Fortunately for Vairo, that's a minority view on the Olympic team. And that player couldn't be more wrong. Vairo has paid his dues, all right. After his stint with the Mavericks, he spent five years as coaching program director for the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States (AHAUS), writing coaching manuals and pamphlets, and running clinics. In those five years, 36,950 coaches went through various AHAUS programs, and their effect has already started to show in the quality of today's young U.S. skaters, who as a group are now far better coached than their Canadian counterparts. Vairo also coached the U.S. entries at the Junior World Championships between 1979 and 1982, and was an advance scout for the '80 Olympic team. Says the knowledgeable Scotty Bowman, general manager and coach of the Buffalo Sabres, "A lot of people in hockey don't know him, but he's a student of the game. And he's a coach. He's always asked a lot of questions, which is good, and he's got an open mind."
Vairo borrows ideas from everywhere. He heard about a college basketball coach who made everyone on his team run laps when one player broke a team rule—except the culprit, who was forced to stand and watch. Vairo loved it. So when one of the Olympians messes up a drill, Vairo will have the rest of the team drop to the ice to do push-ups. To discourage players from going offsides, he has a rule that anyone doing so during the endless three-on-twos and two-on-ones of a practice must do five somersaults. Indeed, Vairo's practices often resemble a three-ring circus, with a different drill going on in every zone, an efficient use of ice-time that is a carryover from his Brooklyn days.
One of the things that Vairo learned from Brooks was that the single biggest factor in beating the Soviets at Lake Placid was conditioning. "Brooks had that team in the best shape they could have been in," he says, "and sometimes you can beat a superior team if you're in good enough shape to play with them for 60 minutes. They could have a bad night and you could have a great night. Anything can happen."
The '84 Olympic team can skate with anybody. Verchota feels his teammates are in as good shape physically as the '80 players were. And remember, those gold medal-winners outscored their opponents by the astounding margin of 16-3 in the third period. And the '84 crew is certainly as fast as its predecessor. "We played the 1980 team," said Harvard Coach Bill Cleary after his team was thumped 11-2 by the '84 Olympians on Nov. 15, "and this one is quicker." Some teams practice at full speed. Vairo's skaters practice as if there is somebody chasing them with a carving knife. "It would be so much more difficult for us if we didn't have Verchota and Harrington," says Defenseman Tim Thomas of Richfield, Minn., "because we all know what they went through in 1980. If the coach tells us we're not working hard enough, we can look to those guys, and if they tell us it's true, well, we know we'd better get going."
Verchota and Harrington are regarded by their younger, more talented teammates with a sort of awe. They've been there. They've done it. Their quiet confidence is fiber this youthful group can very well use. Neither Verchota nor Harrington, both forwards, expected to play on another Olympic team. "If you'd asked me in 1980 what I'd be doing now," says Harrington, a teacher at Apple Valley High School in Minnesota for the past two years, "you would have had to mention the 1984 Olympic team just to get it on my list."
Verchota, who since '80 has played hockey in Finland, earned a business degree and spent six months working and fishing in Alaska, had some reservations about trying the Olympics again. "I don't know if the first time around was fun at all, to be honest with you," he says.
Four years ago, the U.S. team's exhibition season was a long, arduous grind. News that the Olympians were in town carried about as much weight as an appearance now by the unfortunate New Jersey Devils. That, of course, has changed. The affection won by the 1980 team has carried over to this group, so that people make a fuss over them wherever they go. There have been banquets; receptions, including one at the White House in September; invitations to dine with various governors; photo sessions. These kids are hot.
"We're in demand," understates General Manager Larry Johnson, who has a $1.4 million budget to run the 1984 team, compared with $750,000 in 1980. The team will operate in the black, as did the '80 program, because television revenues, corporate donations and gate receipts from the 65-game exhibition schedule are likely to bring in more than $1.5 million.
No individual is more in demand than the 18-year-old LaFontaine, whom the New York Islanders made the third pick in the NHL's June draft. A center, LaFontaine is a fantastic talent. He played last season for the Verdun Juniors of the Quebec Major Junior A Hockey League and scored 234 points in 70 games, third highest in league history. No American player has ever showed such touch around the net.
"Bill Torrey [the Islanders' general manager] never put any pressure on me to sign," says LaFontaine, who spent three weeks last summer deliberating whether to turn pro, as have such young U.S. stars as Brian Lawton, Phil Housley, Brian Mullen and Tom Barrasso (SI, Oct. 31). "We talked and he said to let the dust settle and come back in a few weeks and let him know. After watching the 1980 Olympics, this had become a dream of mine. My family wanted me to do it. It's the experience of a lifetime. It gives you a chance to see the world—we've been to Alaska, Finland, and we'll be going back to Europe again—while at the same time you're learning and developing as a hockey player. Ken Morrow of the Islanders told me after I'd made my decision that it was his year with the Olympic team that gave him the confidence that he could play in the pros."