Exactly 30 years ago this week, Cory Laylin’s reflection in the plexiglass gave him goosebumps.
Wearing the red, white and blue was the biggest thing imaginable for an undersized 17-year-old from St. Cloud, Minnesota.
“It was hard to see yourself in the colors you would do anything to wear and not be in awe,” said Laylin. “You had to believe that you earned the right to wear it.”
His opportunity to earn that right came early, even before the opening faceoff.
Each August in the mid-1980s, Canada met the United States Select 17 Team in a three-game series to help identify talent and establish national team pride among the countries’ future stars. The summer showdowns were a precursor to today’s Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup.
Usually the Americans were smaller. Always they were underdogs. But 1987 had a different feel. That crop of American-born 17-year-olds was among the country’s best ever, led by future U.S. Hockey Hall of Famers Mike Modano and Jeremy Roenick. The former didn’t play in the 1987 summer series, but Roenick did, along with Tony Amonte, Steve Heinze and Sean Hill, a rugged defenseman from Duluth, Minnesota.
Setting the Tone
Canada dominated the first two years of the summer series. That dominance bred a swagger, and it was apparent prior to the series-opening game in 1987.
After the buzzer sounded to end pregame warmups, a group of Canadian players remained on the ice. All but two of the Americans had departed for the dressing room, leaving Laylin and Hill alone.
“The Canadians were shooting pucks and chirping us,” said Laylin. “I was a smaller player, but Sean wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. Next thing I know…”
Word of the incident reached the U.S. locker room.
“It got us going,” recalled Laylin. “We ended up, as a team, being gritty and not intimidated.”
The U.S. coaching staff, led by Mike Gilligan and Jim Knapp, added fuel to the fire. The 1980 Miracle on Ice was still fresh in the players’ minds, so the coaches cited it for inspiration. They also reminded the players that their group, the 1970 birth year, was going to be the foundation for the next great American hockey generation, so they might as well begin now.
“I remember them saying, “You guys have to believe that you belong. You earned your way here,’” said Laylin. “We believed them and we believed nobody was going to beat us. We really did. We had some of the best players in the world. I mean, Jeremy Roenick was one of the best any of us had ever seen. His feet never touched the ground. He was tough and fast and played like he was 220. There was something extra special about him. Same with Tony. Those two together were magical.”
Buoyed by the emotional pregame buildup, the U.S. stormed out of the gate with three first-period goals en route to an 8-3 victory in Game 1. Roenick scored twice and added an assist.
The next day, Trevor Linden, Daniel Dore and the Canadians evened the series with a two-goal third period that propelled them to a 5-2 win. Roenick and Laylin scored for the U.S.
In the decisive Game 3, Team USA roared out to a 4-0 lead early in the second period, but Canada clawed back to eventually take a 5-4 lead. Michigan’s Denny Felsner netted the equalizer with six minutes remaining in the third period, then Laylin scored with 1:29 remaining to give the U.S. a 6-5 lead.
“Right from the dot,” said Laylin. “Never did it before and never done it since.”
But a power-play goal from Canada’s Glen Goodall with 51 seconds left tied the score at 6-6 and deadlocked the series at one win, one loss and one tie apiece.
Heinze and Connecticut’s Dave Roberts shared the American scoring lead with five points each. Laylin led the series with four goals. It was the best U.S. showing to date in its summer showdowns with Canada.
“As a group, I remember we all had chills because we were wearing that USA jersey and getting the opportunity to play against the best in the world,” said Laylin. “And to be able to compete with the best was a great learning experience for us.”
Climbing the Mountain
The 1970 birth year fulfilled its promise.
Modano, Roenick, Amonte and Bill Guerin went on to win the World Cup of Hockey in 1996, beating the Canadians and everyone else for the title of world’s best-on-best champions.
Still others from the Class of 1970 helped the U.S. Men’s National Team earn bronze at the 1996 IIHF World Championship, among them U.S. Olympian Marty McInnis, who amassed 420 career points in the NHL, and defenseman Tom Pederson, who played 240 NHL games.
Close behind McInnis in NHL point production were the aforementioned Heinze (336 points) and Hill (298 points as a defenseman and a Stanley Cup title in 1993).
Bret Hedican, also a product of the 1970 birth year, won a Stanley Cup in 2006 and is a two-time U.S. Olympian.
As for Laylin, he played 16 seasons of professional hockey, bookending his time on the U.S. Select 17 Team by helping lead the red, white and blue to a second-place finish at the 2002 Deutschland Cup.
“Having one more chance to wear the colors all those years later, I got the same chills at 32 as I did at 17,” he said. “It was one of the highlights of my career and it was something I’ll always cherish.”
Back to the Future
Now the men’s hockey head coach at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., Laylin spends a portion of his summers behind the bench at USA Hockey’s National Player Development Camps.
Last year, he guided the U.S. Under-17 Men’s Select Team to an undefeated championship at the Five Nations Tournament. This year, he’s an assistant coach for the U.S. Under-18 Men’s Select Team that will compete at the Hlinka Cup. It’s a perfect 30-year symmetry with his goal-scoring tour de force against Canada as a 17-year-old in 1987.
Having lived it as a player and now as a coach, Laylin still leans on the lessons he learned all those summers ago.
“Our coaches talked a lot about national pride and what an honor it is to wear this jersey; that hasn’t changed,” he said. “It is an honor and I remind players that they shouldn’t be in awe of it, but instead, believe that they’ve earned the right to wear it and wear it with pride.
“When they believe that in their heart and their soul, that’s when they play above and beyond. You raise your level to a higher place when you’re playing for your country. We need to have that pride, that commitment to the colors and to each other – and I think our guys really do."
Cory Laylin skating with Team USA at the 2002 Deutschland Cup.
Tag(s): Hlinka Gretzky Cup