For a long time, it was pretty hard to harbor hope if you were a hockey fan who liked to see Americans succeed at the highest levels. Leaving aside the 1960 Winter Olympics—when the U.S. took gold—as part of another era, there were really two events in the late twentieth century when you thought Americans could hang with the dominant hockey nations—Canada and Russia—albeit very briefly.
You know one of them, of course, because everyone knows hockey’s greatest moment, which is also the greatest moment in the history of team sports, and that one time the sport leapt everything else to sit in the king’s chair: the 1980 Miracle on Ice.
But if you grew up with that, you always had a sense that as wonderful as it was, it was something that wouldn’t have happened again if the same two teams squared off 10 more times. The Miracle boys would have been dusted, which made that one time all the cooler, but it didn’t galvanize your faith that it was anything but a glorious—oh so glorious—exception to the otherwise inalterable hockey nation power ratings.
The second moment was quieter, but just as fluky, maybe, when U.S.-born Bobby Carpenter, of scenic Beverley, Mass., scored 53 goals for the Washington Capitals in 1984-85, becoming the first American to reach the 50 mark.
It was shocking at the time. Americans were mostly pluggers, third line guys who cycled down low, chipped and chased, punched a clock and donned a hard hat, in blue collar parlance. They didn’t snipe. Carpenter was 21 years old. He would never score more than 27 goals in a season again.
These two events were one-offs, and watching international competitions like the Canada Cup, you knew the Americans would be also-rans. So when the World Cup of Hockey kicked off in late August 20 years ago, you had every right to disregard the whispers that maybe this was a tournament the Americans could win.
Basically, the World Cup was what the Canada Cup had been. That series had four installments: the Canadians won in 1976, '87, and '91, and the Soviets took the prize in '81. The Americans hadn’t gotten a sniff of anything; they were one of the countries you fine-tuned yourself against if you were a super club.
But by the mid-90s, matters were a touch different. Americans were asserting themselves in the NHL as star players, not mere glue guys. Studs, not plug-and-place yeomen.
Team USA goalie Mike Richter had backstopped the ’94 New York Rangers to their first Stanley Cup in 54 years, and this was a time when he was one of the three or four best keepers in the world. Richter was no Hall of Fame career, but goalies can get on a run that spans several annum where they count as among the best who have ever played.
Bernie Parent of the Philadelphia Flyers did this in Koufaxian style in the mid-70s, while in recent years there’s the example of Tim Thomas with the Boston Bruins. Richter was more in the latter category, but he was ensconced in the absolute prime of it when the first World Cup started.
The U.S. roster certainly had star presence, but was also a 2004 Detroit Pistons kind of team, or one like the 2003 New England Patriots squad, where there were just so many plus players—that is, not quite Hockey Hall of Famers, but the rung below: All-Stars who regularly competed on top 10 leaderboards and could take home some hardware.
Defenseman Chris Chelios was perhaps the most important skater on the team, someone we tend to underrate, or think of firstly as a tough all-around player with skill, sort of like the blue line version of Bryan Trottier. But Chelios was a better offensive defenseman than the collective memory usually attests, and conceivably the second best defenseman of his era. And his era was freakin’ stacked with awesome backliners. Like Brian Leetch, who was also on the squad, the 1990s mini-Orr.
There were other Hall of Famers or future Hall of Famers—Brett Hull (OK, so he was born in Canada, but for these purposes he was an American), Pat LaFontaine, Phil Housley, Mike Modano—but every bit as important were those ‘tweeners who might not be immortalized but brought it big time in '96: Doug Weight, Bill Guerin, John LeClair, Keith Tkachuk, Tony Amonte.
Guerin was at his best in the Dead Puck era, so you almost had to have seen him to know what a force he was, but for a while he was a poor man’s American version of Mark Messier. Fast as anyone in the league, a vicious hitter, someone who played with such an edge that he might as well have come from a Lizzie Borden fantasy camp, with a hair-trigger release, booming slap shot, and a knack around the net. Power and touch.
This was the best American team ever iced, as now borne out by its inclusion in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame's Class of 2016, so you had some hope. But let’s look at the Canadian roster, which featured Messier, Wayne Gretzky, Paul Coffey, Steve Yzerman, Eric Lindros, Rob Blake, Martin Brodeur, Brendan Shanahan, and Joe Sakic. Like, good luck, right?
The Americans had a major assist in that Mario Lemieux wasn’t there, nor Ray Bourque. And while you might be tempted to think that that this was an aged Gretzky who wouldn’t scare you, keep in mind that going forward he’d still lead the league in assists two more times and be a Second Team All-Star twice in his remaining three years.
But for the first time in the history of the NHL, there were almost as many American stars as Canadian ones. The Russian team was fat with star power, but as was sometimes the case, its roster was top-heavy, whereas this was going to be a tourney of balance.
The U.S. played Canada in two pre-tournament exhibition games, losing 3–1 in Vancouver and prevailing 7–5 in San Jose. Hockey isn’t football—exhibition games can mean something. The Soviets destroyed the US 10–3 at Madison Square Garden before the 1980 Winter Olympics, which is what they should have destroyed them by in Lake Placid and would have on most nights, excepting that glorious exception. Clearly, the Americans vs. the Canadians in ’96 was going to be a push. This was new, this was exciting, and for players on the American side, such as Phil Housley, it became what the '87 Canada Cup was to someone like Dale Hawerchuk: the biggie, the be all and end all. There had been no Cup success, you had to figure that maybe there never would be, and this was your moment for a championship.
The actual tournament 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.
It was in the first round when the U.S. tripped up Canada 5–3 that you knew a humdinger would be forthcoming. The loss meant that Canada had to play in the quarterfinals of the knock-out bracket. They handled Germany, as they should have, then nudged Sweden by a goal, while the U.S. team dominated Russia, setting up a best-of-three final vs. the Canadians.
Sometimes in sports you just have it going on for a few days. Think of David Ortiz in the 2004 American League Championship Series, or Michael Jordan against the Utah Jazz in the '98 NBA Finals. Yes, you can have a zenith, but what’s worth noting is that little attic room at the very top of the notion of a zenith, a zenith’s zenith, if you will, and it was in that room that Mike Richter was living during these World Cup finals.
Richter was on the bench when the U.S. tied Game 1 in Philadelphia with seven seconds to go on a goal by LeClair—ah, sweet glory sourced from a scrum—but then Yzerman's bad-angle goal in OT sent everyone on the American side home unhappy. There was only one possible solution for the U.S. squad, and that was to go on a two-game winning streak, which they did, knowing full well that they could play with these guys, and outplay them, too, for long stretches of game.
Game 2 was in Montreal—talk about a home rink/nation advantage—but the U.S. was dominant, winning 5–2. In the same building, the rubber match saw the Canadians pepper Richter with 37 shots through two periods. This was goaltending at its finest from someone who knew stress in these matters, having lived through that epic series against the New Jersey Devils in the ’94 playoffs, and then another doozy against the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup Final. Some goalies feel the pressure but you never know it, and Richter was one of those goalies.
Still, the U.S. trailed halfway through the third period until Hull deflected a shot by Leetch. Then Amonte had his career-defining moment with the go-ahead goal, and it became hold-on time, which the U.S. did.
SI VAULT: USA Over DNA by Michael Farber (9/23/96)
For once, Wayne Gretzky did not lead a tournament in scoring, that honor went to Hull, while the MVP went, as it necessarily had to, to Richter. This was no fluke, no Miracle on Ice. You wouldn’t want to call it, say, the Quotidian on Ice, but there was something natural, something of a piece, something, when you watched it, that was not really remarkable about this U.S. team changing the perception of what America could do, realistically, as a hockey country. You will continue to swoon over the 1980 Miracle makers, but this was the team that took something singular and made you think this could happen again, maybe even should happen again, and, of course, will sooner or later.
Maybe in September.