It's a gray morning in mid-November, and the bus is moving along a highway somewhere on the outskirts of Buffalo, where the 1984 U.S. Olympic hockey team would play an exhibition game that night. The 24 members of the team are flushed from their morning workout, and the conversation is lively. Lou Vairo, the coach, turns and kneels on his seat at the front of the bus to face his team. At 38, he's somewhat round in the body and has a boyishly expressive face and manner.
All eyes go to him as he barks out an order in a distinctly Brooklyn accent. Vairo (rhymes with HAIR-o) is in a good mood, so one of the players nearest him. Providence College's Paul Guay, 20, kids him about his malapropisms. Vairo experiments with language: He speaks a little German, Italian, Polish, Russian, Czech—and English. He has been heard to tell his players to go put on their "veneers" instead of their velours, and if one of them puts on airs, Vairo dismisses him as "presentuous." Someday Vairo hopes to have a fancy home with all the "anemones." Such errors constitute a running joke with the team, and Vairo, a natural ham, does little to discourage it.
"Hey, Lou. Teach me some vocabulary," Guay says.
"How about 'benched'?" Vairo says, not missing a beat. "Add that to your vocabulary." There's laughter and hooting from the back of the bus. The stage is Vairo's now, and he holds onto it. "All right, you college birds, since you're so smart: What country did Idi Amin run?"
Mark Fusco, 22, a small defenseman who was voted the top college hockey player in the country last year, answers, " Uganda."
"You went to Harvard," Vairo says. "Somebody else. Chelios. You went to Wisconsin. Who's the governor of Wisconsin?"
Chris Chelios, 21, who helped lead the Badgers to the 1983 NCAA hockey championship—beating Harvard 6-2 in the final—shrugs. "Who cares?" he asks. Chelios, who is expected to join the Montreal Canadiens after the Games, lists San Diego as his hometown.
Vairo is becoming more animated: "Who's the prime minister of Israel?"
Someone from the back answers, "Menachem Begin."
Vairo, enjoying it: "Wrong! You guys never read the newspapers. How can you understand the world around you if you don't read the newspapers? I'm not talking about the sports section."