ST. PAUL, Minn. – With his nonstop energy on the ice, it’s sometimes hard to believe that Zach Parise is playing in his 10th NHL season.
But long before he was a marquee star with the Minnesota Wild, Parise was a wide-eyed teenager skating in just another youth hockey tournament in Colorado Springs. Sitting among a group of parents on the frosty bleachers sat Lou Vairo. It didn’t take the long-time coach to see something special in the son of a former NHL star.
“He skated one shift and I could tell this kid was a hockey player,” said Vairo, the head coach of the 1984 U.S. Olympic Team.
Fast forward five years and the pair linked up again, this time at the 2003 IIHF World Junior Championship. The mutual admiration the pair feel for each other even to this day was cemented on the ice in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
“I loved playing for Coach Vairo at the World Juniors,” recalled Parise. “He was a really funny and upbeat kind of guy. It’s always great to see him and chat with him.”
The two managed a brief reunion on Wednesday night just minutes before Parise’s Minnesota Wild took on the Montreal Canadiens at the Xcel Energy Center. Vairo, along with the three other members of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame’s Class of 2014, were there to drop the ceremonial puck.
Still, it was enough for those old memories to come flooding back.
“At the World Juniors he reminded me in many ways of my all-time favorite player, Neal Broten,” said Vairo, whose team came within a goal of upsetting the heavily favored Canadian squad on home ice, and then lost by the same 3-2 margin to Finland in the bronze-medal game.
“He’s not only a great guy off the ice, he’s a fierce competitor on it, just like his father, J.P. He wants to win on every shift, and it shows even today,” Vairo said.
After two years at the University of North Dakota, Parise made the jump to the pro ranks, starting with a season with the Albany River Rats before joining the New Jersey Devils.
In his first two seasons in New Jersey, Parise was teammates with another member of the Class of 2014, Brian Rafalski. Starting his sixth season on the Devils blue line, Rafalski was the consummate professional whose easy style both on and off the ice helped Parise make the transition to the NHL.
“He’s a pretty quiet guy, but win or lose he kept a pretty even keel,” Parise said after the Wild’s 2-1 win Wednesday. “But he could make plays and control the game and log a lot of minutes. He seems like he never got hit, either. It was impressive what he could do. Playing with him was a lot of fun. He made the game a lot easier for me.”
Rafalski left the Devils after the 2006-07 season to join the high-flying Detroit Red Wings, but the pair would reunite in Vancouver in 2010 as members of the U.S. Olympic Team. Rafalski set the offensive pace for the upstart Americans with four goals and eight points on the way to earning best defenseman at the Olympics.
Down a goal to the Canadians in the gold-medal game against the Canadians, the pair was on the ice for what will be considered one of the great goals in USA Hockey history as Parise poked home a loose puck with 24 seconds left to send the game into overtime.
While the U.S. would eventually settle for the silver medal, the unlikely run toward gold cemented the bond among these friends and former teammates.
Prior to Wednesday’s game, Parise jumped on the ice to take part in the ceremonial puck drop. For a brief moment the past came back as Parise had a chance to thank and congratulate his old coach and former teammate.
“I just had time for a quick ‘Hi’ and shake his hand,” Parise said. “It was good to see him and congratulate him on a well-deserved honor.”