In the 16 years after a special group of Americans captured the United States’ heart by stunning the world with a 1980 Olympic gold medal, the U.S. was still considered second-class citizens to powerhouses like Canada.
They didn’t medal in one World Championship or in the next five Olympics. Other than a silver medal at the 2002 Olympics and a second-place finish at the 1991 Canada Cup, Zach Parise doesn’t remember a lot of winning by the red, white and blue on the international stage.
That’s why the 1996 World Cup was perfect.
Parise was at that impressionable age of 12 and recalls his first feeling of patriotism as a young hockey player watching with awe as the United States stunned superpower Canada in Canada to win the first World Cup of Hockey.
“These were the guys I idolized and wanted to be,” Parise said. “Just a special team.”
Now Parise and the Americans enter the 2016 World Cup, which begins Saturday in Toronto when they play Team Europe, carrying the legacy of that 1996 team.
Keith Tkachuk, Tony Amonte, Doug Weight and Mike Modano. Phil Housley, Chris Chelios and Brian Leetch. Mike Richter. These were the guys Parise and many of his current World Cup teammates watched with wonderment.
Led by Canadian-born Brett Hull, the Americans upset a Canadian cast that would ultimately have 10 players named to the Hockey Hall of Fame. They had names like Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Joe Sakic and Steve Yzerman. On the back end, they were downright nasty with Scott Stevens, Adam Foote and Rob Blake.
The Canadians were considered the best team ever assembled. Yet after losing the first of a best-of-three final in Philadelphia, the Americans went into hostile Montreal and won consecutive games to stun Goliath.
Twenty years later, U.S. General Manager Dean Lombardi has tried to model this year’s World Cup team after 1996 for the once-again intent of beating Canada in Canada.
In order to win, U.S. coach John Tortorella says, “You’re going to have to go through Canada.”
Skilled finishers Phil Kessel, Tyler Johnson and Justin Faulk were left off in favor of the gritty likes of Brandon Dubinsky, Justin Abdelkader and Erik Johnson with the hopes of standing up to the physical brazenness Canada can impose. In two shockingly chippy pretournament games, the U.S. and Canada split. The Americans’ first real crack at Canada comes Tuesday in their second game of a round robin.
“We can definitely go out there and win it,” said the grittiest American of them all, Minnesota’s own Big Buff, Dustin Byfuglien. “It’s just a matter of us coming together.”
The World Cup may not carry the prestige of the Olympics, but the field is stacked with greater talent and thus competition. Instead of 12 teams, the NHL and NHL Players’ Association changed the format.
Two of the eight teams are a European All-Star Team composed of nations not Finland, Sweden, the Czech Republic and Russia; and a 23-and-under North American All-Star team.
The North American team carries the most intrigue. In a group that includes Finland, Russia and Sweden, an upset or two in the round robin portion of the tournament could catapult the young bucks into a single-elimination semifinal against potentially the United States or Canada.
The assembly of teams didn’t allow Lombardi and Canadian GM Doug Armstrong to choose from up-and-comers such as Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews and Johnny Gaudreau, who are on the North American team. That also meant the execs didn’t have to make hard decisions to trim the fat from the 2014 Olympic teams in Sochi.
Canada has won the past two Olympics. After winning silver in Vancouver in 2010, the United States disappointed in Sochi by losing to Canada in the semifinals. Parise captained that team, but the U.S. overhauled the leadership heading into this World Cup.
San Jose Sharks captain Joe Pavelski was named captain. The Wild’s Ryan Suter, whose uncle, Gary, played on the 1996 U.S. team, and Chicago’s Patrick Kane were named assistant captains. Parise didn’t get a letter, yet reportedly he was the first to face the media and praise Pavelski after the decision was made.
“I hold a lot of respect in the locker room for those guys, so there’s a bigger responsibility to bring your ‘A’ game and be at your best for them because you know those guys are going to be competing,” Pavelski said.
Sweden is indisputably a favorite perhaps a notch below Canada. Russia is led by snipers Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin. And Finland usually medals in most events. They are captained by the Wild’s Mikko Koivu, one of 10 players in the tournament who also took part in the 2004 World Cup. The Finns lost to Canada in that event.
With it very uncertain that NHLers will participate in the next Olympics in South Korea, World Cup participants, especially vets, want to capitalize on this opportunity.
“[Parise] and I are getting older in our careers and with the uncertainty of the Olympics, you just never know,” Ryan Suter said. “Not that we didn’t try before, but you just really want to bear down knowing this may be our last chance to win one of these.”
The 1996 U.S. World Cup was a great boost to hockey in the U.S. The rousing victory came right after newfangled U.S.-based teams Colorado and Florida went to the Stanley Cup Final and right before expansion to U.S. markets Atlanta, Columbus, Nashville and Minnesota.
More and more hockey-loving kids were paying attention, and Americans in this World Cup hope to make similar impact.
“It’s an honor to be part of this,” said New York Rangers captain and former Minnesota Mr. Hockey Ryan McDonagh. “It’s the best players the world has to offer and a great opportunity to represent your country. You never know when you’ll get another opportunity, so you want to make the most of it and get a little revenge on Sochi.”