The 1996 World Cup of Hockey was an unprecedented event that produced some terrific hockey and featured a collection of talent that is arguably unrivaled. The inaugural tournament reset the stage for best-on-best hockey and ended with a seminal victory by the Americans at a pivotal point for the sport in their country.
On the 25th anniversary of the debut of the World Cup of Hockey, we revisit the competition and look at its place in ice hockey history.
The Back Story
Long before NHL players began participating in the Olympics, the Canada Cup was the only international competition that included all the top players from hockey’s leading nations.
Evolving from the success of the historic 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union, the Canada Cup was held in 1976, 1981, 1984, 1987, and 1991. Contested at venues throughout Canada, the six-team tournament took place in late summer before the start of NHL training camps.
Canada captured the trophy each time except for 1981 when the Soviet Union triumphed. Other participating nations included Czechoslovakia, Finland, Sweden, and the United States, with West Germany making a single appearance, replacing the Finns in 1984.
The Canada Cup was always kind of haphazardly scheduled. You never quite knew when the next one was going to be. There was a lack of international hockey at the time, with the Canada Cup’s demise and the Olympics not quite there yet. So this was a great way of quenching that [thirst] here in Canada. Everybody loves best-on-best hockey, whether it’s in September or in February or on the moon.Joe Pelletier, co-author of “The World Cup of Hockey: A History of Hockey’s Greatest Tournament”
By the mid-90s, the NHL was in the thick of an unapologetic drive to make hockey mainstream and take it worldwide. Over a span of three years, the league had added four new franchises between California and Florida, and expansion or relocation into other non-traditional U.S. hockey markets was just around the corner. The number of players from countries other than Canada was growing annually, and NHL players were set to make their Olympic debut at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.
A rebrand of the Canada Cup only made sense, transforming it into something much more global that aligned with the shared objectives of the organizers, the NHL, NHLPA, and IIHF. The World Cup of Hockey was born.
“We are not expecting the Cup to change the fortunes of hockey overnight,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said before the tournament, “but it is a step in the right direction.”
New Name, Same Game
There were two major differences between the inaugural World Cup and the Canada Cup. With the increasing number of countries that could compete at a high caliber, the field grew from six teams to eight, with the addition of Germany and Slovakia. More audaciously, games would be held in multiple countries on separate continents, a first for a stand-alone tournament.
The M.O. was to engage as many markets as possible: A sizeable pre-tournament schedule kicking off in mid-August featured stops in several cities and two countries that would not be hosting actual tournament games, including Tampere and Turku (Finland), Zlin (Czech Republic), Landshut (Germany), Moscow (Russia), Bratislava (Slovakia), Edmonton and Calgary (Canada), and Detroit, Providence and San Jose (United States).
The first round of the World Cup featured two four-team pools. The North American pool included Canada, Russia, Slovakia, and the United States, with games played in Montreal, Ottawa, and Vancouver (Canada) and New York City and Philadelphia (United States). The European pool comprised the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, and Sweden, with games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen (Germany), Helsinki (Finland), Prague (Czech Republic), and Stockholm (Sweden).
The first-place team in each pool received a bye to the semi-finals, while the second and third-place teams from each pool would crossover to play each other in the quarterfinals. These games took place in Montreal, Ottawa and Philadelphia, as the three teams advancing out of the European Pool traveled overseas to join the trio of teams moving forward from the North American Pool.
An absolutely remarkable total of 26 Hockey Hall of Fame members appeared in at least one game during the 1996 World Cup.
Canada led the way with 11 future HHOFers: Rob Blake, Martin Brodeur, Paul Coffey, Wayne Gretzky, Eric Lindros, Mark Messier, Scott Niedermayer, Joe Sakic, Brendan Shanahan, Scott Stevens and Steve Yzerman. Another HHOF inductee, Al MacInnis, was on the ice to start Team Canada’s training camp before being knocked out of action by a bowel infection. (From “Special Ed steps in for ailing MacInnis,” Edmonton Journal, 08/26/96).
Team USA boasted six future HHOF members: Chris Chelios, Phil Housley, Brett Hull, Pat Lafontaine, Brian Leetch and Mike Modano.
Four of the seven Russians in the HHOF – Sergei Federov, Viacheslav Fetisov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Zubov – played in the 1996 World Cup, while a fifth, Pavel Bure, appeared in pre-tournament games but was hurt on a check by Leetch and forced to sit out the World Cup.
Of Sweden’s four HHOF members, three – Nicklas Lidstrom, Peter Forsberg, and Mats Sundin – participated in the 1996 World Cup. Finland’s only two HHOFers, Jari Kurri and Temmu Selanne, represented their country at the inaugural tournament.
There should ultimately be at least 30 players from the 1996 World Cup of Hockey in the HHOF: Rod Brind’Amour (Canada), Curtis Joseph (Canada) and Alexander Mogilny (Russia) are considered the strongest candidates among currently eligible players, and Jaromir Jagr is a shoo-in as soon as the Czech legend becomes eligible.
Raising the Curtain
The first World Cup of Hockey game took place on Aug. 26, 1996, before a sellout crowd of 13,511 at the Globe Arena in Stockholm, where home fans delighted in a 6-1 victory for Sweden over Germany. After being shut out by German goaltender Olaf Kolzig for more than half the game, Sweden pumped six goals in less than 18 minutes, spanning the second and third periods.
Action in the North America Pool didn’t get underway until three days later, Aug. 29, 1996, with the Summit Series originals meeting in a super-charged atmosphere at Vancouver’s GM Place, where Canada beat Russia 5-3. A barnburner befitting this historic rivalry saw Sakic score in the opening minute of the third period to break a 3-3 tie, while a Sergei Nemchinov goal that would have tied the game 4-4 with less than two minutes remaining was disallowed because Russia had too many on the ice.
Round Robin Results
Sweden and the United States rolled through the first round, finishing atop their respective pools with matching 3-0-0 records and plus-11 goal differentials to punch direct tickets to the semi-finals. The Americans particularly impressed, beating Canada 5-3 in Philadelphia on Aug. 31 then rolling to a 5-2 win over the Russians hours later.
“Well, I guess these are two of the biggest victories, everyone says, that we’ve ever had,” U.S. head coach Ron Wilson said after the victory over Russia at Madison Square Garden. (From ‘Team USA proves point with romp over Russia,” Edmonton Journal, 9/3/96)
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The upset of the first round came in Garmisch on Aug. 31, when Germany clobbered the Czechs 7-1 in what is the biggest official loss in Czech Republic men’s national team history. Germany secured third in the pool to advance to the quarterfinals, while the Czechs were eliminated, a particularly shocking outcome given the Czech Republic had won the World Championship just a few months earlier.
In its last pool game, against Slovakia at the Corel Centre on Sep. 1, Team Canada survived a scare, rallying from a third-period deficit and getting the winning goal from Yzerman with less than four minutes to play for a 3-2 victory. Had the Canadians lost or tied, they faced the possibility of not advancing beyond the first round.
“There were some frightening moments,” Shanahan said following his team’s win. “We got through . . . two points is what we needed and two points is what we got.” (from “Yikes! That was close,” Toronto Star, 9/2/96)
Road to the Final
Neither quarterfinal was much of a game: Russia dominated Finland 5-0 in Ottawa on Sep. 6, one day after Canada topped Germany 4-1 in Montreal. Germany’s lone goal was scored by Peter Draisaitl, father of future Hart and Art Ross trophy winner Leon Draisaitl, who was 10 months old at the time.
While one semi-final was also a blowout – the United States cruised past Russia 5-2 on Sep. 8 in Ottawa – the other saw Canada and Sweden face off before a raucous crowd at Philadelphia’s CoreStates Center that was firmly behind the Europeans in what has been called “the greatest hockey game no one talks about.”
Canada led 2-0 after 40 minutes before the Swedes scored two unanswered goals in the third period. A first overtime period settled nothing, and it wasn’t until 12.5 seconds remaining in the second OT that Canada’s Theo Fleury scored to end a near-100-minute marathon that saw each team fire 43 shots on goal. The players left the ice to chants of “USA” from Philly fans anticipating an all-North American final.
“We were definitely in enemy territory,” said Team Canada forward Trevor Linden. “They were cheering for the underdogs.”
America’s Shining Moment
Unlike the quarterfinal and semi-final rounds, the championship would be a best-of-three series, beginning with Game 1 in Philadelphia followed by Game 2 and, if necessary, Game 3 at Montreal’s Molson Centre.
Some controversial officiating made for a highly combustible lid-lifter on Sep. 10 in the City of Brotherly Love. Canada won 4-3 in overtime when Yzerman fired a wrist shot off goalie Mike Richter’s glove that trickled over the goal line with 9:23 left in the fourth period. Replays showed that the play was offside and should have blown dead before though Yzerman scored.
Team USA had tied the score with just 6.3 seconds in the third period, on a play that fittingly involved two Philadelphia Flyers. Canadian defenseman Eric Desjardins accidentally poked the puck into his own net, and American forward John LeClair was credited with the goal. On the ensuing face-off in the Canadian zone, Messier had been tossed from the circle and replaced by the less-adept Adam Graves, who lost the draw to Joel Otto, leading to the American equalizer.
Facing a do-or-die situation two nights later in Game 2, the United States won 5-2 on Canadiens ice in Montreal. Team USA never trailed and took a 3-1 lead into the third period on the strength of two goals from LeClair and one from Hull. Sakic scored to cut the lead in half with just over five minutes to play, but the United States scored twice late into an empty net.
A crowd of 21,273, at that time the largest ever to watch an international hockey game, packed the Molson Centre to see the very first World Cup of Hockey champion crowned, though Canadian fans would leave the arena crestfallen.
Richter turned back a barrage of Canadian shots in a performance that would secure him tournament MVP, facing 22 in the second period alone. The game was tied 1-1 after 40 minutes, with Hull scoring for the USA in the first period and Lindros replying with only 5.5 seconds remaining in the middle frame.
After Adam Foote beat a screened Richter with a wrist shot at 12:50 of the third to give Canada a 2-1 lead, the home favorites appeared headed for victory. Then the roof on Montreal’s new arena fell in, as the United States blitzed Canada for four goals in three minutes.
With 3:18 remaining, Hull deflected a Leetch wrist shot past goalie Joseph to tie the game. Less than a minute later, Tony Amonte scored on a rebound chance to give the 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 the United States potted two empty-net goals en route to a 5-2 win and lay claim to the first World Cup of Hockey.
On the 20th anniversary of their iconic victory, the 1996 United States World Cup team was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame during a ceremony in Philadelphia on Nov. 30, 2016.
Depending on who you ask, it is either the greatest or second greatest moment in U.S. hockey history, alongside the “Miracle on Ice” in 1980 when the United States upset the Russians at the Winter Games at Lake Placid.
Current Minnesota Wild general manager Bill Guerin, who skated for Team USA on a line with Modano and Keith Tkachuk in 1996, has heard the younger generation of Americans say that ’96 was their 1980. In the season before the inaugural World Cup, 1995-96, 154 Americans played in the NHL, representing 18% of the entire league. In 2020-21, that number had climbed to 282, representing 28% of all players in the NHL.
The 1996 World Cup of Hockey provided a dry run for the 1998 Olympics, the first of five consecutive Winter Games that included NHL players, a successful venture that showcased hockey’s greatest on sport’s greatest stage. Canada and the United States met in a pair of classic gold medal finals, at Salt Lake City 2002 and Vancouver 2010, both won by the Canadians. While the NHL skipped out on the PyeongChang Games in 2018, it has included an Olympic break in the 2021-22 schedule, signaling NHL players will likely head to the 2022 Games in Beijing next February.
The World Cup itself has failed to gain traction. Since the inaugural event a quarter-century ago, there have only been two more such tournaments, in 2004 and 2016, both won by Canada. The most recent was held in only one venue, Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, and included two teams of players aged 23 under, representing North America and Europe, alongside national squads from Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Sweden, and the USA.
A potential third World Cup that would have taken place in 2020 was scrapped in January 2019 after meetings between the NHL and NHLPA failed to produce an agreement to arrange the tournament.
But while featuring a larger ice surface, the Olympics never could match the World Cup’s physicality. Colin Fleming expressed it perfectly in a 2016 Sports Illustrated article, writing that the 1996 World Cup “played to the strengths of the speed guys like Housley, but it was also chippy, a mélange of behind-the-net/up-against-the-boards grinding, and neutral zone weaves and jukes. Beautiful hockey, a composite of the game’s many facets, more multi-dimensional than the current game.”
There will never be another international tournament like the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, and not because it was the first of its kind. Time has proven that it was truly one of a kind.
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.