The impact of Team USA’s 1996 World Cup of Hockey victory wasn’t easily apparent to those who lived it at the time.
The group was happy that it beat Canada in a major ‘best-on-best’ tournament. But they didn’t see themselves as the natural successors from the 1980 Miracle on Ice team – a group that spawned higher level hockey interest around the country.
“That takes years later to understand that, to put it all in the proper perspective, but at the time you’re just trying to win the hockey game. You’re trying to beat the team you’re playing that night and you’re not thinking about anything historical,” Team USA coach Ron Wilson said. “But certainly now that’s really what it’s all about. It was the history of the event that really means the most.”
The importance of the accomplishment had been celebrated for years in American hockey circles, but was officially immortalized with the late Monday announcement that the 1996 World Cup team will be enshrined in the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in its 2016 class.
“It’s been kind of nice with the World Cup coming up now and the attention going back onto the 1996 team and listening to some of the current NHL players and Patrick Kane and Zach Parise and some of these US star players in the NHL talking about seeing some of those games and watching them or having their parents watch them together,” team captain Brian Leetch said. “It reminds certainly myself and guys who played on that team and our feelings of watching the 1980 team. So to hear the ‘96 team talked about like that with current NHL guys, it’s a nice feeling.”
Other inductees included Mount Saint Charles Academy coach Bill Belisle and former NHLer Craig Janney.
“This is a truly magnificent class. Each member of the Class of 2016 has had an extraordinary impact on our sport and is most deserving to take their place among the hockey immortals in the United States.” said Jim Smith, president of USA Hockey.
That tournament was considered one of the first times the United States believed they could actually beat Canada in a major international competition. The Americans also had multiple future Hockey Hall of Famers in their primes.
“We had power forwards. We had huge defense. It was something we talked about as coaches. It was finally a time where we had a team together that could intimidate a team like Canada,” Wilson said. “Canada, we weren’t ever taking a back seat to them. They were going to play the type of game we wanted to play. If we wanted to play big and physical, which we were, we could do that. If we needed skill, we could do that. We were big and fast too. It was the ultimate lineup for a coach.”
Said Leetch, “It was nice for the defensemen to go out there and you looked at the three forward guys out there, and I played with Derian Hatcher the whole time, you never felt overmatched by other teams’ lines.”
Wilson, who also coached Team USA to a silver medal in the 2010 Olympic Games, still looks at the 1996 team as maybe greatest groups he has coached.
“I just pulled up the roster we had and I looked through it and I don’t remember anybody having an off game. It was tremendous from goalie – all our defense played well,” Wilson said. “We had some guys on the team who weren’t even playing. Someone like Phil Housley and guys like that. We decided during the event that some people were just going to have to sit out and we had a tremendous lineup. It wasn’t anybody that any of the coaches on the team were ever disappointed. That was really the first time I had ever been exposed to a national team of that ilk and nobody let us down the whole time.”
The final best-of-three series against Canada involved some of the most tense games in recent hockey history.
Canada won the first game – in Philadelphia 4-3 in overtime. They had a chance to close out the US on home soil in Montreal, and then lost 5-2.
In the final game, a chance at victory looked bleak for the Americans midway through the third period. At 12:50 Canadian defenseman Adam Foote fired a shot past Team USA goaltender Mike Richter to give Canada a 2-1 lead. Then with 3:18 left Brett Hull deflected a Leetch shot to tie-game at 2-2. Just 43 seconds later Tony Amonte gave the Americans a 3-2 lead. Team USA beat Canada 5-2 in that final game.
“When the puck goes in you’re excited, but those four minutes – to turn a one goal deficit to a 5-2 win, that was surprising. It all happened so fast,” Leetch said. “To get one goal to tie it up – there was certainly plenty of belief on that bench.”
The 1996 US World Cup team has been in the news of late, likely because it has been 20 years since that tournament, and a newest incarnation of the World Cup will take place this September.
Can this current croup of Americans emulate what the 1996 team did and make a surprising run to a World Cup victory?
“When you hear the stories about what went on in that room before big games and things like that, it’s pretty incredible, it actually would be a great movie. Why not take advantage of our history? Certainly Canada does it all the time. Those guys gave us a pretty special history to take advantage of,” Team USA general manager Dean Lombardi said in a recent interview with Puck Daddy.
Overall it’s hard to compare both teams. The tournaments are in different eras, with different types of players and in different formats. Still the 1996 team is quite a measuring stick, which is in part why it will be celebrated and continue to be celebrated for many years to come.
“Everybody went into that tournament with belief and I think as the exhibition season or the four or five games we played in exhibition before we started the tournament and really solidified our belief in ourselves,” Leetch said. “Our lines came together. Our defense pairings came together, these guys went out and competed each game. We needed great performances from individuals. We got that. We needed everyone to contribute and we got that. To be representing that team on this (conference) call is an honor and I’m sure we’ll have a great time when we get together for the event.”
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