PHILADELPHIA -- Four hours before his World Cup of Hockey-winning team was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, coach Ron Wilson recalled his most prominent memory from the 1996 inaugural tournament.
Playing the first game of the best-of-three final at Philadelphia’s brand new CoreStates Center, he directed U.S. center Joel Otto to send a message to his Flyers teammate, Canada captain Eric Lindros.
“I had Joel Otto pitted against him for the first face off, and I kind of asked Joel, ‘Don’t worry about it, just give him a cross check, and we’ll see what happens,’” Wilson said. “Literally all hell broke loose at that point. Joel cross-checked him, and Lindros took a step back, like, ‘What are you doing?’
“We kind of sent our message right in that first shift, that we were here.”
That mentality defined the vaunted 1996 team, which was formally inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame on Wednesday night at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, alongside 1988 Olympian Craig Janney and prep coach Bill Belisle.
The 1996 U.S. team was one with size, strength, attitude and grit. It was a squad that could skate, score and defend, and it was stacked with superstars like Tony Amonte, Brett Hull, Brian Leetch, Mike Modano, Bill Guerin and tournament MVP Mike Richter. In total, 16 of those players are in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame as individuals.
The Americans didn’t win on that night in Philly, but they would come back to do the unthinkable, winning back-to-back games in Montreal to claim the series two games to one.
“It meant a lot to us to beat Canada and win the World Cup,” said Wilson, who also coached Team USA at the 1998 and 2010 Olympic Winter Games. “That’s what I wanted to prove. That was the message, that we’re not here for second place. Second place is basically for losers. We’re here to win the whole thing, and everybody better be on board.”
Everybody was on board in 1996, and the majority of that group of players, a golden generation of American talent, reassembled two years later for the Nagano 1998 Olympic Winter Games.
It was the first time that NHL players participated in the Winter Games, but the United States wasn’t able to replicate the success from two years prior. Team USA crashed out in the quarterfinals with a 4-1 loss to the Czech Republic, finishing sixth overall.
Leetch, the team captain, said expectations didn’t change much going into Nagano.
“We went in thinking we should win, as opposed to thinking that we could,” the 10-time NHL all-star explained. “That tournament is like a lot of best on best. It’s a fine line, and if you don’t have everybody playing at or near their best, then the other team is going to exploit it, or, if something goes wrong in one game, you’re going home in a hurry.”
The 2002 squad still featured Leetch, Richter, Amonte, Hull and a number of others who formed the core of the 1996 World Cup team. Now approaching the tail ends of their international careers, they rebounded from a disappointing 1998 Winter Games to win the silver medal in 2002 in Salt Lake City.
“I’m not sure we had a different expectation,” Richter said. “We knew that we could win, which doesn’t mean the same thing as just showing up and it happening automatically. What we also knew is that any team could beat you, on any given night. If you get behind one game, as we did with the Swedes (in 1998), then you’re on the outside looking in, very, very fast.”
NHL players participated in their fifth Winter Games in 2014 in Sochi, and the World Cup returned from a 12-year hiatus in September for its third edition. Yet Richter said international play today is every bit as competitive and unpredictable as it was when he played.
“They all can win,” he said. “So it shouldn’t be a surprise that anybody wins these tournaments, because they are all that good. … I don’t see the international game changing much. There are five teams every year that can win the gold medal.”
Joining the 1996 team in the Hall of Fame is former Boston Bruins standout Janney, who played 12 NHL seasons.
A first-round draft pick out of Boston College, Janney represented his country at the Calgary 1988 Olympic Winter Games before beginning his Bruins career. He scored three goals and added one assist in Calgary as Team USA finished the tournament in seventh.
Inspired by the 1980 Olympic team, Janney said he always enjoyed wearing the U.S. jersey.
“Anytime you put it on it’s awesome for USA guys, especially because we’re the ‘80 brigade, and we all grew up (watching) that 1980 team,” said Janney, who also suited up for various other U.S. teams in his career. “Whenever we got that USA jersey on, it was spectacular. It was such a great feeling.
“But in (1988), we had a bad Olympics. We had a real good team with a lot of skill, and we laid an egg in the tournament, so that’s very disappointing, that part of it. The best part of it was seven months together as kids. We grew a lot and made some friendships that lasted a lifetime. It would have been nice to have a medal, too.”