Passion for hockey was a common theme as the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Class of 2014 – including Karyn Bye Dietz, Brian Rafalski, Jeff Sauer and Lou Vairo -- was formally inducted before a capacity crowd in the grand ballroom of the Minneapolis Marriott City Center here tonight.
In the case of Rafalski and Bye Dietz, their passion propelled them to the highest levels of their respective games.
Rafalski credits his AAA youth coaches in the Detroit area for encouraging him to be the best that he could be, while giving him the tools to progress to the next level. And after retiring in 2011, Rafalski is sharing that with his sons’ teams down in Florida.
“They’re fun to work with and they understand the game,” said the three-time Stanley Cup champion. “I love it when they get a new concept and add new things so it’s always keeping them on their toes. It’s great to see these kids develop and grow.”
It’s the same for Bye Dietz, who was a member of the gold-medal winning U.S. Olympic Women’s Ice Hockey Team in 1998. Now in her fifth year of coaching her son’s team, her coaching style is an amalgamation of ideas and lessons she’s learned along the way from her coaches in River Falls, Wis., right on through her Olympic coach, Ben Smith.
“I just want these kids to have fun,” said Bye Dietz, who is the third woman inducted into the U.S. Hall. “I want them to learn something each time they step on the ice, and to give 100 percent. Each time my son steps on the ice I say three things to him: ‘work hard, have fun and I love you.’ If he can take those things with him then he’s going to get to the next level.”
On the other side of the bench, Vairo and Sauer have impacted the lives of more hockey players than almost any coach in USA Hockey history.
Vairo was always known as a player’s coach whose self-effacing style and quick wit made him a favorite in the locker room and away from the rink. But according to those who know him best, Vairo never received the credit he deserved for his innovative techniques, taking the lessons he learned from legendary Russian coach Anatoly Tarasov and introducing them to American hockey players. That is until Thursday night.
As for Sauer, his college coaching credentials are enough to earn him a pass into the Hall, but after “retiring” in 2002, the Fort Atkinson, Wis., native began a new career coaching in disabled hockey, winning gold in the 2007 Deaflympics and at the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi, Russia. Sauer has managed to get the most out of his players by treating them with respect and dignity.
“The one thing that has been successful for me with the sled guys is that I treat them like hockey players. I don’t treat them like handicapped people,” said Sauer, who credits the legendary coach Bob Johnson for stoking the competitive in him.
“What I’ve been able to do is work one-on-one with them and express to them how I feel about the game. It really helps them with their development.”
Coaches have a way of doing that, and most will never enter the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, but each one should be hailed in their own right. For both Rafalski and Bye Dietz, they have turned the page on their storied playing careers and are now influencing the next generation of players as coaches. They carry with them the lessons they learned long ago, and have molded those lessons into their own coaching style.
For Bye Dietz, that may one day mean incorporating some of former coach Ben Smith’s saying, Smithisms as they were called, into her coaching vernacular.
“The first Smithism that he ever said was ‘alright ladies, the hay is in the barn.’ It took me a while to figure out what he meant,” she said.
“I can probably start using that one pretty soon with the boys on my team. I think they’re old enough to figure out that it means ‘the work is done, the hay is in the barn and it’s time to just go out there and play.’”
Dick Meredith, John Mayasich and Jack McCartan from the gold-medal winning 1960 U.S. Olympic Team, who drew a boisterous welcome from the audience, presented the induction plaques to the Class of 2014.
The evening’s festivities also included the presentation of the Lester Patrick Trophy by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to Bill Daly, deputy commissioner of the NHL and Paul Holmgren, president of the Philadelphia Flyers. The honor is bestowed annually to individuals who have made outstanding contributions to hockey in the United States. During a conversation on stage with master of ceremonies Steve Levy, both recollected their lifetime passion for the sport, something that started at a young age.
And for Bob O’Connor, who was on hand to receive the USA Hockey Builders Award from USA Hockey President Ron DeGregorio, through all of his time in the game, the man more affectionately as “OC” wanted only one thing from his players. He wanted them to love the game as much as he did.
“I loved the game and had a passion for it,” said the self-proclaimed rink rat. “I always wanted to share my love of the game and give kids a way of getting passionate about it, having fun and being creative. I think that’s what is missing right now.”
That remark drew long thunderous applause from the crowd for the long-time Minnesota high school hockey coach and National Coach-in-Chief for USA Hockey.