Hardy Sauter embraced the high expectations of the Spokane Chiefs, even after failure to meet them cost him his job.
Five weeks after the Chiefs were eliminated in the first round of the Western Hockey League playoffs, Sauter was effectively fired as the team declined to pick up the club option on his contract.
“The best way to put it is you can’t hate something for the same reason you like it,” Sauter said Tuesday afternoon, shortly after being informed he would not be retained for a third season as head coach. “The expectations are high and although the regular season was fairly good, nobody, including me, likes the fact we didn’t make it past the first round of the playoffs.
“It’s a time in my contract when the team had the option to pick it up and obviously they chose to do otherwise.”
Portland eliminated the Chiefs 4-3 in the best-of-7 series, winning all four games in Spokane, including the last one on March 31 despite trailing 3-0 early in the second period.
“More than anything I wanted to try to make a decision that was not based on emotion at all. I wanted to give it some time,” Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz said. “The bitterness of losing was fresh. I wanted to get over the emotion of that. I wanted to make sure we were thorough with our exit meetings at the end of the year.”
The Chiefs went 45-22-1-2 in the regular season, battling for the top seed in the Western Division playoffs until the final weekend. In Sauter’s first year they were 46-23-0-3 before losing in the second round of the playoffs.
“Looking at it after two years you have to ask yourself, ‘Did your team accomplish what you expected? Did it meet expectations?’ ” Speltz said. “As much as our regular seasons were good, you could say very good, our playoffs weren’t what we expected. Everybody would say that.”
“Not being able to win a game at home,” Sauter agreed. “In different games there were different reasons, or variables. At the same time it was just one of those things.”
Speltz was more specific.
“I don’t know that there’s one thing (but), if you break down the series, I thought Portland’s ability to adapt and adjust, and their attention to detail, was the difference in the series,” he said. “I think we had good talent base, good skill. We had to be more consistent to be successful.”
Tyler Johnson, a Spokane native and one of the Chiefs’ top scorers, was surprised by the move.
“It’s always kind of a shock when someone who has been kind of a mentor for you the last three years is gone,” he said. “I wish him the best of luck in the future.”
Johnson said he had met with Sauter a couple of times since the season ended to talk about what he could do to improve and what the team could do.
Bill Peters hired Sauter as an assistant in 2007 and the Chiefs went on to win the Memorial Cup, which led to Peters joining the Chicago Blackhawks’ organization. Sauter, a defenseman in the WHL for two seasons, including one in Spokane, was given the head coaching job.
A native of Maryfield, Saskatchewan, Sauter spent two seasons as the head coach of the Nipawin Hawks of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, going 74-29-6-4.
He had a 10-year career in the minor leagues that included twice being named the Central Hockey League’s defenseman of the year,
“I’m going to absorb this, take a day or two to regroup, and go from there,” Sauter said. “I don’t know what ‘go from there’ is, but I’ll pursue a number of things and hope to land in the hockey world. At the same time, I have to explore every option I come across. This is home base for now.”
Sauter’s father, Mike, also a former WHL defenseman, briefly coached the Lethbridge Hurricanes, making them the first father-son combination to coach in the league.
“I enjoyed it tremendously. I learned a lot,” Sauter said. “Despite what a lot of people might think, probably my best two weeks were my exit meetings this year. I got a lot of good feedback from players, a lot of good feedback from Tim. … I’ll be a better coach for it.”
Asked what he learned, Sauter added: “You can’t put them in order, a whole bunch of things. The biggest lesson I learned is no matter what the situation you have to do things your way, because there’s a flow and sensibility about it all that makes sense. If you do a little bit of what you want to do and a little bit what someone else wants, you lose yourself and that’s no good for anybody.”
Speltz said if the Chiefs didn’t have a head coach by the NHL draft at the end of June, he hoped to have a firm deadline by then.
“I think the one thing we’ll hope for is someone who has head coaching experience,” he said. “I hope we can find a take-charge guy that can build a foundation with a younger group that we’ll have back.”
Assistant coach Jon Klemm, a former Chiefs player and a Stanley Cup winner in the NHL, could be part of that.
“I think Jon is a good fit for us. I hope he can be part of everything moving forward,” Speltz said. “Of course, that’s up to the new coach.”