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Vairo's road to USHHOF began as midget coach

by Dan Myers

MINNEAPOLIS -- There are few men in the world who can tell stories like Lou Vairo.

How many other people can claim to be friends with both Viktor Tikhonov and Herb Brooks -- bench adversaries when the U.S. knocked off the Soviet Union in the "Miracle On Ice" at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics?

"Viktor Tikhonov was something else," Vairo said. "He was the most demanding coach who ever lived. He's just unbelievable. He was appreciated and well-respected by the Russian public. He brought glory to his country."

Tikhonov passed away Nov. 24 after a long illness. Vairo returned from Moscow last Sunday after attending his good friend's funeral. Four days later, he was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.

Despite being on opposite sides of the "Miracle On Ice," Vairo said Brooks and Tikhonov were a lot alike.

"Neither one of them were, what I would say, warm personalities," Vairo said. "They were a little bit detached, very demanding, very smart men. And they were winners, no doubt about it."

Brooks is credited by many as helping to revolutionize the style of hockey in the United States, incorporating more of a Soviet influence during the run-up to 1980.

It was a change Vairo had actually begun to use in the mid-1970s after a trip to the Soviet Union and a meeting with Anatoli Tarasov, considered the father of Russian hockey.

"It was fascinating. I am a big fan of the type of hockey they play," Vairo said. "They've pretty well proved how outstanding they were when they beat Canada's best on many occasions."

Vairo followed Brooks as coach of the U.S. Olympic team at the 1984 Sarajevo Games, a job nobody wanted after the success of the 1980 team. With an average age of 21, the U.S went on to finish seventh that year.

"I didn't think I was ready to do that and I didn't want to do it, but we could not find a coach," Vairo said. "I was going to do something else, but I took it and it ended up being the greatest experience in hockey in my life. It was a great hockey team, great players that were very, very young, the youngest team ever. That was a fabulous experience.

"I'm really sad and disappointed the world didn't get to see how good they were. They were really, really good. There were 16-year old kids on that team."

In the years since, Vairo has gone back to the Olympics (he assisted Brooks with the 2002 U.S. team) and been an assistant coach in the NHL. Not bad for a guy who thought he was going to be coaching "little people" when he was asked to coach his first midget hockey team in 1966.

"I never thought about, never entered my mind, couldn't have cared less to be honest with you," Vairo said of his election to the USHHOF. "I do care now, now that it's happened. I just enjoyed it, being around the people, the players, the coaches, the administrators. I got paid to do what I love. I had a hobby that I got a salary for. How could you beat that?"

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