The scene was set at Montreal’s Molson Centre for another episode of Canadian hockey glory. Canada held a 2–1 lead over the U.S. in the third period of the finale at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey.
The Canucks had dominated their North American rivals for the previous 20 years, including a sweep at the Canada Cup in 1991. So there was little reason to think things would change now, especially with less than a period left to play.
However, the Americans turned the hockey world on its head, and, in the process, reignited a rivalry with two quick goals by Brett Hull and Tony Amonte. “That and 2002 in Salt Lake City was the peak of the Canada-U.S. hockey rivalry,” recalls Canadian winger Theo Fleury. “There’s no question.”
Naturally, hearts broke across the country. This was about as good a collection of Canadian hockey talent as we’ll ever see. Gretzky. Messier. Coffey. The trio formed the nucleus and was surrounded by even more household names, such as Yzerman, Sakic, Shanahan, Lindros, Niedermayer, Bourque and Brodeur. “Any time that you get to put a Canadian team together, it is always special,” says Bob Nicholson, then vice president of Hockey Canada. “And this one had a whole bunch of Hockey Hall of Famers.”
The community of Whistler, B.C., might have felt the stinging loss more than any other. A deep connection was forged when Team Canada, led by head coach Glen Sather, descended on the resort municipality on Aug. 14, 1996, and spent seven days tuning up for the battle ahead.
No, the end result of the World Cup wasn’t what Canada envisioned, but it didn’t sour memories of the camp that left an enduring mark on everyone from players and coaches to residents and security staff. “It was a sh—y ending to a great start,” says Fleury.
The following is an oral history of the 1996 camp, told by several people who were there.
BILL BARRATT, former director of parks and recreation for Whistler It was all set up because of our connection to the Vancouver Canucks. Pat Quinn had been to Whistler with the Canucks for training camp. So, they came by, based on Quinn’s recommendation.
BOB NICHOLSON, then vice president of Hockey Canada Glen Sather and Pat Quinn had a real strong relationship, so Glen would have been talking to Pat, and Pat recommending all the various venues that Glen would use. It started with those two and their great relationship.
BILL BARRATT They liked what Whistler brought to the table. The facility, Meadow Park Sports Centre, was a big part of it, for sure. But what they loved about it was all the restaurants and golf courses. It was the complete package. And the players were treated pretty good.
THEO FLEURY, right winger Back in those days, training camp wasn’t necessarily as intense as it is nowadays. I just remember having lots of fun and enjoying being around all these amazing hockey players.
ED JOVANOVSKI, defenceman We… did restaurants in Whistler. Umberto [Menghi’s] place — good Italian spot. Couple good sushi places.
BILL BARRATT I thought this was too much fun, so myself and a bunch of guys volunteered as security. We had done that for the Canucks, so I got a bunch of guys and we did that for Team Canada. They wanted local guys. We knew what the deal was.
THEO FLEURY [Fans] were pumped. Any Canadian city that has the 40 greatest hockey players in the country would love to have guys around. We went out at night and enjoyed the bars.
ED JOVANOVSKI We were focusing on hockey, as well. But being that time of year, it’s tough not to get out and enjoy the scenery. So, we had a couple good nights.
MARC CRAWFORD, associate coach We sure did. Every day after we practised, we’d go golfing. That’s the greatest way to get to know people. I had golf outings with Pat Quinn, [then–Pittsburgh Penguins head coach] Eddie Johnston, Glen Sather. To be able to spend a quality three-to-four hours with some of the legends of our game, was terrific.
THEO FLEURY I played golf every day when I was there. I played Nicklaus North and then I played Whistler [Golf Club]. We all played at that time.
BILL RANFORD, goaltender It was my first time up there. There’s definitely beautiful mountains for the backdrop. I was such a bad golfer, so I was just worried about hitting the ball.
Of course, hockey, not golf, was the primary focus, and Team Canada practices were clinics put on by some of the greatest players to ever don the maple leaf. The rink essentially served as a laboratory, with each star brandishing a unique chemical compound.
ED JOVANOVSKI Obviously with Gretzky leading the way, the roster was crazy.
JASON ARNOTT, centre I remember stepping on the ice for the first time with every superstar idol of mine growing up. The nerves that I felt the very first time I stepped on the ice were huge. There was Messier, Lemieux, Gretzky, Yzerman, Bourque, Sakic — you go down the list, it was like a dream come true. And now I had an opportunity to actually step on the ice and play with them.
ED JOVANOVSKI I had played against all these guys, with the previous year being my rookie year. But you get them all on the same sheet and now it’s different. Practice was crazy. Saw some pretty neat things. A couple of 2-on-1s that Mess and Gretz had on me … I had no chance. Just like, ‘How the hell did he get that through?’
JASON ARNOTT I still remember the talent level — every pass, every shot. I just didn’t want to make a mistake because you’re playing with the best of the best, and they just made it look so easy out there.
THEO FLEURY I was [in that position as a younger player] in 1991 when I went to try out for Team Canada for the Canada Cup. It was one of those things that I think, first and foremost, you dream about playing in the NHL and once you get there, you dream about playing in these different international events. So, when you show up, you’re nervous and you question, ‘Do I really deserve to be here? Do I belong? Will I make the team?’ There’s no question that there’s a bit of trepidation at the beginning.
MARC CRAWFORD The first practice — the pace of the practice, the pace of the passing, the pace of the skill of all those superstar players. I can remember it being so high. The person who stood out the most was goaltender Bill Ranford. He was on fire that day and he was making two-pad stacked saves, left, right and centre.
BILL RANFORD I went through it in 1991, so I wasn’t in complete awe of everybody who was there, in comparison to [back then]. I was excited to be there…. It was just about trying to go out there and make an impression on the first day.
Team Canada traditionally invited a number of young players to training camp as a way to foster growth in that next generation who would hopefully come to represent the country. Arnott, Jovanovski and Eric Daze were among the young players in Whistler, and the veterans were more than willing to do their part.
THEO FLEURY I was obviously a veteran at that time. Your job is to engage and talk to these [young] guys and try to make them feel as comfortable as you can. Gretzky is obviously a guy we all look up to. He was definitely one of those guys [who helped young players out].
MARC CRAWFORD I do recall a great camaraderie amongst the group. Gretzky was certainly the leader.
BILL RANFORD [Gretzky and Messier] step on the ice and they’re ready to play and push the pace with everybody. Probably Mark, more than Wayne. Mark was more the vocal guy and Wayne was the leader by example…. Mark was all about the team. It didn’t matter if you were a starter or backup, first-line, fourth-line guys. He made you feel part of the team.
JASON ARNOTT As the time went on, they made me feel like I was part of a team and they weren’t big shots. They were [more like], “Let’s go grab a beer,” and we all hung out. It was an amazing experience and they were all first-class guys and down to Earth. I was such a young kid playing with them, but eventually the nerves kind of went away after that.
ED JOVANOVSKI It was a special time as a young player, just to shadow these guys and have breakfast, lunch, dinner with them. Play some cards. Paul Coffey was the guy I hung out with. He was the guy that took me under his wing. All the guys were really playing that big-brother role to the younger guys. Definitely made the transition a lot easier.
JASON ARNOTT My roommate was Joe Sakic, which was really cool. He made me feel like I was one of the guys. To this day, he’s a good friend of mine. Just because of that camp, we got to know each other. He helped me along and gave me some advice moving forward.
MARC CRAWFORD I know from my time working with Joe in Quebec and the three years in Colorado as well — those years, we could play Joe with anybody and everybody instantly became better. He was one of those players who did that. Part of the reason it evolved like that was because Joe was a very comforting figure. He was someone who looked out for the best interests of other people. Him doing that for Jason Arnott, I’m not surprised in the least.
JASON ARNOTT Just was one of the nicest guys you’d ever meet.
MARC CRAWFORD He did that for several players on the Avalanche. In those days, we used to have roommates and if we found people were struggling, often times we’d just say, “Joe, you’re gonna room with this guy,” and Joe would say, “Yeah that’s great.” He recognized when people needed a boost and when they needed to feel a little more comfortable.
The camp also served as a reunion for several members of the 1980s dynasty Oilers teams, of which Sather was head coach.
MARC CRAWFORD I had known Glen from him being behind the bench in Edmonton. But that was my first chance to work with him, and it was great. I was like a kid in the candy store, honestly, because I had Sather, Quinn, Bob Gainey [and] Neil Smith, who was one of the GMs that was around. All of those guys, just how they interacted with each other was really special for me, being the new kid on the block. They were very, very giving with information and how they saw things, and it was a great learning experience for me.
BOB NICHOLSON Glen really put in some of the key pieces that he wanted to build that team…. He got what he wanted to get done in the camp.
MARC CRAWFORD The respect all those ex-Oilers showed for Glen Sather was something that really was imprinted in my mind. He was really like a father figure when he spoke to those guys and, obviously, it was different when they were speaking to other people. I don’t know if “revered” was the right word, but Glen Sather certainly had a special standing when he talked with Mark [Messier], when he talked with Paul [Coffey], when he talked with Wayne [Gretzky]. To be privy to that was pretty neat. To watch how that relationship unfolded.
BILL RANFORD There’s always going to be that special bond between that young group of Oilers that grew up together. You definitely saw it there. It was fun to watch the interaction between those guys.
BILL BARRATT When Gretzky arrived, I shook his hand. I couldn’t believe it — I thought he would be bigger. Guy was tall, but he was really thin. Today, you look at these hockey players and they are just so well built. He was slight. Sort of reminds me of Elias Pettersson…. Not that big a guy, but oh my God. So much respect from the other players.
THEO FLEURY I played with him in the Canada Cup in ’91 and at a bunch of all-star games. He was one of the best guys I have ever met in the game.
BILL BARRATT He was a really casual guy. But heavy security with Wayne. He just attracted so much. The RCMP was around. It was different than the Canucks camp. He just attracts autograph seekers. They all wanted his signature.
BOB NICHOLSON There were autograph seekers, but [they] were real fans, not the [ones] who turn those signatures into dollars.
ED JOVANOVSKI Getting from the practice rink to wherever you had to be, you were signing a few autographs. Everyone was respectful. It wasn’t too crazy.
BILL BARRATT They’d have Team Canada jerseys out. The players would sign all around the logo and they would leave the middle of the logo for one player: Wayne Gretzky.
THEO FLEURY Absolutely. It’s called respect, right? If I was an autograph seeker, and I was getting my Team Canada jersey autographed, I’d definitely want Wayne Gretzky in the middle.
ED JOVANOVSKI Everybody was excited. Obviously, we’re in Canada. Whistler is not a very big place, but there were big hockey fans with the Canucks [situated] down the road. I think they were really receptive. The practices, if I recall correctly, were open and there was a bunch of people there watching us. Your typical Canadian fans: Really genuine; can get a little bit crazy, but for the most part, very respectful and yeah, it was fun.
BILL RANFORD It was a very interactive situation. Obviously, Whistler has grown quite a bit since that time, but I think that’s the part that was fun. In a small town in British Columbia, to have that interaction with the people of Whistler made it special — you’re representing your country and being able to be out and about the village and running into people.
BILL BARRATT One day, when Coffey arrived at the rink, there were some kids from Whistler there. He was just out for a skate — he arrived early. He told them to go home and get their skates, and [when they returned] he went out for a skate with them. You hear stories about players, but they were all like that.
As the week wound down, locals didn’t miss out on the opportunity to get the group together for a team photo at Whistler’s Meadow Park.
MARC CRAWFORD I still remember when we did the team picture, you had the mountains in the background. I’m thinking, “Boy, this is a great setting. What a beautiful place it is.” When I go to Whistler now — I still have a place in Vancouver — I’ll go to the rink and check out the picture that’s in the lobby there and it’s kind of neat to be able to say I was part of that group that was there in 1996 and it was a good time.
BILL RANFORD The goalies were on the back of a golf cart because we had our skates on, with skate guards, and they had to transport us to the picture. It was a beautiful shot…. I still have [it] in my home.
BILL BARRATT One of the guys who took them golfing arranged for us [security workers] to get in a photo. So, we dragged a bench out. Team Canada was behind us. They were chirping us the whole time. Coffey especially. [Laughs] We were the volunteers. They knew us all from being there the whole week.
BILL RANFORD There were a few photo bombers. It was actually pretty funny. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s all in good fun.
BILL BARRATT We got the shots and then we had them made up into full, blown-up pictures. It made for good Christmas cards!
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