Diaper Dandies

Youth Was Well Served By Top U.S. Line At 1984 Olympics
By: 
Zac Clark

Never one to shy away from hyperbole, long-time USA Hockey coach Lou Vairo called it "one of the great lines in U.S. hockey history."

And after almost four decades of reflection mixed with numerous accolades, hall of fame inductions and awards, there's little doubt that he was right.

Two first-round NHL draft picks and a future first-rounder, all teenagers at the time, would form the top line for a team hoping to produce another Olympic miracle.

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 mix for the 1984 Olympic Winter Games in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.

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 talented teens Pat LaFontaine, Eddie Olczyk and David A. Jensen.

"They were three extremely smart hockey players, three of the smartest kids-hockey players with hockey sense-that I've ever coached," Vairo recalled of the "Diaper Line," the nickname he labeled the trio because of their age.

"They played well beyond their years."

The trio did in fact play 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 during their Olympic run in Sarajevo.

"To play four years later was a dream come true, and it happened so fast," said LaFontaine, who turned 15 on the day the U.S. beat the Soviets in Lake Placid.

"We realized it was deemed a miracle, but at the same instance, we were inspired by what they did."
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.

There was no question as to the Diaper Line's ability. LaFontaine scored 104 goals and 234 points in 70 games during his first season in the QMJHL, breaking league rookie records set by NHL standouts Guy Lafleur and Mike Bossy, and was pretty much a lock for the 20-man Olympic roster.

"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 careers. 

Olczyk and Jensen made a statement when they teamed up on the East squad at the National Sports Festival tryout in Colorado Springs in the summer of 1983. Jensen was the leading scorer of the camp and Olczyk was second among the 80 participating players.

The youngest of all skaters, Olczyk said that if he was given the opportunity to make the team, then his expectations were to make it.

Jensen wasn't quite as optimistic.

"I didn't expect to make the team," he said. "I still had a year of high school left and didn't know if that would impact the decision of the Olympic Committee."

The anticipation of making the team ended once the roster was finalized, but one thing was for certain: expectations were high for the 1984 team.

They had played 65 exhibition games, including a 3-3-1 record against NHL teams and 3-2-1 series win over the Soviet Selects, the next best team in the USSR behind their Olympic squad.

The wide-open, up-tempo style of hockey that Vairo promoted was a perfect suit for the Diaper Line. But the trio didn't join forces until two months after the exhibition season had begun.

"I hooked up with LaFontaine during the second or third game on the left wing," Jensen recalled. "We clicked right away, and from then on I never left that line. I was a playmaker-sort of a corner man-and Pat used to fly up the middle. He was just good at everything.

"Louie told me at one point that he thought Eddie would get a real jumpstart being up on our line on the opposite wing."

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.

"I know I brought down the average speed of our line. Those guys looked like they were shot out of a cannon, and I was picking up their dust," said Olczyk, who was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2013. "We all had our specialties that we brought to the game, and we had magic right away."

The Diaper Line had the magic touch leading up to and throughout the Games, but Team USA struggled for production from its other lines. Being seeded fourth behind Czechoslovakia, Canada and Finland didn't make things any easier.

Team USA needed to gain at least a split of its first two games for a chance to advance to the medal round. It didn't happen, as they dropped the opener to Canada, 4-2, and the following game to Czechoslovakia, 4-1. They finished the preliminary round 2-0-2, but the damage was already done.

"Expectations were high," said Vairo. "The pressure didn't hit us until it hit us between the eyes when we took the ice for our first game."

"We were a team that had some great runs throughout the year, but you have to peak at the right time," added LaFontaine, who was inducted into both the Hockey Hall of Fame and the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003. "We got off to a tough start and got behind the eight ball."

Hopes to relive the miracle may have been lost, but the opportunity to represent their country and how the experience shaped their careers is what each player cherishes the most.

"There was no way I was ready to play in the NHL," said LaFontaine, who joined the Islanders less than a week after the Olympics. "Being part of the Diaper Line is a special bond that we'll always share. It was an amazing, developing year."

"The experience was an unbelievable dream that doesn't seem real. It was the greatest year of my life," added Jensen.

"We had guys on the cusp of becoming really good hockey players," Olczyk said. "Trying to follow in the footsteps of the 1980 team-forget it. No matter what we did, it would never be the same."
Vairo's only gripe: "The world never saw how good they really were."


Zac Clark is a former USA Hockey Magazine intern. The original story was printed in the August 2007 issue of USA Hockey Magazine.

 

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