Kurt Sauer, one year removed from 16-hour bus rides with the Spokane Chiefs, is four wins away from hockey nirvana. And when a young man is 22 years old and can honestly say that winning the Stanley Cup as a first-year pro would rate only a distant third on his list of highlights for the past year... well, life doesn't get a whole lot better.
Sauer, who married the former Carmen Cook of Newman Lake last year and became the father of son Kohl last month, has played a key role in the amazing and highly improbable run of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks to the Stanley Cup finals.
Signed at the urging of ex-Chiefs coach Mike Babcock after the latter was named coach of the Mighty Ducks last summer, Sauer has played a regular shift and killed penalties all season for an Anaheim team that set franchise records for wins (40) and points (95) in the regular season.
Just as he was in Spokane, Sauer is every bit as flashy as your average CPA. He scores few points, hardly ever fights and rarely levels rivals with the type of violent body checks that bring fans out of their seats.
All Sauer does, night after night after night, is steer puck carriers toward the boards, clear out the area in front of the goal, play the angles, take out his man cleanly and effectively... and gain admirers for being a classic stay-at-home, defensive defenseman.
That Sauer is doing all this without playing a nanosecond in the pro minor leagues makes his play all the more remarkable.
"It's a learning experience," Sauer said earlier this week, speaking by cell phone while driving home from practice in Anaheim. "Every game was new. As the season goes along, you learn more, and you get more confidence.
"But Spokane -- being in the Western Hockey League -- prepared me for this. Hockey is hockey. Up here [in the National Hockey League], everyone is stronger, more disciplined, and there's a step up in talent, but there's a lot of similarities with the WHL."
Babcock and Ducks general manager Bryan Murray have raved about Sauer's steady play all season, though Sauer finished among the NHL's worst in plus-minus in the regular season at minus-23. Plus-minus, slightly simplified, credits players with a plus for every goal scored by their team when they're on the ice, and a minus for every goal scored against their team when they're on the ice.
Notably, Sauer's plus-7 mark in the playoffs ranks among the NHL's best. Furthermore, he has matched his 80-game, regular-season goal-scoring total of one in the playoffs by scoring a short-handed goal in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals against Minnesota.
"I circled around the net and made sure it went in," Sauer joked. "I think it's interesting scoring in the playoffs, especially when you get a 'W.' That's all that matters."
Sauer's first playoff goal probably would have set off a wild celebration in his hometown of Sartell, Minn., but seemingly half the residents of the St. Cloud suburb -- including most of his family -- were on hand at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center when Sauer scored.
"My little niece was going, 'He win! He win!' " Sauer said with a laugh. "She didn't know what was going on."
That makes Sauer's niece no different than other "experts" who predicted the Ducks would miss the playoffs for the fourth straight year, let alone staging a stirring run at their first Stanley Cup.
Anaheim, relying on Babcock's solid game plan, impressive teamwork and the sensational goaltending of Jean-Sebastien Giguere, is 12-2 in the playoffs, with six straight wins -- and those last six wins have all come by one-goal margins. Anaheim was seeded seventh out of eight playoff qualifiers from the Western Conference.
"Our confidence started snowballing," Sauer said. "Giguere is making saves that are just unbelievable."
"Unbelievable" is a fitting description for Sauer's first pro season, not to mention his entire hockey career.
Most top American hockey players go the college route -- very few play in major junior leagues like the WHL -- but Sauer drew little recruiting interest in hockey-mad Minnesota. Colorado selected Sauer in the third round (88th overall) of the 2000 NHL amateur draft after Sauer's solid rookie season with Spokane, but the Avalanche and Sauer could never agree on a contract, so Sauer wound up signing with Anaheim after also drawing strong interest from the New York Rangers.
"If it worked out [with Colorado], that would have been great," Sauer said. "But it's worked out pretty well here, to say the least."
Sauer comes from good athletic stock -- father Curt played minor league baseball, brother Craig played in the National Football League, and brother Kent is a farmhand of the NHL's Nashville Predators. Still, Kurt burst into tears when, after an impressive start in competitive swimming, he first tried to skate at age 7.
"I hated it," he recalls.
Fifteen years later, the 6-foot-3, 217-pound Sauer said he planned all along to beat the odds and make the Ducks out of training camp. Even Babcock, who coached Anaheim's top farm team in Cincinnati for two years after watching over Sauer's development as a WHL rookie in Spokane, thought Sauer might need three years in the minors before he would stick in the NHL.
"If you don't shoot for the stars, maybe you'll hit the moon," Sauer reasons.
Now, 15 years after crying when he first skated, Sauer might shed tears of joy when he holds aloft the Stanley Cup.
"In the playoffs, you only have one goal," Sauer said. "And we're not there yet."
The Mighty Ducks take on the winner of the Ottawa/New Jersey series in the NHL's Stanley Cup Finals, to be televised on ESPN.