Three minutes and 18 seconds. That’s all the time it took for the 1996 United States World Cup squad to shock the hockey world. From 1981-1994, the U.S. Men’s National Team struggled against their neighbors to the north. They had never before beaten Canada in a best-on-best battle through that stretch. But during the inaugural World Cup of Hockey, they did. They became the best in the world, a success USA Hockey hopes to repeat in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
“In Canada, hockey is their pride,” Hockey Hall of Famer and 1996 U.S. team member Pat LaFontaine said. “You’re not supposed to come in to Canada and beat them, best against best. Just look at the names we were going up against. Their four centermen were Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic. We had to beat that talented group of players twice in a row in Montreal. It was a pretty hefty task but the guys really took it upon their shoulders and made it happen.”
America put its best on the ice, too. Along with LaFontaine, the 1996 U.S. World Cup roster boasted legendary last names such as Chelios, Amonte, Modano and Richter. It was a team made up of 97 percent NHL players with a blend of Olympic veterans and rising stars.
Rise to the Top
In its inaugural year, the format for the World Cup of Hockey changed slightly from its predecessor, the Canada Cup. Eight teams were separated into two groups, European and North American.
The U.S. completed the round robin group games with a perfect 3-0-0 record, defeating Canada (5-3), Russia (5-2) and Slovakia (9-3). The team’s scoring prowess was notable, outscoring the combined three teams 19-8.
The victories moved Team USA to the semifinals against Russia. The boys in red, white and blue ousted the Russians, 5-2, at Madison Square Garden.
“Beating Russia in Madison Square Garden, that was a pretty emotional game,” said LaFontaine. “I think there were a lot of eyes on that U.S. World Cup team in 1996 and everyone wanted to see us succeed and move on to the finals.
“The way our team came together with a passion and a want to achieve something is why we advanced.”
The win pushed the U.S. to the finals where they faced the heavily favored Canadians in the best-of-three championship. The U.S. narrowly lost the first game in Philadelphia with an overtime score of 4-3. It set up a must-win situation for Game 2 in Montreal. Team USA rose to the occasion, forcing a decisive Game 3 after downing the Canadians, 5-2.
But Game 3 in Montreal wasn’t going to be as easy the first. Heading into the third period, Canada held a 2-1 lead as the clock dwindled.
With just 3:18 remaining in the game, Brett Hull deflected a shot from Brian Leetch past Canadian goaltender Curtis Joseph to knot it at two. Forty-three seconds later Tony Amonte found himself skating through the slot. Derian Hatcher sailed the puck toward the net, Amonte getting a piece of it. After a lengthy review, the goal stood. Team USA was ahead, 3-2, with little more than two minutes to go.
“I remember watching the puck go in off Tony Amonte and soon after that we just took complete control of the game,” recalled LaFontaine, a 15-year NHL veteran, two-time Olympian and 2003 U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame inductee. “It’s amazing how things happen and how they can change in a matter of minutes. It was just one of those surreal moments. No one was rattled as the third period wound down. It was a collective calm and that’s what helped us rally to win.”
Derian Hatcher followed with an empty-net goal and Adam Deadmarsh snuck one more past Joseph to seal the deal, 5-2. U.S. goaltender Mike Richter was outstanding in net. The hall of famer made 180 saves through six games and finished the tournament with a .923 save percentage. His play earned him the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award, cementing his place among the world’s elite players.
“We couldn’t have done it without Mike,” LaFontaine said of the team’s netminder. “He was absolutely amazing. He carried the team on his back through that tournament. We all have him to thank for achieving what we did in ’96.”
For LaFontaine and his teammates, the win was comparable to what they had witnessed watching the 1980 ‘Miracle on Ice.’ It was the first international championship for Team USA since Lake Placid and a monumental step forward for USA Hockey. Once again the paradigm of hockey in the world had shifted in the Americans favor.
“We broke a barrier,” said LaFontaine. “Just look at where USA Hockey is now. There was a respect we earned worldwide with that victory.”
Bringing it Back in 2016
The World Cup of Hockey made its second appearance in 2004. After a 12-year drought, the NHL announced this January that the series is coming back in 2016.
“I think bringing back the World Cup is tremendous,” LaFontaine said. “I think the game is at a great place. It’s grown and seems to be achieving great levels as far as exposure, excitement and growth. To have the World Cup come back again, I couldn’t be happier.”
With 20 years between the 1996 World Cup, LaFontaine says it’s time for the U.S. to mark another big win on the international stage.
“If you look back in USA Hockey, there were those pillars that were defined by important wins,” said LaFontaine. “The 1960 and 1980 Olympics were two, followed by the 1996 World Cup and the 1998 women’s Olympic gold medal. Those were the big defining moments of USA Hockey. I think we’re due for another one.”