By Don Laible/Mark Caswell, Jr. | AHL On The Beat Archive
In a game played two days into the New Year, the Utica Comets roster is barely recognizable from the memorable 2015 Western Conference Championship roster. Nine of the twenty names written down by head coach Travis Green on the official roster sheet are names that did not appear on the roster the season prior. Some of those names are by necessity, be it filling in for a call-up or taking an injured player’s place. Others are there as part of the Vancouver Canucks master plan to develop prospects. Undrafted defenseman Ashton Sautner is one of those names written down as part of that plan.
Minutes before the Comets are to take to the freshly groomed sheet of ice in The AUD, twenty players all decked out in their matching home white sweaters and white helmets, are high-fiving one another, and bobbing back and forth forming a giant mass of players that share a common goal of playing their best that night.
Ashton Sautner, in his first game back with the Comets since his first National Hockey League call-up the week prior, quietly stands in the middle of the Comets mob clearly focused and dialed into a deep thought.
What that thought is, is the culmination of a lifetime of hockey.
Hailing from Flaxcombe, Saskatchewan, population of 111, starting his career in Utica has been a bit eye-opening for the rookie.
"Back home there are ten of us (Sautners) in the village," explained Sautner, whose father serves as the Mayor. "It’s different here than I’m used to back home. It’s crazy how the city gets behind the team."
After being drafted by the Edmonton Oil Kings in the eighth round of the 2009 WHL Bantam Draft, Sautner spent the next four seasons racking up 117 points from the blue line. His rookie season ended with a WHL Championship that needed all seven games to defeat the Portland Winterhawks. The following season, Sautner’s Oil Kings lost the championship to the same Winterhawks in six games. Serving as the Winterhawks’ assistant general manager in 2011-12, and then as the head coach in 2012-13 would be Sautner’s future head coach – Travis Green.
“We liked him (Sautner), and recognized him as a very smart player,” recalls Travis Green, from the 2011-12 series. “When I watched him play I saw a good skater that moves the puck very well; I liked him a lot.”
"Greener’s team of western guys were a handful,” said Sautner. “Last April, when I was here (in Utica) for two and a half weeks, during our first meeting, coach ribbed me about it.”
The following season, Sautner’s Oil Kings again defeated the Travis Green-less Winterhawks in the championship en route a Memorial Cup championship.
After going undrafted, Sautner attended prospect camps with the Wild and Coyotes before signing an entry level contract with the Canucks last March.
Fast-forward to the start of this season, and Sautner finds himself as one of many rookies on the Comets roster. With injuries sidelining a lot of key defenseman for both the Comets and Canucks, Sautner’s ice time for the Comets ballooned and eventually resulted in his first career call-up to the National Hockey League.
"I was getting ready for the three o’clock game with Syracuse,” Sautner recalled. "I got the word that I was going up. Obviously, it was a very exciting time."
The timing of the call-up was odd as Sautner’s parents and fiance were in town ready to experience their first game in Utica. Instead, they would be the ones driving Ashton to Syracuse to catch his dream flight.
"It was nice seeing some familiar faces in Biega, Cannata, Kenins and Pedan, when I arrived in Vancouver,” said Sautner. “They made the visit easier.”
Knowing he was called-up to serve as the emergency defenseman, Sautner was dialed into soaking up everything he could during his dream-come-true experience.
"I knew that the Canucks had six healthy defensemen, I made seven,” explained Sautner. “I committed myself to learning as much as I possibly could.”
After taking warm-ups prior to the Canucks’ Dec. 29th game against the Los Angeles Kings, Sautner undressed and watched the game from the lounge with the other Canucks not playing that night.
A few days later on New Year’s Day, Sautner boarded a flight back to Utica after being reassigned to the Comets to play against the St. John’s IceCaps the very next day.
Like every Comets player, Sautner ultimately wants to get back to Vancouver full-time. And like every Comets player, he has things to work on.
“It’s a big jump from juniors to the American Hockey League for a lot of young defenseman,” said Green. “I like the way he’s progressed so far, he’s gotten stronger and more comfortable as the season goes.”
Moments before the puck dropped on the aforementioned Jan. 2 game, Sautner and his teammates are just about ready to hit the ice.
As for what was on his mind as he waited, Sautner explains: “I was excited to get on the ice and use the experience I gained in Vancouver.”