1980's 'Miracle on Ice' Gives Hockey Coach Lou Vairo An Extremely Tough Act to Follow

UPDATED 12/12/1983 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 12/12/1983 at 01:00 AM EST

U.S. Olympic hockey coach Lou Vairo is standing at center ice in Boston Garden. There to play an exhibition game against Harvard, his 24-man squad is in the midst of a grueling, two-hour practice. The team has worked on stamina, speed and agility. Now the 38-year-old coach is testing his players' concentration. As each puck-wielding kid—averaging 20.7 years old, this is the youngest U.S. hockey team ever—skates past, Vairo whacks at the player with his stick.

Up glides Pat LaFontaine, one of the U.S. team's brightest stars (see box, page 141). Vairo cracks him across the arms. LaFontaine recovers smartly and unleashes a devastating slap shot right on goal. Vairo smiles briefly. Very briefly. "Come on," he bellows. "We got a lot of work to do."

An understatement. Vairo and his boys of winter must compete with the memory of Lake Placid in 1980. In one of the most delirious moments in U.S. sports history, the seventh-seeded Americans upset the vaunted Big Red machine from the U.S.S.R. and went on to win the Gold Medal. In February, at Sarajevo, the U.S. team is once again seeded seventh. And perhaps no coach is better suited than Vairo to work wonders. Indeed, the very fact that he is coach of our team is near miraculous. As he puts it, "A lot of people were surprised when I got this job."

For good reason. If hockey is a small, insular world, then Vairo grew up on what amounts to another planet. That is, he grew up not in Fond du Lac, Wis. or Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, but in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn. As a boy in the cheap seats at Madison Square Garden, Vairo recalls, "I dreamed of playing for the New York Rangers." But since there were no hockey rinks in Brooklyn, Lou grew up playing roller hockey—a street game which, he says, "is exactly the same as ice hockey except you play on asphalt on roller skates and use a roll of electrical tape instead of a puck."

In other words, it has as much in common with ice hockey as stickball has with baseball. Vairo was 21 before he laced up a pair of bona fide ice skates. Singularly untalented on the ice, he adjusted his dream. "I still loved hockey," says Vairo, "but I realized if I wanted to stay in the game I better learn how to coach."

Supporting himself as an air conditioner installer, Vairo began by coaching a midget team in Brooklyn. He wheedled his way into New York Ranger practice sessions, read everything he could on coaching, and in 1970 he experienced something like a hockey epiphany: "I saw a world championship game between Russia and Sweden on TV The passing, the skating, the teamwork—it was unbelievable. The artistry was amazing."

So amazing that in 1972 Vairo used his life savings and a $3,500 bank loan to go to the U.S.S.R. for an international seminar on hockey. There he met and became fast friends with the great Soviet coach Anatoly Tarasov, now retired. "In three and a half weeks in Moscow," says Vairo, "I learned more about hockey than I did in the whole rest of my life."

While other North American coaches were still playing the grind-it-out, crunch-'em-in-the-corners Canadian-style hockey, Vairo adopted the freewheeling European-style game. His Junior B teams (ages 16 to 19) won one state and five league championships for Brooklyn and the Bronx. When he moved to Austin, Minn, in 1975, his Junior A teams (same ages as Junior B but higher level of skill) won two league championships and one national. Three years later Vairo became the coaching director of the U.S. Amateur Hockey Association, and in 1980 he served as an advance scout for Herb Brooks on the Lake Placid team. Eighteen months ago the U.S. Olympic Hockey Committee appointed Vairo head coach.

A gourmet cook who admits he went "from fat to obese" (peaking at 256 pounds in 1980), Vairo went on a diet not so much to inspire his team as to inspire his secretary, Joni Brown, 25. "Fat men don't get a lot of dates," explains Vairo, now a trim 200. The two were married last April and are expecting their first child in June. He and Joni are living in Bloomington, Minn., where the team has been training for the past six months. In the off-season, they repair to a two-bedroom house in the hills of Spring Valley Lake, Colo.

Thus far, Vairo's team (which has two holdovers from the 1980 squad) has acquitted itself well, compiling a 25-8-7 record against college and NHL competition. The team faces a sterner test during the next two weeks when it plays a visiting non-Olympic Soviet squad in a six-game series.

Can the Americans win the Gold Medal again? "Sometimes you get what you want if you start out with a dream," says Vairo. "I'm never afraid to dream." With his record, why should he be?

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