Doug Sauter reaches into the back seat of the white sport utility vehicle and pulls out a golf putter. Not a normal putter, though. This one has a hockey stick handle. The 54-year-old, bushy-mustached Canadian who is closing in on his 500th career win as head coach of the Oklahoma City Blazers reaches a little farther in and comes out with a saddle blanket for a pony. "I put it on the seat so my dog will be comfortable,” he explains. Next he produces a red hard-covered book of poetry by Lord Alfred Tennyson. "Do you know my friend Russell Pierson at the Oklahoma State Fair?” he asks me. "He's a great poet. I found this for him at a garage sale.” Then from the floorboard he pulls two leather carrying bags. The contents range from team notes to a planner including his notes on a project with the FFA. After Sauter finished pulling items from the bags I thought, "Is that everything?” No. That was just the back seat. Minutes away from donning his skates at the Blazers Ice Centre, he walked around and opened the back of the vehicle. Dead center was a saddle. I just looked at him. "That's a saddle from my friend John Rule that I've had awhile that he let me use on a cattle drive out in New Mexico,” he said. "I've gotta take it back.” Pointing, he turns my attention to a fairly large plastic container. "Three pillows and two blankets,” he said. "I like to sleep on the team bus.”
What he has, who he isI met up with Sauter at 8 a.m. during his coffee stop at Cattlemen's Steakhouse and we visited for more than an hour. I learned some things about the man I've known for more than 10 years. But the greatest reflection of who he is came from that back seat and just inside the rear hatch of the SUV. The hockey handle on the putter is a sample of his lifelong love of hockey. He entered this season in reach of 1,200 career coaching wins and 700 victories in the professional ranks. Plus the most tenured head coach in North American professional hockey is only eight wins from 500 in the Central Hockey League. Sauter grew up on what he terms a "mixed farm” near Fairlight, Saskatchewan, Canada. The term "mixed” comes from a combination of raising grains and cattle. The physical road out of Fairlight is Saskatchewan Highway 48. But Sauter said they knew the true road out was athletics. His brother Mike Sauter actually played in Oklahoma City for the Blazers in the 1970s. Doug left Fairlight at age 14 for junior hockey. Although he left the farm, he never left a love for that life. You can see that in many of his pursuits off the ice. Sauter, who lives about 22 straight-driving hours from Fairlight, has a home about 20 steps from the Express Clydesdale Center in Yukon, which houses his close friend Bob Funk's 24 Clydesdales. Before meeting me for coffee, he had walked over to the barn and just walked along the stalls, far from sticks, pucks, Zambonis and penalty boxes. "Everybody has their outlet — at least I hope they do,” he said. Then while working on the project linked to the FFA over coffee, he told me what he told some FFA educators. "Farming is my roots,” he said. "I told them that if we'd had FFA in Canada, I would probably be farming today.” Those interests and similar types of people attracted him to Oklahoma City. Sauter said the Central Hockey League contacted him about coaching here about two weeks before the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building April 19, 1995. He was at his home in Wheeling, W.Va., where he'd just finished another season of coaching the Thunderbirds when he was watching television and heard of the bombing. A scroll at the bottom of the screen gave information for those wanting to make contributions. When Sauter's wife, Cathy, now a preschool teacher at Casady School, got home from teaching that day in Wheeling, he turned to her and said, "Maybe we should go live and coach there.” So they did, along with sons Fritz, now 22 and attending Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City, and Kent, 18 and playing junior hockey in Canada. In that first season, 1995-96, Sauter led the Blazers to the Adams Cup, given for the best regular season record, and then the Levin's Trophy playoff championship. The connection with the people of Oklahoma as well as the success on the ice "totally convinced me this is where I was suppose to coach and live.”
At practiceThe second-best reflection of who Sauter is may be practice. It brings out the people-person within Sauter as well as his humor and his love of coaching. While sitting in his office at the practice, "Grandma Hess” delivered a pan of little smokies and a pineapple upside-down cake. Juanita Hess of Oklahoma City is a diehard fan, who regularly attends practices. Besides the food, she brought Sauter two copies of "Hockey News.” As for coaching, that aspect of Sauter receives a lot of attention. So, I'll skip to and close with the part of the coach so many enjoy in and out of the sport of hockey — his humor. While at practice, Sauter was standing on the ice leaning against the rail of the team bench. I was standing just inside the bench with six feet separating us. Late in practice a pass goes airborne and the puck hisses between Sauter and me and slams against the back wall of the bench. I walk over toward him and asked, "Have you been hit by many pucks?” "Not one hit by anyone still on my team,” he laughs as the bushy mustache bounces like a pair of tumbleweeds.
Doug Sauter, head coach of the Oklahoma City Blazers hockey team, interacts with his Clydesdale named Hamish (a.k.a. Blazer) at the Express Clydesdale Center on Friday. By SARAH PHIPPS, THE OKLAHOMAN