Matt Castello is a staff writer for HockeyBarn.com and a contributor to the Telegram & Gazette in Worcester, Massachusetts. In the January release of HockeyBarn's "Coach of the Month," Matt profiles Lou Vairo, Director of Special Projects for USA Hockey.
"I grew up in Brooklyn and we loved hockey. We were all Rangers fans and we loved hockey."
Those were the first two sentences Lou Vairo uttered after being asked what it was like growing up in Brooklyn, New York. Vairo's love for hockey and his omnipresent Brooklyn accent (still evident despite not living there for over 30 years) are both undeniable and unmistakable. His passion for hockey has helped shape a career that has led from a chance coaching encounter with a Midget team in New York's Metropolitan League to the bench of a U.S. Olympic team and numerous U.S. National and Junior National squads.
Vairo, 62, has been the director of special projects for USA Hockey since 1992 and has worked for the organization since 1978. (When he joined, USA Hockey was known as AHAUS, the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States, and later changed its name to USA Hockey.) For his contributions within the U.S. Hockey community and his unwavering dedication to the sport, Lou Vairo has been named HockeyBarn's inaugural Coach of the Month for January 2009.
It was not an easy or straightforward journey for Vairo to break into the hockey community. Playing ice hockey in Brooklyn in the 1950's, a city carpeted with asphalt and lacking any real ice rinks, was not a simple task. Instead, Vairo and his friends, including his brother Jerry, would play roller hockey, using a roll of electrical tape instead of a puck. Occasionally they were able to sneak a game in on ice. "When it was cold enough we would flood a schoolyard or there was a swamp not far from where I lived that would freeze over, but it limited us in being able to play [ice hockey]," he told HockeyBarn.
Like many kids whose dreams far exceed their athletic aptitudes, Vairo was certain he would suit up for one of his two favorite teams: the Rangers or the Yankees. Fortunately, he had a source of inspiration close by to help feed his hockey dreams: Madison Square Garden. Vairo went to countless Rangers games; all it cost was 50 cents.
"I was there for Bobby Hull's 50th [in a season], Gordie Howe's 500th; it was monumental. It was so great to see players like Ted Lindsay, Sid Abel, Gordie Howe, Glenn Hall, and the Montreal Canadiens and Maple Leaf teams." he recalled.
When Vairo turned 18 he got a letter telling him he had been drafted, not by the Yankees or Rangers, but by the U.S. Army. After two years of service, Vairo left the Army and re-entered society without an inkling of direction. "I was 20 and I had to grow up and figure out what I was going to do with my life. I went to school and I worked. I figured it out. I soon figured out that my passion was hockey and baseball," he said.
The birth of an ice rink in Flushing Meadows in 1965 was "paradise" to Vairo and opened his eyes to the possibility of coaching. It also unexpectedly presented him with his first coaching experience when Vairo, who worked the air conditioning at the rink, was asked to coach the Midget team when its coach didn't show.
After his imperfect debut, Vairo began reading hockey books and taking coaching more seriously. He started to dissect and compare different styles of hockey, namely the styles of the Soviet teams against teams in the NHL.
"It was Wide World of Sports on a black and white television; I remember watching the Soviet team play in a World Championships and I was fascinated," he said. "I remember writing a letter to the coach [of the USSR team] Anatoly Tarasov and I didn't have any address I just put Moscow, USSR and months, months later I got a response from him!"
Tarasov, who led the Soviets to nine straight world championships and three Olympic gold medals, considered by many to be the "father of Russian hockey", would become Vairo's mentor. When he had enough money saved, Vairo ventured across continents to meet Tarasov and soak up as much knowledge as he could. He asked Tarasov if he could only give him one piece of advice what it would be. "You, as a coach, should always remember that the players do not serve your needs, you serve their needs," Tarasov responded. "Do everything you can to help them become better."
Vairo's first paying job as a coach was for City College of New York, making $600 for the season. In 1975, he was recommended as a possible coach to the Austin Mavericks, a Mid JHL team in the US Hockey League.
"I thought it was Austin, Texas. I didn't even know where it was. Anyway, I called [the GM] and he talked big to me, 'We can give you a car and an office, and pay you $25,000 a year.' I said, 'I'll take it.' Then the president called me the next day and said he got his numbers mixed up; can't give you a car, we have no office, and we'll give you $2,000 a year. 'I'll take it' was my response." The team was located in Austin, Minnesota, not Austin, Texas.
In Minnesota, Vairo implemented a style of hockey that was heavily influenced from his experience in the Soviet Union. His team focused on controlling the puck, passing, and pursuing scoring chances through a transition game. (Kind of sounds like today's Detroit Red Wings doesn't it?) He also met Herb Brooks for the first time.
"He called me up and said I need to speak to Lou Vairo."
"Speaking," I said.
"Hi Lou, this Herb Brooks. I'm with the U."
"I never heard of them. What's the U?"
"The U. The University of Minnesota," said a slightly annoyed Brooks.
"Alright. Don't get nervous, I've never heard of it. Do you know where Brooklyn College is?"
Brooks was the coach of the University of Minnesota men's team at the time and invited Vairo and any of his players up to games whenever they wanted. Vairo coached the Mavericks for three seasons and helped the squad capture the National Championship in 1976. In 1978, he was offered a job in Colorado Springs to work for USA Hockey and become the organization's fourth full time employee. Vairo graciously accepted and became involved in the coaching education program, helping to coach the US National Junior Team until 1983,
In addition to coaching the junior team, Vairo aided in the construction of multiple regional development camps. Originally, the camps were located in the traditional hockey hotbeds in the US, but after a year, Vairo pushed for there to be a national camp with players from across the country. "I felt coming from Brooklyn, I was sick of everything was Minnesota, Massachusetts, Michigan. Like hockey didn't exist anywhere else in the country. It was old thinking, provincial thinking. I knew rinks were being built everywhere," he said.
Eventually, due to Vairo's constant nagging, his bosses gave in. "We brought in 80 players from all over the country. California, Alaska, New York, Ohio, Georgia, you name it. We tried to cover every district," he said. "I think that was one of the most important things [USA Hockey] has ever done. It opened up hockey nation wide."
"And of course the 1980 Olympic team's success was unbelievable what it did."
No one played him in the movie 'Miracle', but Vairo did have a small role in the US's improbable run to gold. Vairo was watching an exhibition game in Lake Placid between the US and Sweden and made a casual observation about something on the ice to Bob Fleming, who was the head of the Olympic hockey team, at the time. Fleming then relayed the comment to Brooks who made an adjustment. After the game, Brooks asked Vairo to advance scout for the team, follow the team's next opponent and to have a walkie-talkie connected to assistant coach Craig Patrick during games. After each period, he came down to the bench and talked strategy with the coaches.
"I don't think I made any difference at all, but it was probably good to have an extra set of eyes upstairs to confirm what [the coaches] already knew," Vairo admitted. "I know it has never been talked about or recognized, but that did happen. I was very proud to be around that team and to watch their great success."
"Other than family, that's the greatest moment in life to be around that whole thing. And those kids were great. My God, they played great."
Little did he know, but Vairo would later try to replicate the inconceivable success of the 'Miracle' team as head coach of the 1984 Olympic team.
Vairo was not USA Hockey's first choice to head the '84 squad. The organization approached several coaches about leading the team and was rejected by all. Who wants the responsibility of trying to win the lottery twice, so to speak, when winning anything but a gold medal would be a disappointment?
Prompted by a USA Hockey executive, Vairo applied for the job and was handed the gargantuan task. Unfortunately for him, the success of the '80 team drained many of the players he pegged to play for him and inspired many young Americans to play in the NHL and, in turn, lose their Olympic eligibility. Only two members from the Lake Placid side, Phil Verchota and John Harrington, returned.
Forced to coach the youngest team in US Olympic history, Vairo depended greatly on "the diaper line" which featured teenage forwards Pat LaFontaine, David A. Jensen, and Ed Olczyk. The team also featured future NHL star Chris Chelios.
From the very first bus ride, destiny was not on Team USA's side this time. On the ride over to the rink, before its game against Canada, the bus driver made a wrong turn and got caught in the torch relay. The team arrived 30 minutes prior to game time and lost 4-2., "It was just a horrible day," Vairo recalled. "I remember Pat LaFontaine was very, very sick. Chelios, on the first shot of the game, broke a bone in his foot and David A. Jensen, hadn't skated for ten days, and his brace arrived the day of the game."
"We ended up losing the first two games to a good Canadian team and a good Czech team and, in those days, the rules were you lose two games and you're out. You're out," he said emphatically. "There's no crossover to get back in, you're out. Now you're fighting relegation. So, you work for seven, eight months as a team to get to this position, and in two days, you're out."
"The world never saw how good those kids were. That was a helluva team. They were really good. We were good enough to win a gold medal in '84."
"It was because of the success, ironically, in 1980 that hurt our team in '84. Looking back, it probably would have been better to have had a different person coaching and a much more experienced coach, but they didn't want to do it."
"I don't have any regrets having accepted that challenge, it was something I really enjoyed doing. I feel bad that the players never got the recognition on a world stage that they deserved."
After his Olympic experience, Vairo migrated to New Jersey and became an assistant coach with the Devils for two seasons. Vairo then traveled abroad and coached the Tilburg Trappers, a team in the Netherlands, for a season until he moved on to lead an Italian team, Fassa. "It was great, especially the pre-game meals. Nobody knows what a pre-game meal is until they're in Italy," he said. "It's a fat man's paradise." The Italian team was the final stop on the brief European coaching tour for Vairo.
In 1992, he returned to USA Hockey, and his home in Colorado Springs, as director of special projects, a position he still currently holds. As director of special projects, Vairo has had an active role in an assortment of areas including the founding of the Diversity Task Force, a not-for-profit program intended to present the game of hockey to children of diverse ethnic backgrounds.
When asked what advice he would give to players, parents, or coaches one theme always arises.
To players: "I tell them to have fun, enjoy every minute of it, train and listen to your coaches and parents, and work as hard as you can. But do have fun. The sun will come up tomorrow. There's going to be some devastating losses, but it's nothing compared to what some people lose," he said.
To parents: "Same advice. Make sure your kid is having a good time, having a lot of fun and enjoying him or herself. Don't take it so serious."
And to coaches: "Treat every kid as if he was your own, just what Tarasov told me, you're there to serve your players, they're not there to serve you."
In 2002, Herb Brooks called Vairo and asked him to join the Olympic team in Salt Lake City as an assistant coach. Brooks was the team's head coach. "I was surprised that Herb asked me and he said I want you to do what you did in '80, same role," Vairo said. "We had fancy headphones now, not a little walkie-talkie with a battery." The US men's team went on to win the silver medal on home ice in Salt Lake City.
Lou Vairo's love for hockey is as obvious as a plane landing in the Hudson River alongside New York City. You just can't miss it. His contributions, on the other hand, are much more subtle. The Brooklyn-born Godfather of American hockey doesn't care where the credit lands, as long as it takes off and arrives safely.