When it comes to championing the cause of the American player, no one has done more or done it better than Lou Vairo. So when he calls them “one of the great lines in U.S. hockey history,” people tend to listen.
Eddie Olczyk, Pat Lafontaine and Dave A. Jensen were as talented a trio to ever wear the red, white and blue. They came together before the ink had dried on their high school diplomas, starry-eyed dreamers who were looking to produce another Olympic miracle on international ice.
While the 1984 U.S. Olympic Team came up short of its golden goal, the trio did not disappoint, not in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, or in what came after. All three went on to professional hockey careers and earned more than their share of accolades along the way.
And now, almost 30 years after they were last together as a group, the trio reunited in Dallas as Olczyk realized a lifelong dream when he was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.
“It was no doubt one of the best lines that I’ve ever played on,” said Olczyk, who played 16 seasons in the NHL.
“It’s just a very special night, and I couldn’t be more proud to share it with a lot of people.”
Following the success of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team, a new wave of American players was suddenly catching the eye of NHL teams. Many were drafted and signed to pro contracts, leaving them out of the Olympic mix for the 1984 Olympic Winter Games.
That forced Vairo and his coaching staff to dip even deeper into the well for players. What he ultimately discovered was the fountain of youth in the form of three players who were wise beyond their years when it came to their play on the ice.
“They were three extremely smart hockey players, three of the smartest kids — hockey players with hockey sense — that I’ve ever coached,” Vairo said of the “Diaper Line,” the nickname he labeled the trio with because of their age.
The trio played way beyond their years, leading the team in scoring during the pre-Olympic tour and accounting for more than half of Team USA’s goals in Sarajevo.
“I remember that we were called the kid line until some of the guys in the locker room had some fun with it, and then we somehow became the diaper line,” said LaFontaine.
“I don’t know if there’s ever been a coined name for a line in USA Hockey history, so I think we might be the one and only.”
No matter what you called them, there was no question as to the Diaper Line’s ability. Olczyk, the youngest player on the team, was six weeks shy of his 17th birthday when the final roster was announced on July 4, 1983. There was no threat of losing the Chicago native to the pros — he wasn’t even eligible for the NHL Entry Draft.
Jensen was in between his junior and senior year at Lawrence Academy, a private high school in Massachusetts, and was selected No. 20 overall by the Hartford Whalers in the 1983 draft.
LaFontaine was the seasoned veteran of the bunch at age 18. Coming off a banner year in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League where he broke a multitude of scoring records, the third overall pick of the New York Islanders was perhaps the top player on the team.
“Pat was always a major focal point of the other teams and a dynamic player, not only as a Major Junior player but Olympic player as well,” said Olczyk, who faced off against LaFontaine, a native of Michigan, several times throughout their youth playing days.
The youngest of all skaters, Olczyk recalled how he had never faced off against international competition before first donning a USA jersey.
“Coach Vairo took a chance on me, being only 16 years old when the team was picked,” Olczyk recalled. “He instilled a lot of confidence in me, and he did not care what people thought.”
From the outset, Vairo knew he had captured lightning in a bottle. The wide-open, up-tempo style of hockey that Vairo promoted was perfectly suited to the young players’ individual and collective skills.
With the speed and playmaking abilities that Jensen and LaFontaine brought to the table, the big-bodied Olczyk was the perfect fit for the line that provided a much-needed spark for Team USA.
“It just kind of clicked. The chemistry of that line just took off and we just stuck together for the whole year,” said Lafontaine, who was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003.
“I give Lou a tremendous amount of credit for trying the three of us together because most coaches wouldn’t have done that, take the three youngest players on the team, and he did and it just clicked for us.”
Hopes to relive the miracle may have been lost, but the opportunity to represent their country and how it shaped their careers is what the comrades of the Diaper Line cherish the most.
“It’s a special bond and relationship when you travel with kids for a year together. You grow up and you travel with them. We were high school kids,” said Jensen, who is working with the NHL alumni on creating hockey camps and clinics.
“It’s something you’ll never forget. I had some great relationships in pro hockey but that was the most special year of my life. That’s why I’m really honored and proud to be here tonight.”
As Lafontaine added, “It’s just like old times only 28 years down the road.”