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Vairo's innovations to U.S. game led to Hall induction

by Mike G. Morreale

Four years before "The Miracle" in Lake Placid, Lou Vairo was leading his midget junior team in the United States Hockey League to a national championship while introducing European concepts of training and playing rarely seen in this country.

His teachings stressed puck control and pursuit, passing and speed through the neutral zone. It was a style of play Vairo embraced after a visit with Soviet Union coach Anatoli Tarasov at a clinic in Moscow in 1972. From that moment, Vairo was hooked and determined to pass along this knowledge to anyone willing to listen.

Vairo has always been top chef

In addition to his duties at USA Hockey for many years as a coach and executive, Lou Vairo has always been very fond of the culinary arts and is considered a fantastic cook.

He never hesitates to invite friends and family over to enjoy a good meal.

"I like everything," he said. "Tonight I have prepared lentils with rice and then a Spanish-style dinner that will consist of 10 courses. Just little amounts of asparagus, Swiss chard, potatoes with farm eggs, since I have my own chickens.

"I'll have eggplant done three different ways, clams, mussels with white wine, an octopus salad, mini-swordfish steaks, carp that was harpooned in the North Atlantic and five different types of salad."

It didn't end there either.

"For dessert, crème brûlée with paper-thin pineapples," he said. "Hey, the most important thing you could do for yourself is eat well."

Jack Barzee, who spent 23 years as a scout for NHL Central Scouting before his retirement in 2012, has sat at the dinner table with Vairo on more than a few occasions.

"He's an unbelievable cook," Barzee said. "I remember getting together with Lou when he was in Austin and I was in Waterloo. He cooked a German dish that was out of this world. But I decided to give him the gears afterwards and asked him, 'Is that it, nothing else?' Well, Lou looked at me and had a few choice words that won't make this article.

"But I can tell you this guy wanted a four- or five-course meal most of the time; it was great."

-- Mike G. Morreale

"Tarasov's hockey was different than anyone else's and it just fascinated me," Vairo said. "I brought the best features of North American hockey, which was basically Canadian, and European, basically Soviet, and tried to mend them together to fit the culture of our people."

It worked to perfection in his first season as coach for the USHL's Austin Mavericks (Minn.), which won the championship in 1976.

"It was effective," Vairo said. "We won a championship and the players I had were the real pioneers, the first North American team to ever embrace that type of hockey on our continent."

Vairo, who turns 70 on Feb. 25, 2015, has not only become legendary in USA Hockey circles but internationally.

"He's been an incredible influence on the game, worldwide," USA Hockey assistant executive director of hockey operations Jim Johannson said. "Even though he's been a little bit removed from behind the bench or at major events in recent years, his hockey mind is as sharp as ever and he understands the modern game because he brought so much of what the modern game has become into his coaching philosophy before a lot of people did."

Vairo has served as director of special projects for USA Hockey since 1992, and has directed national and professional teams in the United States and Europe for parts of three decades.

"I think it's evident in where the game has come today that you might say Lou was ahead of his time, so to speak," New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello said. "When I was at Providence College, Lou asked me if I would host Tarasov and a former Czech coach during their U.S. tour."

To this day, Lamoriello considers it one of the longest nights of his life.

"We talked hockey and, fortunately for me, we had gone to an Italian restaurant where I had friends who were willing to fill my vodka bottle up with water so I looked like I was keeping up with them," he said. "I have no idea where all that vodka went that night, but oh my God, was that one education."

Vairo was an advanced scout for Herb Brooks at the 1980 Winter Olympics, coach of the U.S. Olympic team at the 1984 Sarajevo Games and an assistant coach for the silver medal-winning 2002 team in Salt Lake City, also coached by Brooks. He served as an assistant coach under Doug Carpenter for two seasons with the Devils (1984-86).

"I took the Olympic coaching position in 1984 because no one else wanted it [following the 1980 Olympics]," Vairo said. "[American hockey coach and executive] Art Berglund said that you only get one chance in a lifetime to coach an Olympic team and that I had to do it, so I did."

For a guy who grew up in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, N.Y., Vairo has certainly touched and influenced the lives of countless players and executives. He'll be inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in Minnesota on Dec. 4 alongside Karyn Bye Dietz, Brian Rafalski and Jeff Sauer.

"I still remember being discharged from the Army after two years of service [in 1966] and being asked by my friend Bart Grillo to coach a midget team," Vairo said. "I had no idea what he was talking about. Were these little people on skates? He corrected me, but I had no clue; I was 20 years old and just stood there and told them when to change lines."

Vairo was determined to learn the art of coaching hockey, so he went to the local library and borrowed Lloyd Percival's "The Hockey Handbook," read it several times and became inspired. Not long after he was at his grandmother's house watching the Soviets play against Sweden in a hockey game on a black-and-white Zenith television set.

"I was fascinated with both teams, especially the Russians, and I wrote down the coach's name [Tarasov] when they flashed it on the screen and wrote him a letter," Vairo said.

Tarasov responded less than a month later, inviting Vairo to one of his clinics in Moscow.

"Walter Yaciuk (a former USA Hockey volunteer) told me he'd lend me the $600 to go on the trip and it turned out to be the best investment I ever made," Vairo said. "It was the best hockey education I could have gotten.

"I'd later invite him to Brooklyn and he danced and ate spaghetti and meatballs at my grandmother's house, so it became a great friendship and I learned so much from him."

Vairo described Tarasov, the father of Russian hockey, as a master of choreography on the ice and a pioneer in dry-land workouts. At the time, dry-land training was something unheard of in North America. Today, it plays a critical role in building stamina, endurance and strength during the NHL offseason.

"He told me you don't coach with your feet, you coach with your heart and your brain, and you have to have leadership qualities, drive the boys, work them hard, but do everything you can to support them," Vairo said. "He had such a tremendous passion and commitment to his players and the game. He was more than a coach, he was a leader and entertainer; I thought he was a genius."

Vairo received the Lester Patrick Award in March 2000 and was twice honored in 1994 for his lifetime commitment to hockey, receiving both the John "Snooks" Kelley Founders Award from the American Hockey Coaches Association, and the Walter Yaciuk Award from USA Hockey's Coaching Education Program. He was also the driving force in the formation of the Diversity Task Force that began in 1992 to help introduce hockey to inner city and minority children.

Buffalo Sabres forward Brian Gionta played for Vairo on the U.S. National Team at the World Championship in 2001.

"He was the most energetic, fun-loving guy I played for," Gionta said. "He loves to be at the rink and around the game. I don't think you'll talk to many people within USA Hockey or internationally that don't appreciate him, respect him for what he's done and the energy he brings."


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