Kurt Sauer softly opens the door to his 4-year-old son Kade’s bedroom and walks to the side of the bed before leaning over to whisper.
“Come on, let’s get up,” Sauer says as Kade curls up under a fleece blanket covered in teddy bears, a picture of Sauer in a Phoenix Coyotes jersey above his headboard. “When you’re ready, let’s get up.”
It’s 3 p.m. on a Thursday, and karate lessons are at 4. Sauer heads downstairs to the living room of his Scottsdale home. His 8-year-old son, Kohl, needs his white belt tied around his uniform.
“This is the right way, right buddy?” Sauer asks as he wraps the belt around Kohl’s waist twice before sealing it in a knot. “Beautiful, huh buddy?”
Ever since the former Spokane Chief suffered a neck injury during a preseason game against the Anaheim Ducks in September 2009, the defenseman exchanged the life of a professional hockey player for that of a full-time dad to Kohl, Kade, 6-year-old Kasen and 2-year-old Kruz.
“I’ve been taking the nanny’s spot, the babysitter’s spot,” Sauer joked.
Instead of heading to the rink for practice and games, Sauer helps his kids with homework. His only road trips now are to soccer practice and Costco.
“The kids love going to Costco,” Sauer said. “They love the samples.”
Sauer relishes the role of being a father, but the effects of his injury still linger, still disturb his daily routine and still cloud a potential return to hockey.
“I don’t want to go out at 29 with a head injury that lasts the rest of my life,” said Sauer, now 30. “I don’t think anyone wants to be put out of hockey.”
It was a routine play that shelved Sauer for all but one game last season. The puck was dumped into the corner with Sauer chasing it. He felt a player, he doesn’t know who, trailing behind him. The player gave Sauer a light shove, but the impact surprised Sauer and his hands hit the boards.
His head whipped back and forth, sending a knife-like sensation through his shoulder blade, up the back of his head. The muscles around his eyes tightened, and his eyesight went blurry.
Sauer continued to play and practice, but he was struggling to follow the puck.
“The puck wasn’t where I thought it was because my eyes tracked differently, and so the picture I had was messed up,” Sauer said.
During his only action of the regular season against the Los Angeles Kings, Sauer stood in front of the net, batting at pucks as players cruised around him.
“That’s what I’m good at; that’s what I do,” Sauer said. “I don’t score points, but I do break up plays really well and I couldn’t do that.”
He worked on his conditioning in practice, but one day he did a figure-8 and never stopped spinning. He started doing balance therapy and worked at it until the All-Star break. When he returned from a five-day hiatus, he wore an extremely loose helmet. After a brief workout, Sauer felt dizzy, and all of a sudden his helmet was hugging his skull.
That was the last time he trained on the ice.
Since then, Sauer continued therapy for a 16-week period to no avail. He’s seen doctors specializing in the neck, spine and brain, and no one has a clear diagnosis.
“It’s a peculiar set of symptoms,” Sauer said. “It doesn’t fit into one category.”
When he wakes up at 6:30, it takes him an hour and a half to get out of bed. A headache persists for most of the day, and his eyes hurt and ears ring. The right side of his neck aches, as does his right shoulder. If he deals cards, his right hand turns a shade of purple, almost green, and his veins bulge. If something startles him, he feels nauseous. Whenever he helps out at Kohl’s hockey practice, he leaves the ice feeling sick. He needs a nap after trying to teach Kade how to ride a bike.
“He’s done treatment and never had someone say, ‘Hey, this is what’s wrong with you,’” Sauer’s wife, Carmen, said. “So how do you fix something that you don’t know what’s wrong?”
It’s shortly after 4 p.m., and Sauer is sitting with Kohl inside the Scottsdale Martial Arts Center while Kade and Kasen are bowing on the mat.
“This is what I do,” Sauer says.
But he misses the game. He misses competing. For a while, Sauer watched cooking shows on TV to compete with Carmen in the kitchen.
“I missed being measured,” he said, “because every game the Coyotes get measured.”
His family wants him back in hockey. Before every dinner, Kruz prays that Sauer will play for the Coyotes again and that he will become a better hockey player.
“They know that’s where he should be,” Carmen said. “They know he shouldn’t be in pain, laying in bed in the morning or have to take a nap or say sorry because I can’t play floor hockey with you right now, because I’m not feeling good.”
If his symptoms clear up, doctors say there’s no reason he can’t pursue a comeback. Sauer wants that.
“He’s not ready to give hockey up,” Carmen said. “And we aren’t, either.”