It's a gray morning in mid-November, and the bus is moving along a highway somewhere on the outskirts of Buffalo, where the 1984 U.S. Olympic hockey team would play an exhibition game that night. The 24 members of the team are flushed from their morning workout, and the conversation is lively. Lou Vairo, the coach, turns and kneels on his seat at the front of the bus to face his team. At 38, he's somewhat round in the body and has a boyishly expressive face and manner.
All eyes go to him as he barks out an order in a distinctly Brooklyn accent. Vairo (rhymes with HAIR-o) is in a good mood, so one of the players nearest him. Providence College's Paul Guay, 20, kids him about his malapropisms. Vairo experiments with language: He speaks a little German, Italian, Polish, Russian, Czech—and English. He has been heard to tell his players to go put on their "veneers" instead of their velours, and if one of them puts on airs, Vairo dismisses him as "presentuous." Someday Vairo hopes to have a fancy home with all the "anemones." Such errors constitute a running joke with the team, and Vairo, a natural ham, does little to discourage it.
"Hey, Lou. Teach me some vocabulary," Guay says.
"How about 'benched'?" Vairo says, not missing a beat. "Add that to your vocabulary." There's laughter and hooting from the back of the bus. The stage is Vairo's now, and he holds onto it. "All right, you college birds, since you're so smart: What country did Idi Amin run?"
December 12, 1983
Mark Fusco, 22, a small defenseman who was voted the top college hockey player in the country last year, answers, "Uganda."
"You went to Harvard," Vairo says. "Somebody else. Chelios. You went to Wisconsin. Who's the governor of Wisconsin?"
Chris Chelios, 21, who helped lead the Badgers to the 1983 NCAA hockey championship—beating Harvard 6-2 in the final—shrugs. "Who cares?" he asks. Chelios, who is expected to join the Montreal Canadiens after the Games, lists San Diego as his hometown.
Vairo is becoming more animated: "Who's the prime minister of Israel?"
Someone from the back answers, "Menachem Begin."
Vairo, enjoying it: "Wrong! You guys never read the newspapers. How can you understand the world around you if you don't read the newspapers? I'm not talking about the sports section."
From the back of the bus Phil Verchota, the U.S. captain, the player who's called the Old Man, raises his voice. Verchota, 26, is one of two members of this team who was also on the gold medal winner at Lake Placid. John Harrington, also 26, is the other. "All right, Lou," Verchota says. "Here's one for you. What's the equation for depreciating an asset on a straight line basis?"
Vairo breaks into a grin and says, "For a guy who never worked a day in his life, you know an awful lot about money, Verchota. Stick around another four years. There's a 1988 Olympics coming up."
More laughter and hooting ensue, and then several players ask Vairo to switch to sports trivia. "College birds," he scoffs. "All right. You want sports questions? Who had the best overhand curve-ball in baseball history?" Several names are shouted out, but Vairo shakes his head. "Nobody knows? Camilo Pascual," he says.
Scott Fusco, 20, a Harvard lad like his brother, protests, "That's an opinion."
"That's not an opinion," Vairo says. "That's my opinion. That's fact. All right, one more. True or false. In 1976 the Polish National Team lost to the Russians in the Olympics in Innsbruck 16-1, one of the most humiliating defeats in Olympic hockey history. Two months later, that same Polish team defeated the Soviets in the world championships at Katowice, Poland by the score of 6-4, giving the title to the Czechs—a defeat so crushing to the U.S.S.R. that the Soviet coach, Boris Kulagin, left the country to coach in Denmark for two years. Show your hands. How many of you think that's true?" About half the hands go up. "How many think that's false?" About half the hands go up again, many of them the same hands as before. "It's true," Vairo says, relishing it. "It's absolutely true."
Except for Verchota and Harrington, the cast of characters has changed completely since February 1980, when the U.S. Olympic hockey team wrote its glorious tale in Lake Placid. There's no flag-wrapped Goalie Jim Craig, no Captain Mike Eruzione waving his teammates onto the podium beside him, no iron-fisted Coach Herb Brooks. That's all in the past. It's ridiculous to say that the 1984 Olympic hockey team is defending the gold medal. The only team that could have done so is scattered across the continent. In its place, starting a new story, is a group of youngsters, three of whom are still in high school, for heaven's sake. Average age: 21, a full year younger than those Miracle Kids of 1980. Pat LaFontaine (SI, March 28), the 1984 team's leading scorer in the 44 exhibition games it had played through last weekend, was at home in Waterford, Mich., celebrating his 15th birthday the night of Feb. 22, 1980, when the U.S. defeated the Soviets 4-3 at Lake Placid. LaFontaine's club at the time was the Autobahn Midgets. Chelios, the top defenseman on the '84 squad, was on a bus somewhere in Saskatchewan, traveling to a Tier Two junior hockey game with the Moose Jaw Canucks. Forward Ed Olczyk, an eighth-grader then, was in his suburban Chicago home calling SportsPhone for U.S.-U.S.S.R. scores, because the telecast of the game was to be tape delayed. Defending the gold medal? Most of these guys have never even seen a gold medal. Says Vairo: "It's an insult even to compare the two teams. I still get that emotional lump when I think of what the 1980 bunch accomplished. All we've done so far is win a few exhibition games."
Still, the 1984 team has won some of those exhibitions so impressively—it was 26-11-7 as of last Saturday, including 3-3-1 against NHL clubs and 3-4-3 vs. the Canadian Olympic team—that hockey people have been taking careful notice. The U.S. players are big, fast and highly skilled with the puck, and they have two strong goaltenders in Marc Ben-rend and Bob Mason. David Poile, general manager of the Washington Capitals, said after his team lost 2-1 to the Olympians: "They're every bit as good as the 1980 team. We played our whole lineup, and territorially they controlled the play. They're well coached, the system they're playing is similar to the one Brooks used, they're quicker than pro teams, and in LaFontaine they have a player who is probably better than any individual who played in 1980. But that has no bearing on whether they're going to win a medal."
One thing that does have a bearing on that is how the U.S. plays in February. Its first five games at Sarajevo will be against Canada, Czechoslovakia, Norway, Austria and Finland. If America finishes first or second in that division—a realistic goal—it would advance to the medal round, in which it would meet two other countries, most likely Russia and Sweden. This time there would be no element of surprise or home-ice advantage for the U.S. as there was at Lake Placid. "I watched the world championships last year in Munich," Vairo says, "and I guarantee you we're going in as the underdogs. The Czechs have their best team since the mid-'70s, the Swedes are technically as good as any club in the world, the Finns have a new coach and are young and enthusiastic, and the Russians want their gold medal back. One NHL general manager who was there shook my hand, patted me on the back and said, 'Lou, I wish you all the luck in the world. I'm glad I'm in the Patrick Division.' "
Vairo's story is one of the most remarkable in hockey. The Brooklyn-born Vairo ice-skated only a few times before he was 21. One day in 1966 he was waiting to watch a youth hockey game at the Flushing Meadow rink, and the referee didn't show up. So someone handed Vairo a pair of skates. He gamely spent the next hour refereeing while pulling himself along the sideboards. Even though he wasn't much of an ice-skater, Vairo had always been semi-addicted to the game. He had played roller hockey in the streets of Brooklyn all his life and at age 15 had saved up $70 to buy a season ticket for the Madison Square Garden balcony to watch the Rangers of Gump Worsley, Camille Henry and Andy Bathgate. To this day his eyes shine at the memory of seeing Gordie Howe score his 500th goal. Shortly after surviving his refereeing stint, Vairo filled in for an absentee coach of a Midget team, whereupon he decided to teach himself to skate and started reading books on coaching. For the next eight years Vairo volunteered his time as coach for New York City teams at all levels from mite [ages 6-8] to the Junior B [ages 16-20] New York Metropolitan League, in which such NHL players as Nick Fotiu and Joe and Brian Mullen got their start. It was grass-roots hockey in the asphalt jungle.
"I was a great lover of the game," Vairo says, "and a very good player in roller hockey, which has many of the same fundamentals and tactics as ice hockey. I resent it sometimes when people say, 'You never played organized hockey.' I wasn't lucky enough to be born in Canada, or Minnesota, or Massachusetts, or Michigan, and some people in hockey think you can only be a coach if you come from those areas. Well, it's not true. The great Coach Anatoly Tarasov, the father of Russian hockey, once told me, 'You don't coach with your feet, you coach with your brains and your heart.' "
Vairo first fell under Tarasov's influence in 1974 when, by using up his savings and borrowing additional funds, he traveled to the U.S.S.R. to study Soviet training techniques with a group of North American coaches, including Fred Shero, then coach of the Philadelphia Flyers. International hockey was just opening up at the time, and Vairo was receptive to what he saw. Being essentially an outsider to the sport, he didn't have a bunch of preconceived notions of how things should be done. "It was excellent," Vairo remembers. "On-ice and off-ice lectures and demonstrations. Tactics. Conditioning. It reminded me of American football, the way they had specialists to teach all the different areas. Tarasov gave me some advice. He told me: 'Lou, if you want to be a good coach, don't copy. All you'll get is a cheap reproduction. Don't let the professionals dictate to you. Borrow from all schools, look at the nature of your people, and use their strengths to let them express themselves. Use your imagination, don't be afraid to try something new and don't pick up the pucks after practice.' "
Armed with this philosophy and bursting with ideas, Vairo returned to coach in New York, but was frustrated by the lack of ice-time available to his teams. So in 1975, when he heard about a coaching job that had opened up on a Junior A team in Austin, Minn., Vairo was quick to apply by phone.
"Where are you calling from?" one of the owners of the team, Lynn McAlister, asked.
"Brooklyn, New York," Vairo replied.
"Yeah. You sound like you're from Brooklyn. What kind of experience do you have? We're looking for a man with both experience and a reputation in coaching."
"I'm experienced. I've been coaching seven or eight years, and I'd love the opportunity. What's it offer?"
"Ten thousand a year, a car, plus expenses."
"I'll take it!" said Vairo, who at the time was making only $6,000 or $7,000 a year as an air conditioner repairman.
McAlister was taken aback. "Yeah, well, I didn't offer it to you."
The next day Vairo called back and got the president of the Austin Mavericks, Jim Weber. "What did Lynn say we were offering?" he asked Vairo.
"Ten thousand, a car, plus expenses."
"Well, that's changed. How's this sound? No expenses, no car, and four thousand."
Vairo sighed. "I'll take it." Pause. "Are you offering it?"
Vairo, who just wanted a chance to coach, was ready to offer Weber $4,000 for the job.
Weber could hardly be blamed for his misgivings. It was such a bizarre notion, recruiting a former roller hockey player from Brooklyn to coach a team in Minnesota, the heartland of American hockey. Finally, after Shero and Emile Francis, then Rangers G.M., recommended Vairo to Weber, Vairo was allowed to fly out on his own money and audition for the job. "I went out there on the ice," Vairo recalls, "and there were about 40 kids trying out, plus three guys who weren't coaches but were with the organization. I decided, 'The hell with it, I don't even want the job.' I missed Brooklyn. So the first thing I did was throw those other three guys off the ice. That impressed Jim Weber. That and the fact that my shoes were shined. He was an officer in the National Guard and was adamant about shined shoes. So I got the job."
In Vairo's first year the Mavericks, a team made up of amateur players 20 years old and younger, went from last to first place in the U.S. Junior Hockey League and also won the national junior championship. Blessed with unlimited ice-time, Vairo was finally able to implement the ideas he had picked up in the Soviet Union—playing a game of puck control, regrouping in the defensive zone, crisscrossing the forwards, emphasizing the transition game. He also had his players working on off-ice conditioning and training.
Vairo introduced a whole new style of hockey to the players. And it worked. This was four years before Brooks used the same system at Lake Placid, remember, and Vairo now bristles when he's asked, as he has been time and again, if he's going to play "Herb Brooks-style hockey" in the Olympics. He told one interviewer that as far as he was concerned, it was Lou Vairo-style hockey before it was anyone else's in this country—a statement he now regrets, because it upset Brooks. "What I said was accurate but unnecessary," Vairo says. "It was immature of me to do, but why should Herb be the only one with an ego? I also have an ego. When I put that style in at Austin, no one else in the country was playing that way. I put my career—if you want to call it that—on the line. If I'd failed, I would have been back in Brooklyn. A lot of people who saw us play in Austin said the same thing that some NHL types are saying about the Olympic team now: 'You're not tough enough along the boards.' That's not our style. We win games. This Olympic team skates and is fast. This team does not get penalties. This team scores power-play goals. That's our philosophy."
In many ways, Vairo is the perfect man to follow an unallowable act: Brooks and his 1980 team. Vairo is a man with a mission, just as Brooks was. And Vairo, as Brooks was, is motivated by personal ambition as much as by the flag-waving and patriotism of the Olympics. Brooks, who had won three NCAA titles at Minnesota by the time he was selected to coach the U.S. Olympic team, wanted a chance to coach in the NHL. No U.S.-born college coach had ever made that jump before. Vairo, who has no coaching offers of any kind awaiting him after the Olympics, has an even greater barrier to break down. He wants to prove you don't have to play a game as a child to coach it as a man. It's surprising how much resistance that simple concept runs into.
Even from a few of his players. "He's a book-taught coach," says one of the 1984 Olympians. Then, in a remarkable confession, the player adds, "I won't ever get over the fact that he didn't play the game; that he didn't pay his dues."
Fortunately for Vairo, that's a minority view on the Olympic team. And that player couldn't be more wrong. Vairo has paid his dues, all right. After his stint with the Mavericks, he spent five years as coaching program director for the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States (AHAUS), writing coaching manuals and pamphlets, and running clinics. In those five years, 36,950 coaches went through various AHAUS programs, and their effect has already started to show in the quality of today's young U.S. skaters, who as a group are now far better coached than their Canadian counterparts. Vairo also coached the U.S. entries at the Junior World Championships between 1979 and 1982, and was an advance scout for the '80 Olympic team. Says the knowledgeable Scotty Bowman, general manager and coach of the Buffalo Sabres, "A lot of people in hockey don't know him, but he's a student of the game. And he's a coach. He's always asked a lot of questions, which is good, and he's got an open mind."
Vairo borrows ideas from everywhere. He heard about a college basketball coach who made everyone on his team run laps when one player broke a team rule—except the culprit, who was forced to stand and watch. Vairo loved it. So when one of the Olympians messes up a drill, Vairo will have the rest of the team drop to the ice to do push-ups. To discourage players from going offsides, he has a rule that anyone doing so during the endless three-on-twos and two-on-ones of a practice must do five somersaults. Indeed, Vairo's practices often resemble a three-ring circus, with a different drill going on in every zone, an efficient use of ice-time that is a carryover from his Brooklyn days.
One of the things that Vairo learned from Brooks was that the single biggest factor in beating the Soviets at Lake Placid was conditioning. "Brooks had that team in the best shape they could have been in," he says, "and sometimes you can beat a superior team if you're in good enough shape to play with them for 60 minutes. They could have a bad night and you could have a great night. Anything can happen."
The '84 Olympic team can skate with anybody. Verchota feels his teammates are in as good shape physically as the '80 players were. And remember, those gold medal-winners outscored their opponents by the astounding margin of 16-3 in the third period. And the '84 crew is certainly as fast as its predecessor. "We played the 1980 team," said Harvard Coach Bill Cleary after his team was thumped 11-2 by the '84 Olympians on Nov. 15, "and this one is quicker." Some teams practice at full speed. Vairo's skaters practice as if there is somebody chasing them with a carving knife. "It would be so much more difficult for us if we didn't have Verchota and Harrington," says Defenseman Tim Thomas of Richfield, Minn., "because we all know what they went through in 1980. If the coach tells us we're not working hard enough, we can look to those guys, and if they tell us it's true, well, we know we'd better get going."
Verchota and Harrington are regarded by their younger, more talented teammates with a sort of awe. They've been there. They've done it. Their quiet confidence is fiber this youthful group can very well use. Neither Verchota nor Harrington, both forwards, expected to play on another Olympic team. "If you'd asked me in 1980 what I'd be doing now," says Harrington, a teacher at Apple Valley High School in Minnesota for the past two years, "you would have had to mention the 1984 Olympic team just to get it on my list."
Verchota, who since '80 has played hockey in Finland, earned a business degree and spent six months working and fishing in Alaska, had some reservations about trying the Olympics again. "I don't know if the first time around was fun at all, to be honest with you," he says.
Four years ago, the U.S. team's exhibition season was a long, arduous grind. News that the Olympians were in town carried about as much weight as an appearance now by the unfortunate New Jersey Devils. That, of course, has changed. The affection won by the 1980 team has carried over to this group, so that people make a fuss over them wherever they go. There have been banquets; receptions, including one at the White House in September; invitations to dine with various governors; photo sessions. These kids are hot.
"We're in demand," understates General Manager Larry Johnson, who has a $1.4 million budget to run the 1984 team, compared with $750,000 in 1980. The team will operate in the black, as did the '80 program, because television revenues, corporate donations and gate receipts from the 65-game exhibition schedule are likely to bring in more than $1.5 million.
No individual is more in demand than the 18-year-old LaFontaine, whom the New York Islanders made the third pick in the NHL's June draft. A center, LaFontaine is a fantastic talent. He played last season for the Verdun Juniors of the Quebec Major Junior A Hockey League and scored 234 points in 70 games, third highest in league history. No American player has ever showed such touch around the net.
"Bill Torrey [the Islanders' general manager] never put any pressure on me to sign," says LaFontaine, who spent three weeks last summer deliberating whether to turn pro, as have such young U.S. stars as Brian Lawton, Phil Housley, Brian Mullen and Tom Barrasso (SI, Oct. 31). "We talked and he said to let the dust settle and come back in a few weeks and let him know. After watching the 1980 Olympics, this had become a dream of mine. My family wanted me to do it. It's the experience of a lifetime. It gives you a chance to see the world—we've been to Alaska, Finland, and we'll be going back to Europe again—while at the same time you're learning and developing as a hockey player. Ken Morrow of the Islanders told me after I'd made my decision that it was his year with the Olympic team that gave him the confidence that he could play in the pros."
LaFontaine will be able to play in the pros, all right; in fact, expect him to be centering a regular line for the Islanders as soon as he can get from Sarajevo to New York at the conclusion of the Games. Says one of Torrey's rival general managers, "He's the real thing—almost too good to be true. You'd kill to have a guy like that on your team."
"Those hands!" says Olympic teammate Steve Griffith admiringly. "Give me a couple of fingernails from his hands. Some calluses. Anything."
LaFontaine has been playing on a line with Left Wing David A. Jensen (there's also a David H. Jensen who plays defense). David A. was drafted by the Hartford Whalers, also in the first round, and he may be the fastest skater on the Olympic team. Jensen, 18, is a high school senior at Lawrence Academy, a private school in Groton, Mass. Vairo has matched a number of right wings with LaFontaine and Jensen—Vairo has the Olympians playing their off wings, so right wings are lefthanded shooters—and 17-year-old Olczyk seems to complement them best. Olczyk, 6'1", 195 pounds, grew up playing hockey for the Chicago Minor Hawks, but ventured to Stratford, Ont. last season to play at the Junior B level. "I didn't want to be another one of those players—'Oh, Eddie Olczyk, he was good in Chicago' " he says. "The kids playing hockey in Chicago have never gotten the recognition they deserve, and if I can open a few doors for them, that's the mission in my heart." (Chelios also got his start in the Windy City, but his family moved to California when he was 13.) Olczyk is a cinch to be among the top five players selected in the 1984 NHL draft. If Vairo sticks with the trio of Olczyk, LaFontaine and Jensen, it is likely to be the youngest line in Olympic history.
Vairo thinks he can use his team's youth to its advantage. "At Sarajevo, we're going to play on a big rink, where speed and quickness are way more important than physical maturity," he says. "Good conditioning, young legs, youthful enthusiasm—you'd better have those things. When Eddie Olczyk comes down the ice one-on-one against Soviet Defenseman Vyacheslav Fetisov, he's not going to be asked for his driver's license or proof of age. The younger the player, the more the element of naiveté. Is that a real word? Naiveté? In 1980, they were naive enough to believe in the miracle."
"I remember when it was 2-2 against the Russians in Lake Placid," says David A. Jensen, who was watching the game at home in Needham, Mass. "I said, 'Well, it's tied now, but wait till those Reds come out for the next period.' I don't want to sound unpatriotic, but I just didn't believe we could do it. I was a 14-year-old kid who had been brainwashed about how great the Russians were. They're awful shifty, but they can be beaten. It's just one game. I think every one of us believes we can do it. Every one of those '80 guys believed it. Believingness is the thing."
There are two places starry-eyed youth can hurt you, however. Defense and leadership. All the current Olympic defensemen can skate and move the puck with consummate skill. (Vairo doesn't like them to skate with the puck, insisting they pass it ahead to the forwards instead.) But no one has emerged as the rock-steady defensive performer that Morrow was in 1980. That may change. Morrow himself was inconsistent during pre-Olympic play. Chelios, Fusco, 6'4" Tom Hirsch, a junior at the University of Minnesota, and 17-year-old Al Iafrate, a senior at Livonia (Mich.) Bentley High School, could all fill such a role. "When the screws have to be tightened," says Assistant Coach Tim Taylor, who's on leave from his position as head coach at Yale, "we've got guys with the ability to tighten them.
"And we're still looking for leadership. Right now the whole team sort of reacts the same to everything. When we decide to play well, it's as if the whole team decides to play well. You can sense it in the locker room. We don't have anybody yet who can go around and grab people by the throat and threaten them like a Bobby Clarke would do."
The time you need someone like that is when a team comes out flat, or the goal-tender lets in a bad goal. Mark Johnson was the player who could lift the 1980 team to another level. Says Harrington: "When we're down by a goal this year, you don't see the same intensity that the 1980 team had. There were guys on that team who just refused to lose. And we were down by a goal in six of seven games during the Olympics."
To gain the medal round in '84, the U.S. team will need superior goaltending, Jim Craig-style. Both Behrend and Mason have played solidly thus far. Behrend, who grew up in Madison, Wis., played for the hometown Badgers and was MVP in the 1981 and 1983 NCAA tournaments, both of which Wisconsin won. He has proved himself under pressure. Mason comes from International Falls, Minn. and the University of Minnesota-Duluth. The coaching staff is talking seriously about alternating them in the Olympics. "It wouldn't bother me to play both," says Goalie Coach Dave Peterson, "because you'd always have a fresh guy in goal. But you'd be bucking tradition. It's a nice dilemma, but the question is, will either Behrend or Mason rise to a great occasion the way Jimmy Craig did?"
The question is, will all of them?
We're on another bus now. It is outside Boston or Worcester or Providence—some industrial city in the Northeast. There are fewer than 30 games to go before Sarajevo. They have two months to become a team.
Vairo is talking again, animatedly. He's explaining how in January he will show the players videotapes of Sarajevo, of the rooms they will be sleeping in and the rink in which they'll be playing. Of the town and the streets and the food. Of the people—everything. So that when they get there it won't be new. So that, starting in January, the players will be able to close their eyes and imagine exactly what it will be like to win there.
Vairo tells an apocryphal story of the first high jumper to clear seven feet in competition. "They ask him afterwards," Vairo says, " 'Did you ever jump seven feet before?' 'Ten thousand times,' the guy says. 'When? In practice?' 'No. I put a piece of tape on my wall seven feet high. Every morning and every night I vividly imagined myself going over it.' Every morning and every night. So that when the time came to do it, he knew he could do it."
Vairo's eyes grow big. "Listen. They have to believe. That's why I tell them about the Polish team in Katowice. That's why we'll use the videotapes. First, we must get to the medal round. Then I'd guess we'd play Sweden in the first game, and we can beat Sweden. Then we'd meet Russia for the gold medal. I can see it. I can see the score. I'm not saying what it is, but I'm going to share it with the team before we get there, and then we're going to have a team dream. Why not have a good daydream? It's natural to daydream."