USA Hockey will always be linked with, and defined by, the ‘Miracle on Ice’ in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. The unlikely victory over the Soviet Union, who had won the previous four Gold Medals, was the greatest upset in sports history. Thirty-two years later, the players from that team are idolized just as much, if not more, than they were in the immediate aftermath of winning the Gold Medal.
While the ‘Miracle On Ice’ is the greatest victory in USA Hockey history, the most important win for USA Hockey came sixteen years later, in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. This International tournament, which replaced the Canada Cup format that preceded it, was a chance to validate how far American hockey had come in previous decades. In addition, the style of hockey that was played made it some of the most exciting international hockey that has ever been played.
The tournament began in late August of 1996. In the preliminary round, the United States played three games against Canada, Russia, and Slovakia. Behind great goaltending from the New York Rangers’ Mike Richter, USA beat Canada 5-3 in their first game in Philadelphia. Two days later, USA beat Russia 5-2 at Madison Square Garden in New York, and then followed it up by trouncing Slovakia 9-3 at MSG the next day. With a 3-0 record through the preliminary round, the USA finished as the #1 seed in their bracket, and had a bye until the semifinals. In the semifinals, USA defeated Russia 5-2 and advanced to a best-of-three final against Canada.
The USA-Canada series included some of the greatest players in NHL history. Team Canada had six Hall of Famers as of 2012 (Paul Coffey, Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Joe Sakic, Scott Stevens, and Steve Yzerman) and others who are certain to be future Hall of Famers (Scott Niedermayer, Brendan Shanahan, and Martin Brodeur). Canada’s roster also included many of the top players in the game during the 1995-96 season, such as Eric Lindros, Vincent Damphousse, Theo Fleury, and the starting goalie was Curtis Joseph. On the other side, Team USA had three Hall of Famers as of 2012 (Brian Leetch, Brett Hull, and Pat LaFontaine), along with other potential Hall of Famers (Chris Chelios, Phil Housley, Mike Modano, and Keith Tkachuk.) In addition, the USA also had many all-stars from that time period on the roster, including Tony Amonte, Derian Hatcher, Doug Weight, and Mike Richter.
In addition to the star-studded rosters, another reason why this tournament was fun to watch was because of the way the games were played. Unlike the Olympics, where the games are intense despite physical play, the 1996 World Cup featured more physical play and a raised intensity level. In effect, the USA-Canada series was a shorter version of a Stanley Cup playoffs series with the best players in the world.
Game 1 of the series, which took place in Philadelphia, wound up going to overtime. The game was full of back and forth action, great goaltending on both sides, and ultimately controversial calls. With Canada leading by a goal in the final seconds, Messier was thrown out of the face off circle for a draw in Canada’s end. After the questionable call, USA won the faceoff and tied the game with 6.3 seconds remaining. Then in overtime, Yzerman fired a wrist shot off of Richter’s glove that trickled over the goal line to give Canada a 4-3 win and a 1-0 series lead. However, the replay showed that an offside call should have been made against Canada.
Game 2 of the series took place at the newly constructed Molson Centre in Canada. The USA now faced a daunting task, as they had to win two games in Montreal in order to win the series. Each team scored a power play goal in the first period, but Team USA took control of the game in the second period. John LeClair picked up his second goal of the game to give USA a 2-1 lead, and later on a 4-on-4, Brett Hull scored on a breakaway. Joe Sakic cut the lead to 3-2 by scoring a power play goal with 5:14 remaining in regulation, but that was as close as they would come to tying the game. USA added two empty net goals to win the game 5-2, and send the series to a deciding Game 3.
Game 3 at the Molson Centre was the largest crowd to ever watch an international hockey game at that time. Richter was the story of the game, as he kept turning back the barrage of Canadian shots. USA took a 1-0 lead when Hull scored a power play goal in the first period. The score remained that way until Lindros beat Richter with 5.5 seconds remaining in the second period. The third period was back and forth, and both sides had a wide range of emotions in the last ten minutes. Adam Foote beat a screened Richter with a wrist shot to give Canada a 2-1 lead. With 3:18 remaining, Hull deflected a Leetch wrist shot past Joseph to tie the game. The goal was Hull’s 7th in seven games during the tournament. Less than a minute later, Amonte scored on a rebound chance to give USA the lead. In the final minute, Gretzky fanned on a chance at the side of the net that would have tied the game, and USA buried two empty net goals to win the game 5-2 and the series two games to one.
Richter was named MVP of the tournament. Although the series was back and forth, Canada had the majority of the scoring chances, and Richter was equal to the task more often than not. For the Americans, defeated Canada validated USA Hockey. The 1996 World Cup of Hockey was the first time that USA beat Canada in a major hockey tournament, and the win was even more significant because USA beat the likes of Gretzky, Messier, Coffey, etc.
In the years that followed, USA hockey won two Silver Medals in 2002, and 2010, where they lost to Canada twice in the Gold Medal Game. However, while those runs created buzz about hockey in the United States, the USA’s win in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey established the strength of USA Hockey on the international stage.