Hockey is Canada, and as a Canadian, the inaugural World Cup of Hockey in 1996 left many of us Canadian hockey fans heartbroken. It was supposed to be us, that would skate around the Molson Centre hoisting that disgusting looking cup. It was supposed to be the farewell tournament for the former Oilers that had dominated the 1980s, the likes of Gretzky, Messier, Coffey and Sather. It was supposed to be the passing of the torch, from The Great One to The Big E, in Canadian hockey. It wasn’t meant to be…
Being a 7 year old boy at the time, I was hyped about the first international competition to be played during my generation. Being too young to ever witness any of the Canada Cups or the Canada vs Soviet Union Summit Series. And with NHL players yet eligible for Olympic play, the 1996 World Cup was being build up as the best on best for international superiority. I vaguely remember commercials being run before the tournament on CBC, SRC and TSN, hyping the former Oilers reuniting and leading Canada to glory. Ads featuring a new breed of American hockey players led by the likes of Brett Hull, Mike Modano, Keith Tkachuk, Bill Guerin and Brian Leetch. And clips of a Russian line that would be nightmare for any defenseman and goaltender, a line that would feature Alexander Mogilny and Pavel Bure being centred by Sergei Federov. It was unfortunate however, that Bure, one of my favourite hockey players at the time, was injuried during a pre tournament game between Russia and the USA and would not play in the tournament. The hockey dream line of Federov, Mogilny and Bure would never be.
Maybe it’s a sort of nostalgia of being a kid at time, but that World Cup definitely had many memorable moments that I still remember to this day. From the opening game of the tournament between Russia and Canada in Vancouver, I remember a scene when the Russians had scored in the 3rd period. However, when they were circling around to congratulate each other, Viacheslav Fetisov realized he had tap 5 other Russian helmets (making it a total of 6 Russian players on the ice) and tried to discreetly skate off to the bench before the referee had noticed. Thankfully for us Canadians, the referees did noticed and waved off the goal, the second Russian goal they would waved off that night.
Or the semi-final game between Canada and Sweden being played on neutral ice in Philadelphia. With the game going into double overtime, and luckily it wasn’t a school night, I stayed up and watched as Johan Garpenlov (how’s that for nostalgia) came within inches of putting Sweden into the finals. Garpenlov had Canada’s goaltender Curtis Joseph beat but could not beat the pipe and rang it off the post. Within minutes later, Theo Fleury would take a pass off a Paul Coffey patented end to end rush and score, pitting Canada into an ultimate final showdown against the United States.
And like a story book finale, the final pitted the two neighbouring rivals in a best of 3 series, with the first game being played in Philadelphia. Game 1 was a fiercely played opening game that set the tone for the rest of the series, with moments that included Lindros and Chris Chelios going at it and trash talking each other from the penalty box. With Canada up 3-2 in the dying seconds of the game, I remember sitting there stunned as former Habs, John LeClair, deflected the game tying goal off another former Habs, Eric Desjardins. That was it, there was no way Canada would able to recover from that devastating tying goal within seconds of the final siren. Good thing I was wrong, as Canada came out strong and dominated the majority of the overtime period. Midway through the extra frame, Steve Yzerman put a bad angled shot on goal that somehow beat Mike Richter, a true testament that you should always put the puck on net as anything can happen.
With the Americans tying up the series with a 5-2 victory in Game 2 at the Molson Centre, it felt like it was written in the stars, a hollywood type script, that this tournament was destined to go down to a final game, winner takes all. With Game 3 being played once again in Montreal at the Molson Centre, it felt all but certain that Canada would rebound and use the home ice to their advantage. I’ve always heard about Patrick Roy’s heroic at Madison Square Garden in the 1986 playoffs, but for me, Mike Richter’s performance in Game 3 was the single best goalie performance I have ever seen from a goaltender. The Americans had no business being in that game with Canada dominating the play from the start and pouring 37 shots on goal through two periods. Richter, however, was on god mode that night and kept the score at 1-1. Then with about half a period left to play in the 3rd period of the deciding third game, Adam Foote put a puck on net that beat Mike Richter. That was it! 2-1, Canada was up with 10 minutes or so, and with Canada practically dominating the entire game, this game was good as over for the Americans.
And then lightning struck.. With 3 minutes left in the game, public enemy #1 at the time, Canadian born Brett Hull deflected a Brian Leetch shot passed Curtis Joseph, and had tied the game. Okay, I thought to myself, even though the game was tied, we still had the home fans on our side and if we managed to somehow win in Game 1, it’s pretty much certain we would find a way to come through and win this game. And then lightning struck… again. This time, Tony Amonte deflected a Darren Hatcher shot passed Joseph and put the USA up for good. The United States would pot in two more empty net goals from Hatcher and another Canadian born-American player, Adam Deadmarsh and would win the game and the tournament.
For me, the 1996 World Cup of Hockey was vastly better than the tournament that was played in 2004. Perhaps it was because the 2004 final featured Canada vs Finland instead of a more heated rival like the Russians or Americans. But the 1996 World Cup had everything you ever wanted from an international tournament. It had goals, hits and out of this world performance, with Mike Richter’s Game 3 performance at the top of the list. There were huge hits, from Darius Kasparaitis going at it with Eric Lindros, to Chris Chelios clobbering Lindros from behind. It felt that the players actually cared and wanted to win it for their country. What the Olympics brought in speed with the bigger ice, they could never matched the World Cup in terms of physicality. As we approach the third instalment of the World Cup of Hockey, I just hope the 2016 tournament has the same type of hunger and aggression that we saw in 96. And that we don’t see the US once again celebrating on our home ice…