Wearing the uniform of Team USA, winger Scott Young was a few feet from the action when a man he knew well scored a goal that had an all too familiar feel. In 1996, international best-on-best events featured Team Canada and a bunch of red herrings. No matter how hotly contested the action, there was an understanding it would end in Canadian glory. And with 7:10 remaining in the decisive contest of the inaugural World Cup of Hockey, Young feared he was witnessing that infuriating dynamic again when, of all players, his Colorado Avalanche teammate Adam Foote floated a seeing-eye shot past goalie Mike Richter to give Canada a 2–1 lead. “I remember him doing his little dance after he scored,” says Young, “and I was sitting on the bench going, ‘Please, no. It can’t end like this.’”
Everybody else inside Montreal’s arena—known at the time as the Molson Centre—was experiencing the happy version of “Here we go again!” as Foote raised his stick and pumped his right arm. The only people who weren’t already anointing Foote Canada’s next national hero were Young and his confident, cohesive American teammates. And by the time a team fuelled by movie clips was done going off script, they hadn’t just turned the expected ending on its ear, they’d blown it to bits.
Brett Hull’s tournament-best seventh goal tied the deciding game of a best-of-three final with 3:18 remaining in the third period. Forty-three seconds later, Tony Amonte whacked home a rebound and launched himself into Derian Hatcher’s body like a homesick 10-year-old getting picked up from camp by his parents. The validity of both goals was tested by video review, elongating the crackling disbelief that reverberated around the rink after each tally. In the final minute, the U.S. tacked on two more for a 5–2 victory. The comeback in the clinching game may have been dizzying, but the big-picture result was well-deserved and officially marked the arrival of Team USA as a hockey heavyweight, a class in which it has only become more firmly entrenched since. Sixteen years after the shocking Olympic triumph of 1980, a golden generation of American players fixated on the idea that they would claim the World Cup, entering the winner’s circle through the front door. No miracle, all merit, thanks to ample talent and an uncommon bond.
Young had precious little downtime in the summer of ’96 because his NHL team only stopped playing after defeating the Florida Panthers for the Stanley Cup. Barely two months passed before he was back in a dressing room, trying to make his blood run as hot as the temperatures outside. That got a little easier when, in advance of an exhibition game against Canada, Young witnessed a spirited conversation between forwards Keith Tkachuk and Bill Guerin over which Canuck each of them would attack in order to combat a larger, lingering issue: “That feeling that Canada would always take advantage of U.S. teams in these national tournaments,” says Young. “They just said, right out of the gate, ‘No way. Who are we fighting? We’re fighting first shift.’”
It was actually during the third period in the second of two warm-up contests with Canada that Tkachuk got into it with Brendan Shanahan, cueing Guerin—during the same jumble—to confront the hulking Keith Primeau. “I remember that and being like, ‘Wow, we’re not taking any shit,’” says Young.
That notion permeated Team USA even before it opened training camp in Providence, R.I. When GM Lou Lamoriello gathered management and a coaching staff headed by Ron Wilson earlier that off-season at his New Jersey Devils offices, the message boiled down to: “There are a lot of good teams in this tournament, but this is the one that will be winning it.”
Once camp kicked off, players marvelled at the crispness and speed of practice from the first drill. Away from the rink, USA Hockey went the extra mile to make them feel welcome and leave no doubt that theirs was a first-rate operation. “Much better than it probably had been in the past,” says Joel Otto, a member of American squads at the 1987 and ’91 Canada Cups.
Though golf outings and other events meant to build team chemistry were appreciated, they weren’t entirely necessary. While the players joked about being held hostage—marooned from their summer homes and toys during a time of year that was traditionally their own—there wasn’t much suffering going on. When they weren’t picking fights with Canadians, Tkachuk, Guerin and guys like Mike Modano and Doug Weight formed a comedy troupe that kept the Stars and Stripes in stitches. “They were doing a stand-up act the entire time,” says defenceman Mathieu Schneider.
Even when they had other options, U.S. players looked for each other. During one break in camp, assistant coach Paul Holmgren was visited by his wife and young children. The family went out for dinner and had just settled in when Holmgren detected some familiar hoots in the air. “I look over at the bar and there’s, literally, the whole team,” he says. “All the players were at the bar having a go ’round on their off day, but they’re all together.”
That chemistry carried over. The Americans, with size, speed and toughness throughout the lineup, defeated Canada, Russia and Slovakia by a combined score of 19–8 to finish the preliminary round a perfect 3-0. In a semifinal rematch with Russia, the Yanks dismantled one of hockey’s traditional superpowers to the tune of 5–2. When Canada won a double-overtime squeaker versus Sweden in the other semifinal, the all–North American duel was set. “We wanted that matchup,” says Guerin, who played on a line with Modano and Tkachuk. “It was a great opportunity for us. In order to really make a statement, we had to beat Canada.”
While everybody was on board with the challenge, nobody had any delusions about what facing Wayne Gretzky, Eric Lindros and Co. meant. Five Canada Cups—the name was changed for the ’96 event—had been held to that point, and the only one not claimed by the tournament’s namesake was the 1981 edition, taken by the Soviets in a one-game final. Beyond that blemish on Canada’s resumé lay a celebration-filled body of work as expansive as the country itself. “There’s always this aura surrounding Canada . . . with the way they’ve pulled off victories,” says Young. “There’s always this, in the back of your mind, ‘This is Canada.’”
That thought could easily have become front-of-mind after the opening game of the final, held Sept. 10 in Philadelphia. Following a frantic end to regulation that saw the U.S. set a partisan crowd ablaze by evening the score with seven seconds remaining, the teams headed to overtime. Instead of getting a bounce from their late-game heroics, the Americans managed one extra-time shot in more than 10 minutes of play. On the visitors’ seventh attempt, they got a goal from Steve Yzerman to secure a 4–3 win. Canada now had two chances to sew up the tournament on home soil where, five years earlier, it had swept Team USA in a best-of-three final to claim the 1991 Cup.
While nobody in the American camp spent much time licking wounds, that was especially true of the 41-year-old coach. Wilson was a trailblazer. Few bench bosses at the time—when clutching and grabbing was just taking hold of the NHL—turned their players loose the way Wilson did, beginning with very up-tempo practices. He was also as adept with hard drives and monitors as he was with whistles and whiteboards. “Really computer literate for 1996,” says Holmgren.
Putting his tech knowledge to use throughout the competition, Wilson bombarded his charges with segments from movies that either glamourized the Red, White and Blue or simply sent neck hairs dancing. Patton, Rocky—whatever he thought would make his guys go through the wall. It could have played as hokey, but the acerbic, cocksure leader pulled it off, and his flag-waving swagger rippled through the club as he zeroed in on a singular theme. “The U.S. is the best, that’s what he was driving home at us,” says Guerin. “He can talk and deliver a speech, I’ll tell you that.”
With Wilson lighting the way, Team USA evened the series with a 5–2 victory in Montreal, setting up a winner-take-all battle two days later. Despite the American advance, it still seemed like the northern stars were lining up. The game would take place on Saturday night, the holy hockey time for Canadians. And the country was on a roll that summer, with Donovan Bailey winning gold in the 100-metre dash at the Atlanta Olympics, then anchoring the 4×100-metre relay team that dethroned the Americans and danced in the Georgia night just a couple of Saturdays prior to the big puck showdown. Robert Esmie, who ran the opening leg on the relay crew, took the Olympic baton into the Canadian dressing room before game three and passed it to captain Gretzky, whose side skated out to an ear-splitting welcome.
Hull beat Curtis Joseph to stake Team USA to a 1–0 first-period lead, but Canada was clearly in sprint mode during a white-hot, emotional affair. The middle frame alone saw the teams rack up a combined 37 penalty minutes, including a five-and-a-game slashing sentence for Tkachuk, who took exception to some of Foote’s nasty stick work. The only thing more frequent than the penalties were Canadian shots. Richter turned in an all-time goaltending performance while facing 22 second-period pucks. He wasn’t beaten until Lindros spun and fired a low drive from just above the hash marks with six seconds left in the stanza. “I’ve always said, at that point in time, Mike Richter was the best player in the world,” says Guerin. “He was just so good.”
Had Richter been able to get any kind of read on Foote’s shot, maybe he would have stopped that, too. Instead, he was motionless as it floated past his catching arm into the top of the net. Even if the entire U.S. bench felt equally helpless for a moment, it never grew into a minute. “We just had that kind of team,” says Young. “We kept coming at you.”
The final blitz was mesmerizing. A poor clearing attempt by Claude Lemieux was intercepted at the blueline by captain Brian Leetch, directed toward the goal and tipped by Hull en route to the net. Next, the line of Amonte, Bryan Smolinksi and John LeClair swarmed. A point shot by Hatcher was stopped by Joseph, but Amonte was right there to fire the rebound high into the net with his stick, not his skate, as the video review confirmed. Canada’s last chance to restore hockey order fell to No. 99 himself, who, with Joseph on the bench and under a minute to go in the game, couldn’t corral a pass at the side of an essentially unguarded goal. Seconds later, Hatcher whipped the puck from his own slot straight into the empty Canadian net. The last one from Adam Deadmarsh just gave the bench one more reason to explode before the final buzzer. “It was crazy,” says Guerin. “You go from the clock ticking down to this series of goals that just rattled off, and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to win this thing.’”
When they officially did, Richter was named tournament MVP, and a group of American players—not a single one among them with a previous major international title to his name—let loose. As much as it meant to in-their-prime beasts like LeClair, Tkachuk and Modano, the victory really resonated with older, battle-scarred players. At some point during the celebratory night, Gary Suter—whose older brother, Bob, was on the ’80 Lake Placid team—wandered into the hotel room shared by Young and Chris Chelios. “I’ve never seen a happier guy in my life,” says Young. “[Suter] was over the top. You could just see the emotion in his face.”
The victories have come more frequently for USA Hockey in the 20 years since that watershed event, especially on junior-level teams populated with players who cite the 1996 World Cup as their moment of inspiration. Guerin has heard the younger generation say that ’96 was their 1980, and it means the world to him. But it’s not just the kids Guerin talks to about that team. The squad’s instant connection endures the way their collective achievement does, the echoes of those clinked glasses in Providence still as real as memories from the ice in Montreal. “I made some friendships that have lasted a lifetime,” says Guerin. “I love that team.”