Michigan goalie Billy Sauer’s home on the ice wasn’t always in the crease.
“I was always a forward,” Sauer said. “And then it got to the point where I always wanted to be in the net. One of my teammates (and I) would switch up, and whenever I did it I loved it. So I made a transition. I would play forward some games and then play in goal. Then I just became a goaltender.”
And that is how a college hockey goalie was born. And not just any college hockey goalie. Sauer has become fifth in a line of Michigan goalies that have started their freshman year – a list that includes Steve Shields, Marty Turco, Josh Blackburn and Al Montoya.
But Sauer doesn’t feel the weight of tradition on his shoulders.
“Obviously there is a lot of tradition here,” Sauer said after a routine afternoon practice. “A lot of great goaltenders have come through this program. But what I said to myself was, ‘Don’t try and be Turco or try and fill Montoya’s shoes. Just be who you are.’ “
Sauer’s road to Ann Arbor wasn’t a typical one for a college athlete, especially a hockey player. Most spend years from the time they can walk to hone their skills at a specific position, whether it be a forward, defenseman or even goalie. But for Sauer, his journey lasted just three years.
From his freshman year on junior varsity to a season with the Buffalo Saints Midget Program – a club team touted as one of New York’s best – to a year with the Chicago Steel of the USHL, everything has happened for the Walworth, N.Y., native.
Sauer went unnoticed his freshman year, but began talking with colleges after leading the Saints to a national championship the next season. At 16, Sauer moved to Chicago to play with the Steel – becoming the youngest player in the USHL – posting a 12-12-0 record for the team. Originally he was going to stay one more year in the USHL, but the unexpected departure of Montoya to the NHL opened up a spot, and the freshman fast-tracked his final year at Lockport Township High School in Illinois to enroll at Michigan for the fall.
“Nobody thought I would be playing college hockey a few years ago,” Sauer said. “And here I am playing a year early for Michigan.”
Despite the occasional shaky performance, the future looks very bright for Sauer. In 16 starts this season, he has posted a 10-5-1 record. His save percentage is .904, and he has a goals against average of 2.91. His performance during the first half of the season caught the eyes of NHL scouts, and, in November, he was named the top draft eligible U.S. collegiate goalie by the NHL Central Scouting Service.
According to Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson, Sauer still has a lot to learn before he reaches his full potential, such as learning how to come back out and refocus after posting a shutout the night before. Against Alaska-Fairbanks, Sauer allowed four goals in the series’ second game. But Berenson is still pleased with the way the freshman has been playing all season long.
“I think he’s better (than we anticipated),” Berenson said. “He’s coming in at the age of 17. He’s six years younger than (senior goalie) Noah (Ruden) and that’s a lot. A lot of hockey, a lot of practices, a lot of games and a lot of experiences. But I like the kid.”
When asked what his favorite memory of the past three years was, Sauer responded with the national championship he won with the Saints. Michigan fans can only hope a national championship with the Wolverines will become his new favorite.