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U.S. honors an international legend

by Mike G. Morreale
DENVER - Lou Vairo can recall the day in 1958 when he was in complete awe watching the "Big Red Machine" steamroll the competition on his black-and-white television set.

"I was so impressed, I sent their coach, Anatoli Tarasov, a letter explaining how impressed I was," said Vairo, the head coach of the 1984 U.S. Olympic Men's hockey team. "A few weeks later, I received a letter back, typed out and in English. Tarasov invited me to one of his clinics in Moscow and from that point forward, I was hooked."

Tarasov not only changed the face of hockey in Russia, but worldwide. He was described as a master of choreography on the ice, was a pioneer in dry-land workouts and even made it a priority to have his players mentally and physically tough.

"I remember Anatoli once working with a group of American boys and they were so happy, they were smiling while playing the game," Vairo said. "He told me that he told the boys that if they didn't smile, he was going to send them home, but that since they were smiling, he was pleased. Those kids reacted to him even though they couldn't even understand him; they communicated despite not knowing a word he said. His work has influenced every other country in the world; not just in the Soviet Union, but the Czech Republic, the Finns and Canadians and we certainly borrowed a lot of his teachings as well."

The "Father of Russian Hockey" was honored posthumously on Friday as the recipient of the prestigious Wayne Gretzky International Award as part of the United States Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony at Magness Arena in Denver. The award, established by the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 1999 and first presented to its namesake, pays tribute to international individuals who have made major contributions to the growth and advancement of hockey in the United States.

Tarasov, who coached the Soviet National Team from 1958 to 1972, won nine straight World Championships from 1963 to 1971. In addition to 11 European titles, he also led his country to gold medals at the 1964, '68 and '72 Olympics. Tarasov, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1974 and elected to the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame in '97, died at the age of 76 on June 23, 1995.

His 40-year-old grandson, Alexey, traveled from Moscow to receive the award on his grandfather's behalf.

"I'm not a hockey expert, so I can't say much about his professional qualities, but he was a great man for me," Tarasov told "When I was a boy, I had a lot of fun when he took me to the games but, the thing is, when you're a child, you don't think about the passion your parent has for a job or profession, you just see him happy and doing the things he loves to do. That's how I saw my grandfather. I know he worked a lot, so he didn't have much time for family.

"I still remember his final weeks when he became very ill and he had the television on in his hospital room," Tarasov said. "The Russian team was losing in an international tournament, and he was just looking at the set, not talking. His eyes never moved from that TV. Up until the end, he was very passionate for the game."

Tarasov's grandmother, 90-year-old Nina, asked her grandson to accept the award.

"We're very happy to be here (in Denver) and we're proud of USA Hockey and the award given my grandfather," Tarasov said. "Nina sent me here because, first, she's falling down a lot and, second, she's been busy gathering all news clippings and memories about Anatoli and filing them away."

Tarasov often regarded the play in the NHL as "primitive," and instead of teaching ways to steamroll a player en route to gaining prime position in the slot, Tarasov preached finesse and precision passing to get the job done.

"I remember one summer we invited Anatoli to the zoo with us," Vairo said. "While watching a porpoise show, where the animals were jumping and leaping, I looked over at Anatoli and noticed he was laughing and speaking Russian with the interpreter we brought along. Well, me being the nosy one,  I went over and asked what he had said. The interpreter looked at me and said that Anatoli finds it hard to believe that in a country with fantastic buildings, meals at every corner and more mayonnaise in one supermarket than in his entire country, why we can't the United States find a coach who could teach the hockey players to pass the puck two feet.

"He encouraged players to be creative and enjoy playing and working hard without pain," Vairo said. "And every player worked hard, but was always happy working for him."

Tarasov, who retired after the '72 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan, was never at a loss for words either. After the Soviet's had lost to the United States "Miracle on Ice" team in 1980, Tarasov responded by saying, "We let you win every 20 years to have good relations between our countries."

Contact Mike Morreale at
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