- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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"Ten thousand, a car, plus expenses."
"Well, that's changed. How's this sound? No expenses, no car, and four thousand."
Vairo sighed. "I'll take it." Pause. "Are you offering it?"
Vairo, who just wanted a chance to coach, was ready to offer Weber $4,000 for the job.
Weber could hardly be blamed for his misgivings. It was such a bizarre notion, recruiting a former roller hockey player from Brooklyn to coach a team in Minnesota, the heartland of American hockey. Finally, after Shero and Emile Francis, then Rangers G.M., recommended Vairo to Weber, Vairo was allowed to fly out on his own money and audition for the job. "I went out there on the ice," Vairo recalls, "and there were about 40 kids trying out, plus three guys who weren't coaches but were with the organization. I decided, 'The hell with it, I don't even want the job.' I missed Brooklyn. So the first thing I did was throw those other three guys off the ice. That impressed Jim Weber. That and the fact that my shoes were shined. He was an officer in the National Guard and was adamant about shined shoes. So I got the job."
In Vairo's first year the Mavericks, a team made up of amateur players 20 years old and younger, went from last to first place in the U.S. Junior Hockey League and also won the national junior championship. Blessed with unlimited ice-time, Vairo was finally able to implement the ideas he had picked up in the Soviet Union—playing a game of puck control, regrouping in the defensive zone, crisscrossing the forwards, emphasizing the transition game. He also had his players working on off-ice conditioning and training.
Vairo introduced a whole new style of hockey to the players. And it worked. This was four years before Brooks used the same system at Lake Placid, remember, and Vairo now bristles when he's asked, as he has been time and again, if he's going to play " Herb Brooks-style hockey" in the Olympics. He told one interviewer that as far as he was concerned, it was Lou Vairo-style hockey before it was anyone else's in this country—a statement he now regrets, because it upset Brooks. "What I said was accurate but unnecessary," Vairo says. "It was immature of me to do, but why should Herb be the only one with an ego? I also have an ego. When I put that style in at Austin, no one else in the country was playing that way. I put my career—if you want to call it that—on the line. If I'd failed, I would have been back in Brooklyn. A lot of people who saw us play in Austin said the same thing that some NHL types are saying about the Olympic team now: 'You're not tough enough along the boards.' That's not our style. We win games. This Olympic team skates and is fast. This team does not get penalties. This team scores power-play goals. That's our philosophy."
In many ways, Vairo is the perfect man to follow an unallowable act: Brooks and his 1980 team. Vairo is a man with a mission, just as Brooks was. And Vairo, as Brooks was, is motivated by personal ambition as much as by the flag-waving and patriotism of the Olympics. Brooks, who had won three NCAA titles at Minnesota by the time he was selected to coach the U.S. Olympic team, wanted a chance to coach in the NHL. No U.S.-born college coach had ever made that jump before. Vairo, who has no coaching offers of any kind awaiting him after the Olympics, has an even greater barrier to break down. He wants to prove you don't have to play a game as a child to coach it as a man. It's surprising how much resistance that simple concept runs into.
Even from a few of his players. "He's a book-taught coach," says one of the 1984 Olympians. Then, in a remarkable confession, the player adds, "I won't ever get over the fact that he didn't play the game; that he didn't pay his dues."