It had been nearly 10 years since U.S. Olympic Men's Ice Hockey coach Lou Vairo stood behind the bench of a hockey team.
The experienced-laden coach entered the Sertich Ice Center in Colorado Springs on Jan.19 and began to look around at the bustling scene in front of him.
This was not an NHL arena or Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, site of the 1984 Olympic Winter Games, that Vairo had been so accustomed to coaching in over the years.
Sticks, pucks, pads and jerseys were scattered across the ice center with rampant children craving to rush out onto the ice. Concerned parents intently tried to help their kids lace up their skates minutes before Team Black of the Colorado Springs Amateur Hockey Association took the ice for warm ups.
The 67-year-old, wearing a Navy blue USA Hockey jacket and matching Dickies work pants, slowly approached the spot on the team's bench he would call home for the next three periods. A small smile crept across his face as he watched the 9- and 10-year-olds circling the ice during warm ups.
"I used to do this for a living," Vairo laughed. "The [New Jersey] Devils, national teams, in Italy."
Vairo, USA Hockey's director of special projects, decided to return to the bench to help out after coaches Matt Leaf, director of USA Hockey's officiating education program, and Casey Jorgensen, USA Hockey's general counsel, were both out of town on company business.
"The most important thing is to build a love and passion for the game," Vairo said. "They all need a chance to play even if they are the worst on the team. Everything else will come later in life."
Instead of being a thunderous Olympic-style coach or an intimidating presence on the bench, Vairo kept his distance and let parent Bryan Hollon handle the majority of the coaching while sprinkling in his own advice to players when the time was right.
"Lou is a very significant individual in USA Hockey," Hollon said. "To have him there and to impart some of his knowledge and to encourage the kids is inspiring.
"I just kind of look at the guy and go 'Holy Mackerel' at the amount of knowledge this guys has, and yet it's not like he is talking to a bunch of Olympic players. He is talking to 9- and 10-year-old kids and that's where he brings it. He brings it down to that level and talks to them and gets them motivated."
Vairo's advice was simple but important for the young hockey players.
"Always respect the officials," Vairo said on more than one occasion. "They make mistakes, you make mistakes, coaches make mistakes. Just always give your best."
Vairo did address the team following the second period, crediting them for their effort and grit that eventually led to a 5-3 victory, but his biggest impact came when he would pull a player aside or when he would offer a fist pound to the players skating back to the bench.
"Use the boards there as an extra man," Vairo said. "Play the puck off the boards to yourself if needed."
Vairo primarily wanted the kids to have a good time, and even he had some fun of his own when he playfully grabbed linesman Jonathan Valtin's jersey as he stood near the bench.
Ironically, none of the kids really know Vairo for his past success as a USA Hockey coach or about the immense knowledge that he has to offer. Instead, they will remember Vairo for the guy that brought a smile to the bench.
Regardless, Hollon believes Vairo still planted a seed of knowledge into the team, even if the kids did not know who he exactly was.
"I don't know if all of our kids have the awareness of who he is, but nonetheless there is something about Lou, the way he is, that he inspires the kids," Hollon said. "They might not be conscious of it, but subconsciously they [knew] they [were] getting great information and encouragement."