and enjoyed a solid 2010-11 season on Broadway. He had begun to make himself known throughout the NHL, and especially in the Eastern Conference, as an up-and-coming young blueliner.

Sauer was drafted in the second round (40th overall) in the 2005 Entry Draft with one of the picks the Rangers acquired from Toronto in the Brian Leetch trade. He notched four goals, 14 assists, 96 penalty minutes, a plus-28 rating, and averaged 17:30 in ice time in 98 regular-season matches. In five playoff contests against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, he had an apple, seven blocks, nine hits, and averaged 23:16 per match. His career totals also include 130 blocks, 101 hits, 36 takeaways to 18 giveaways.

What if his career hadn’t ended so soon? Would he have made a difference in the conference finals in 2012, when the Rangers lost in six games? Would Adam Henrique have gone unmolested to tap in the series-clincher in overtime?

Sauer would’ve been only 26 when the Rangers met the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2014.

The Kings won that series because they were deeper and stronger, particularly up front, where their forwards pretty much had their way with the Blueshirts’ defensive corps. Would Sauer’s strength, speed, and mobility have altered the outcome of any of New York’s four losses, two of which came in double overtime and another in the opening extra session?

All in the family

Sauer, now 33 years old, was one of four children in his family. The youngest of three boys, Michael’s brothers each saw their professional sports playing careers ended early by injuries.

Kurt Sauer, 39, played 357 matches for The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, Colorado Avalanche, and Phoenix Coyotes before a concussion forced him to retire at age 28. A defenseman listed at 6-4, 222, Kurt was picked in the third round (88th overall) by Colorado in the 2000 Entry Draft. He notched five goals, 28 assists, a minus-15 rating, and 250 PIMs.

 

Kurt Sauer skating for The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 2003. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images/NHLI)

 

The oldest brother, Craig, 47, was a linebacker picked by the Atlanta Falcons in the sixth round (188th overall) of the 1996 draft. A combination of shoulder, hand, and knee injuries limited the 6-foot-1, 240-pounder to one interception, one sack, and a forced fumble in 73 NFL appearances, 11 of which were starts. A concussion forced him to retire at age 28 after having played 64 games for the Falcons and nine for the Minnesota Vikings.

 

 

Meantime, their sister, Kelly Sauer-Collins, became a doctor specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation.

 

 

“It’s hard,” she told USA Today for a 2015 story. “I’ve cried a lot about what my brothers have had to live with.”

The Sauer brothers were one reason for the creation of Project BrainSafe, a Minnesota-based initiative to help prevent, diagnose, and treat concussions and brain injuries. Dr. Sauer-Collins remains on the project’s executive board.

“To have three pro sports players from one family in a small town is huge, to begin with,” said Tracy Arduser, a physical therapist in the pediatric department at CentraCare and one of BrainSafe’s organizers, referring to the Sauer brothers. “To have all three end their careers due to repetitive concussions just brings it to light.”

Michael Sauer: Life after hockey

After hockey, Sauer attended the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical and electronics engineering.

He then worked as a Substation Design Engineer for Ulteig in Arden Hills, Minnesota, where created substation physical and control drawing sets for Xcel Energy and Great River Energy, and performed resistivity testing in-field for grounding schematics.

He’s currently employed as a Professional Recruiter for Nordic Solutions, based in Minneapolis.