No matter which side of the 49th you call home, it was one of those seminal events you couldn’t help but be severely affected by.
This week, the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame announced it will induct three players from the American team that defeated Canada to claim the 1996 World Cup of Hockey.
Brett Hull, Mike Richter and Brian Leetch are all being honored, as is Team USA legend Cammi Granato, who becomes the first female player inducted into the U.S. Hall. (Is the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto taking note of the precedent, I wonder?)
Hull, Richter and Leetch were the backbone of the ’96 squad that stunned Canada by winning the best-of-three final in three games. Hull led the event in scoring, Richter was named tournament MVP and his performance in Game 3 of the final is the stuff of legend. Leetch, meanwhile, was the top scorer among all defensemen.
That American team pulled off the sporting equivalent of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon and planting the stars and stripes into something it previously had no real claim to.
The Miracle on Ice is and always will be the quintessential American hockey moment. For pure romance and excitement, you can’t beat a bunch of scraggly college kids toppling what their president called the ‘Evil Empire’ (also known as the Soviet Union) at the height of the Cold War. There’s a reason that event became a movie.
But for all the shock value the Miracle held, in many ways Team USA’s win in 1996 was more substantive. The most significant aspect of the triumph was that there was no miracle involved. The Americans put together a team that was simply superior to Canada’s entry – and everyone else’s for that matter – and the results bore out.
To put it in poker terms, anybody with a butt can sit down at a table and be dealt one killer hand at random, but you’ve got to have all the angles covered and facts figured to hang in with the world’s premier card sharks and simply be the best there is.
And just as so many members of that ’96 squad were inspired as youngsters by the 1980 team, imagine how seeing their countrymen defeat Canada at its own game emboldened future American stars like Scott Gomez, Patrick Kane and Dustin Brown.
On the other side of the fence, as a teenager growing up in Canada at the time, I was floored to find out my country could lose one of these best-on-best events. And I was absolutely devastated to discover it could lose one to the U.S.
Americans better than Canadians at hockey? Would I be taking a yellow bus to school the next day or should I just hop on one of those flying pigs? It was like discovering a giant “Made in the USA” sticker on the back of the CN Tower or that Donovan Bailey was on steroids, too.
No sir, we didn’t like being out-hockeyed by our southern neighbors one bit. There’s a lot of truth in what Hull, born in Canada but Team USA to the bone, recently said when asked how he felt about the variety of nasty things Canadian fans called him during that event.
“You know what the greatest part of that was? They never once said anything, they never booed, until we became that team that was able to beat Canada,” said Hull of the reaction he received for wearing the stars and stripes. “When they got scared of us as a group playing against them, that’s when they started.
“That was a great feeling ... It really made me feel good.”
Hull would also feel pretty good about being joined by all of his ’96 teammates in the U.S. Hall. Phil Housley and Pat LaFontaine preceded this year’s troika of inductees, while guys like Chris Chelios and Mike Modano are a lock to get there upon retirement.
But the American powers that be need to take it one step further and enshrine the entire 1996 Team USA roster, just as it did for the 1960 and 1980 Olympic teams that won gold for the U.S. Those teams helped put USA hockey on the map, but it didn’t truly arrive as a world power until the end of that watershed tournament 12 years ago.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Fridays.
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