International Ice Hockey Federation

Made in Italy

Made in Italy

Vairo, Zanatta plan with home-grown talent

Published 12.01.2015 01:29 GMT+1 | Author Szabolcs Zavodszky
Made in Italy
Ivano Zanatta coached an Italian national team made of home-grown players during the Euro Ice Hockey Challenge tournament in Budapest. Photo: Laszlo Mudra / Hungarian Ice Hockey Federation
Throughout the annals of hockey history there have been a number of interesting personalities both on and off the ice.

However, one of the most fascinating story tellers in the past 40 years who seemingly pops up in international hockey every decade or so was back in Budapest, Hungary, during the international break in November.

Lou Vairo is back again, this time with the Italian Ice Hockey Association. After working with the U.S. and Dutch men’s national teams in the past, Vairo, while still working for USA Hockey, joined the Italians in an advisory capacity as they are building a “made in Italy” grassroots program, where the men's national team would be made up of strictly Italian-trained players.

Vairo first got involved in international hockey when he was the head coach of the U.S. junior team from 1979-82. During that stint he was in charge of advanced scouting for the 1980 U.S. Olympic team as well. “This position consisted of me being in contact with Craig Patrick, who was down on the bench, through a walkie-talkie. Herb Brooks wanted me to come down between periods and we would also meet every morning and evening. I held the same position in Salt Lake (2002 Games) as well but that was more of an official capacity. Times were different back then, we were being a bit sneaky back in 1980,” Vairo recalled.

Later he was head coach at several World Championships with the U.S. He would also work in the NHL where he was the assistant coach for the New Jersey Devils for two years, after which he had his first taste of working with a European federation with the Netherlands.

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Vairo received his first introduction to Italian hockey when Fassa hired him for the 1987/88 season. During his three years with the club and the following two in Milan, Vairo had the opportunity to really see the ins and outs of Italian hockey during a five-year stretch, and this is one of the reasons why he accepted the position of an advisor.

With his international experience he understands the situation the Italians are at right now. In the past 35 years the Italian national team usually had several North American-raised players, mostly of Italian heritage, that were key players on their team. At the 1992 World Championship for instance, Italy had only four Italian-born players on the team.

“I am in a position right now where I will advise and recommend. The Italians will have to make the decision. I don't want to make any decisions, I just want to give my advice. It’s their hockey, it’s their country, it’s their program and they can decide what they think they should do,” Vairo said.

He is clearly a great source of information for both on and off ice issues that the Italians may come across. One of the reasons he is in an advisory capacity is because he does not want to leave the job that he loves at USA Hockey, which has been the Director of Special Projects as well as implementing the diversity task force.

The interim coach of the Italian team for the tournament in Budapest was Ivano Zanatta, who was one of those Canadian-Italians on the Italian national team in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. He thinks that it’s a good idea to go for a strictly Italian-team based on the decrease in popularity of the sport in Italy.

“After many years there was a decrease in the registration of players. Basically players do not see the light at the end of the tunnel at the U20 and U18 ages. They ask themselves ‘so now what?’ This is something that has been neglected for many years and not dealt with maybe the right way. I understand the federation, and they have to do something. Your base has to be Italian players,” Zanatta said.

“One of my recommendations is to try to limit the number of imports and Italian-Americans,” said Vairo. “Don't try to do it in one year, spread it over four or five years, a little less each year until you have all Italians, especially in the national team. Besides that they can play, they are good players, we saw that here in the tournament.”

It sounds like Ivano Zanatta is on the same page like Vairo, however, surprisingly he uses Hungary as an example Italy could possibly follow since Hungary has revamped its hockey development program a couple years ago and placed Glen Williamson in charge from ages U13 all the way through to U18.

“I have to pay my compliments to Glen Williamson as he has made huge strides with what he has done with Hungary, and that is taking huge steps forward with the home product and produced players. We have to copy and paste this, we don't have to reinvent the wheel. These are things that are difficult decisions and hard decisions but they are the right decisions to make in the future, to have a strong base in the future where you can add the naturalized players if needed,” Zanatta said.

Both Zanatta and Vairo agree that they liked what they saw in Budapest from the Italian squad despite not winning the tournament. They liked how the team worked together and that they showed that these are the right type of players to build the foundation of the future of Italian hockey on. The next step for Vairo might be to give some advice on who the next national team coach should be, but he would not have to go far to find someone who is already on board with the ideas.

“I want to be a part of Italian hockey, I want to contribute,” said Zanatta after the last game of the tournament against Hungary. “I have been fortunate to coach in Switzerland and the KHL. I’m collaborating and working with Italian hockey. I believe in the new program and the President Tommaso Teofoli. They have the right idea. Now all they need is courage, stick to the program and give it some time.”

After relegation last spring in Minsk, the Italians will play in the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Krakow where they will face Kazakhstan, Japan, Ukraine, Hungary and host Poland.

The top-two teams will qualify for the top division in Russia in 2016 but for Italy promotion might not be the main focus this time but rather building a base for the future if they enter the event with a team of home-grown player rather than with ten North American-born players like at the 2014 Worlds in Minsk. The answer will be known in four-and-a-half months from now.


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