It’s 5 p.m. and practice is winding down for Michigan. The coaches have left the ice and the real fun is about to begin.
A crowd gathers around the goal closest to the Wolverine locker room. T.J. Hensick, Andrew Cogliano, Chad Kolarik – the team’s top goal scorers – and others form a semi-circle around the net. At the center of this offensive juggernaut, confined to his blue crease, is Billy Sauer.
For the next 15 minutes, Sauer faces shot after shot, rebound attempt after rebound attempt and joke after joke. Despite the relentless barrage, he has fun. He laughs and yells with his teammates, and argues about whether or not shots crossed the goal line.
At one point, Cogliano is sent to the bench for missing an open net. Later, Hensick throws down his stick and pounds his fists on the glass in playful frustration.
All the while, Sauer proves he’s ready to be the Wolverines’ No. 1 goalie this season. Following a summer of hard work, Sauer is more experienced and more confident than he was last year. He is certain that will make all the difference.
First in line
“Billy Sauer is our starting goalkeeper,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said at CCHA Media Day in late September.
A week later, the veteran coach qualified his statement: “Billy Sauer’s coming into the season, he’s our most experienced goalie, he should be our starting goalie and then we’ll go from there.”
Just like that, the competition was gone. The fight was called before the opening bell rang. Sauer holds the title, and he likes it.
Coming off a season in which he battled hard to keep the starting goalie job from then-senior Noah Ruden, Sauer said he’s happy to have some job security.
“It’s nice not having to look over your shoulder,” Sauer said. “Just knowing that I can get into the net and do my own thing and not really have to worry about too many other people, it definitely helps.”
Sauer’s increased relaxation on the ice is clear to his teammates, too.
“There’s a lot less pressure on him,” senior captain Matt Hunwick said. “He’s not really competing for a job. He knows that the No. 1 role is going to be his. At the same time, he’s ready for that this season, he’s ready to step up to the challenge.”
Sauer is self-assured, and it shows in his play on the ice. Asked about Sauer’s play following Michigan’s 10-2 exhibition victory over Waterloo last Friday, senior forward T.J. Hensick stressed the importance of poise in net.
“(Sauer’s) confident in himself, and we’re confident in him,” Hensick said.
Confidence was hard to come by last year, when Sauer overworked himself and struggled both physically and mentally.
Weight on his shoulders
Sauer arrived in Ann Arbor last year when he was 17. The Walworth, N.Y., native accelerated his way through high school so he could be on the Michigan roster for the 2005-06 season. No one doubted his talent, but it was clear both on and off the ice that he still had some growing up to do.
“Last year he was only 17,” sophomore defenseman Mark Mitera said. “Coming in to be the starter at the University of Michigan is a lot to rest on your shoulders at night.”
Looking back, even Sauer acknowledged he might not have been ready for the pressures of being a college athlete, let alone a college student.
“Coming as a 17-year-old freshman and only playing one year of juniors when a lot of guys spent two or three years usually was tough,” Sauer said. “There were a lot of social adjustments that I had to make. Coming in and trying to fit in as a 17 year old when you’re playing with a lot of guys that are 23-24ish, it can be tough.”
Some of Sauer’s struggles came from not understanding his role on the team. He was talented, arguably more than any goalie on the roster. But Ruden had more experience and had bided his time behind Al Montoya for three seasons. He thought it was his time to shine.
Unfortunately for Ruden, Sauer was the better goalie in preseason practices and began the season as the starter.
Sauer played well in the early games, going 7-2-1 in his first 10 appearances. But his play faltered in the second half of the season, and Ruden started 12 of the final 14 games.
“It’s nice to always battle because you make each other better,” Sauer recalled. “But at the same time it can be kind of stressful, too.”
When asked how Ruden helped his game, Sauer’s “no comment” is an icy testament to their strained relationship.
In the summer leading up to his freshman year, Sauer worked tirelessly to get in shape. By the middle of the season he was worn down. Once that happened, it was difficult for Sauer to get back in the groove and feel comfortable in goal.
“I almost worked too hard coming into the summer, and I think it kind of hurt me at times,” Sauer recalled. “I was skating probably four or five hours a day. I was working out and everything. It really kind of killed me as far as physically and mentally.”
Sauer wanted to please everyone on the team, too. In the process, he saw his game struggle and had difficulty fitting in as a member of the team.
The freshman was timid with his teammates and his coaches, often afraid to say the wrong thing or act the wrong way. As a result, more often than not, Sauer bit his tongue.
Sauer had a difficult time last season, but he knows the experience will only serve to make him a better goalie in the long run.
“Everybody tells you that having a year under your belt is going to help you a lot more,” Sauer said. “But I think once you go through it, you really do realize that coming in here that year of experience, just knowing what to expect each time you step onto the ice, is a huge advantage from last year.”
Back to basics
The feeling is unanimous in the Michigan locker room – this is a new Billy.
“He’s a lot more comfortable this season than he was last year,” Hunwick said.
Sauer is certain of his improvement. At the end of last season, he knew there were aspects of his game that needed to be upgraded, and over the summer, he worked with goalie coach Yona Fioravanti to accomplish them.
“I’ve learned how to self-assess myself,” Sauer said. “This year instead of falling into bad habits like I did last year, I’m going to be able to stay more consistent.”
Working with Fioravanti at the Maksymum Hockey Camp in Rochester, N.Y., Sauer didn’t just focus on his own game. He also had the chance to teach younger goalies the art of the position.
Sauer, who the Colorado Avalanche picked in the seventh round of the NHL Draft this summer, thinks the tutoring helped him better understand his own game.
“(Fioravanti) has me also teach other goalies which helps me analyze goaltending situations,” Sauer said. “So now, when I see myself in those situations, I can really tell myself what I’m doing wrong.”
Fioravanti was hired as Michigan’s volunteer goalie coach last week, partly upon Sauer’s recommendation. He said he was most impressed with Sauer’s improvement with the basics.
“If you want to break it down, his fundamentals got better,” Fioravanti said. “My biggest philosophy is to always watch the puck. . I think that was a huge improvement for him over the summer, huge.”
This season, Sauer says he is a more mobile goalie, one of the qualities Fioravanti stresses in his students. Sauer is more confident in his abilities and ready to face any situation without losing focus.
“I’ve been a lot more patient and calm,” Sauer said. “I panicked a lot last year and I thought over the summer it improved quite a bit.”
Sauer’s teammates and coaches agree that the time he put in over the summer will pay off in big ways this season.
Another improvement for Sauer over last year is his established chemistry with his defense, which didn’t lose any members to the NHL or graduation and added two quality freshmen.
“Just knowing a lot of people in your D-corps helps,” Sauer said. “You know their tendencies and stuff like that. And as far as just having a friendship with them already built, that helps too.”
This year, Sauer doesn’t have to worry about friendships off the ice either. While he struggled to fit in socially as a 17-year-old freshman, Sauer feels more comfortable with his teammates this year. He’s especially close with his housemates: Mitera, Danny Fardig, Tim Miller and Morgan Ward.
The louder Sauer isn’t clear just to his teammates, but to his coaches, too. When something is bothering Sauer, he’s not afraid to let his coaches know how he feels.
“This year, I think I’ve learned to speak my mind more,” Sauer said. “I’ve already had a lot of conversations with the coaches with some things that I’d like to get changed or just how I’m feeling.”
Along with a greater general presence on the ice and in the locker room, Sauer is happy to take on the leadership role amongst the team’s goaltenders.
Unlike the cold shoulder Noah Ruden showed him last season, Sauer is trying to welcome incoming freshman goalie Steve Jakiel with open arms, and help him as much as possible.
“I’m trying to help Steve out,” Sauer said. “I know he’s actually a couple years older than me, but I know how it is coming in as a freshman. Just because he’s older than me doesn’t really mean that he knows what’s going on here anymore than I did last year.”
Jakiel, who is Sauer’s workout partner in the weight room, appreciates the help and is happy to have such a good resource to work with in his first season on the team.
“It’s good to have a guy with a year of experience in front to watch in practice and learn from,” Jakiel said. “We get along well.”
On Monday, the first day the goalies worked with Fioravanti, Sauer looked much more like an assistant teacher than a student. Having learned Fioravanti’s methods in past years, Sauer used the opportunity to give quick tips to fellow goalies Jakiel and senior Mike Mayhew.
Winning every time
Last year, Sauer had to fight to earn the respect of his teammates. This year, respect already in hand, he’s taking on a leadership role and looks forward to going out and proving he’s one of the top goalies in college hockey.
Sauer is aiming to lead the CCHA in one statistical category: wins. For him, it’s the most important column in the box score. Sauer thinks he can help an already-talented Michigan squad to achieve its goals and have a strong season.
“You don’t want to jinx anything,” Sauer said. “But we’re really looking forward to a good season. Winning a few titles I don’t think is too far out of our reach.”
To achieve those goals, Michigan will need to see further proof of just how important a year of experience, newfound confidence and a summer of hard work can be. For Sauer’s part, he is certain the difference will come through.
“I don’t feel like the youngest person anymore,” Sauer said. “I still am, but just having that year of experience makes you feel a lot older.”
When he came to Ann Arbor, Sauer was a 17-year-old kid. Now he’s an 18-year-old man.