Two decades after winning the inaugural event, the U.S. is again attempting to rise to the top of the hockey world at the 2016 World Cup in Toronto.
Team USA won the first World Cup in 1996, defeating heavily-favored Canada in a best-of-three final, with the Americans winning the last two games in Montreal. Paul Holmgren, assistant general manager of this year’s American World Cup entry, was an associate coach with Team USA 20 years ago and remembers it quite well.
“It was one of the greatest groups of American players ever assembled,” recalled Holmgren just before the start of this year’s event. “They were under the radar, and I don’t think they get the recognition they deserve. It was a special group of guys.”
Names on that roster included Tony Amonte, Chris Chelios, Bill Guerin, Brett Hull, John Leclair, Pat Lafontaine, Brian Leetch, Mike Modano and Mike Richter. Chelios, Hull, Leclair and Richter all made the tournament all-star team, while Amonte scored the winning goal late in the 5-2 victory over Canada in the deciding contest.
As the old saying goes, though, that was then and this is now. The U.S. may have improved on ice, especially on the international stage, but so have a number of other nations.
“I think globally that hockey, like the [National Hockey League], is pretty even,” said Holmgren, whose long career with the Philadelphia Flyers has spanned from player to president. “Going in, Canada is the favorite, but that doesn’t mean they’ll win.”
He mentioned that other countries were also capable of winning, even this year’s two hybrid squads from Europe and North America, respectively.
“I believe anyone can win if they play properly and come together, and [it’s] also who has the hottest goaltender,” said Holmgren.
Regardless of the outcome of this year’s World Cup, the game itself appears to be in solid shape.
“Hockey is in a good position moving forward, and U.S. hockey has grown by leaps and bounds,” added Holmgren. “The U.S. has good players playing today, including the players on the under-23 [North America] team.“
Also on that 1996 World Cup title team was Phil Housley, who manned the blueline for the red, white and blue back then and in six World Championships. Two decades later, Housley, who has spent the last three NHL campaigns as an assistant coach with the Nashville Predators, is an assistant with Team USA as it tries to recreate the glory of ’96.
“I don’t think it ever goes away,” he said of the championship gratification. “There’s a lot of pride on the line, every time you wear those colors, and our guys are no exception.”
Housley, who enjoyed a 20-year NHL career and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame last year, explained that the American hockey championship pedigree goes back to Olympic gold at Squaw Valley in 1960, followed 20 years later by Lake Placid.
“It was another instance where the U.S. regained its confidence and place in the hockey world,” he said. “The 1996 team put it all together and won a championship … We’ve been in the mix in a lot of other tournaments — but there’s a lot of great players in the world now, with a lot of pride, and there’s a lot at stake.”
Despite the U.S. opening the 2016 World Cup with a 3-0 setback to Team Europe, Housley believes that Team USA can bounce back. While the 1996 team went unbeaten until the final series, the 2004 team also lost its first game of pool play but went on to make the semi-finals.
“You never know what can happen in a short tournament like this,” said Housley. “It put us in a hole, but it doesn’t mean it’s over. We can only control what we can control, and that’s our next game.”
The 2016 World Cup of Hockey will conclude with a best-of-three series held Sept. 27, 29 and Oct. 1 (if necessary). All games of the tournament will take place at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
|Fri, Sept. 9||Canada (Pre-Tourn.)||Columbus, OH (Nationwide)||W, 4-2|
|Sat., Sept. 10||Canada (Pre-Tourn.)||Ottawa, Ont.||L, 2-5|
|Tues., Sept. 13||Finland (Pre-Tourn.)||Washington, D.C. (Verizon)||W, 3-2|
|Sat., Sept. 17||Team Europe||Toronto (ACC)||L, 0-3|
|Tues., Sept. 20||Canada||Toronto (ACC)||L, 2-4|
|Thurs., Sept. 22||Czech Republic||Toronto (ACC)||L, 3-4|