Wednesday night, after the 2016 World Cup exhibitions come to a close, the NHL Network will air a new documentary about the first World Cup of Hockey. Now 20 years past, Orchestrating an Upset reflects on the 1996 tournament, the ostensible continuation of the Canada Cup.
The tournament was a pivotal moment for American hockey. The U.S. had gone 0-7-1 in games against Team Canada throughout the history of the Canada Cup. Canada entering the 1996 World Cup as a massive favorite to win. It was one of the greatest rosters Canada had ever assembled.
It featured 10 future Hall of Famers and others who could still find their way into the Hall, including Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Eric Lindros, Paul Coffey, Scott Stevens, Martin Brodeur, Brenden Shanahan, Scott Niedermayer and Joe Sakic.
The United States was an unlikely underdog. The only major championship they’d won as a nation was 16 years past and was known as a miracle.
The Orchestra in Context
The NHL Network’s documentary opens with U.S. general manager Lou Lamoriello’s feeling that a hockey team is like an orchestra with soloists, physical components like drummers, people somewhere in between playing percussive parts that break into fanfares on occasion, and a conductor, back to the audience, keeping the piece together.
Orchestrating an Upset is relatively recent history, but it is one of the United State’s rare international wins in best-on-best play and it hasn’t gotten nearly the same treatment the Miracle has. So much ink and celluloid have been committed to the Miracle that you’re never far from a definitive history of the Games. There’s the narrative film Miracle, recently aired by the NHL Network. Take a look on Netflix and there’s the “30 for 30” Of Miracles and Men. Try HBO Go and there’s Do You Believe in Miracles? The Story of the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team.
But the ’96 team has never received the same attention, and while it’s not quite the same level of an upset, it was still a significant moment. How the 1980 Olympics inspired the players of the 1996 squad, the players of the 2016 World Cup team took inspiration from the 1996 team. Theo Fleury says it well in the documentary’s closing moments, as much as he doesn’t want to say it, “Them winning was great for hockey.”
Orchestrating an Upset does justice to the scope of the event, the way it was an afterthought in the United States until they upset Canada during the round robin stage. Even if it neglects Sweden and Russia, it’s a fantastic look at the moment when the Canadian and U.S. rivalry was at its peak and one of the only moments where the U.S. got the best of Canada when it mattered most.
Mike Eruzione, Tony Amonte and Mike Richter
Lots of commenters talk about how the World Cup is about money (head’s up: all professional sports are about money) or that players don’t care about playing for their country when it’s not the Olympics. But Orchestrating an Upset does a nice job showing that no matter what the stage, most players care a lot and are hoping to walk away with a victory and, in the best case scenario, to join a lineage of national team moments like Mike Eruzione’s game-winning goal in the 1980 Olympics.
That’s what happened to Tony Amonte, and it’s a highlight of the documentary not just because the final moments of Game 3 couldn’t have been scripted to bring about more intensity, but because the documentary is able to put the story together perfectly of how he stepped in, how Ron Wilson helped Amonte “call his shot” before the game even started, the controversy of the goal, and the way it fits into the American hockey legacy.
More than anything, the documentary is well-timed. Yes, it’s always great to hear guys like Lamoriello, Ron Wilson, Doc Emerick, Mark Messier, Eric Lindros, Bill Guerin, Scott Stevens, Brett Hull or the twice-ejected Keith Tkachuk talk about major moments in the game. But the obvious play of the show is to get you hyped for the start of the World Cup on Saturday. And it should.
Seeing how much it mattered to the players, the intensity of the games, the outstanding play of Mike Richter, its connection to the Canada Cup and Summit Series… it all serves as a thrilling reminder that no matter what the tournament is called, when you get the best of the best together, you’re in for some great hockey.
Orchestrating an Upset airs Wednesday night at 10pm ET after the Sweden versus Canada exhibition game on ESPN2.