The clock was ticking and turning into the enemy again as the United States appeared to be moving closer to another would've, could've, maybe should've moment against Canada in a major international event.
3:24, 3:23 …
3:22, 3:21 …
Leetch settled it and wound up for a slap shot.
3:20, 3:19 …
The puck soared approximately 4 feet off the ice. U.S. forward Brett Hull was cruising through the left circle. The puck met his stick in the high slot, glancing off his sharply curved blade and changing direction.
Canada goalie Curtis Joseph jumped. The puck dipped under him.
Just like that, in the third game of the best-of-3 final at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, the United States and Canada were tied. A previously delirious crowd packed into Molson Centre in Montreal went into a stunned silence.
"I remember Adam Foote floated one through for the go-ahead goal earlier in the third and the place was going wild," Leetch told NHL.com. "You sit there on the bench and you're just like, 'This can't happen again. We can't be in this situation again.' Then I remember throwing that puck on net and watching Brett tip it down through CuJo's legs and it was like, 'YES!'
"We needed something and we got it."
Forty-three seconds later, the U.S. got another one, this time from Tony Amonte. Once a video review made it official, the USA had a 3-2 lead, against Canada, in Canada.
This wasn't written into the script. History suggested this wasn't supposed to be happening.
Until 1996 the Americans were used to playing in Canada's shadow in international competition. The U.S. had never won a best-on-best tournament against the Canadians. It had most recently been swept, 2-0, in the 1991 Canada Cup final. The Americans' 5-3 win against Canada in pool play earlier in the '96 World Cup was their first win against their neighbors to the north.
"You could see the Canadians hoping it wasn't a goal, hear the murmuring in the crowd," Leetch said, recalling the officials' review of Amonte's goal to make sure he didn't kick in the puck. "Then they say, 'Goal,' and we were saying, 'It's right there in front of us, not much time left, we can do this right here and right now.'
"It was a reminder that we went into this thinking we could win instead of hoping our goaltender keeps us in until they get a goal from an unlikely source. That was the script over the years. The U.S. could compete with Canada because of the goaltending but couldn't get that play, get that goal.
"This wasn't an opportunity to compete; it was an opportunity to win."
USA 5, Canada 2.
But as play-by-play man Mike "Doc" Emrick said on the American broadcast as the final few seconds ticked off the clock, this win against Canada was not a miracle pulled off by an unlikely group of players; it was a milestone engineered by arguably the greatest hockey team the United States has ever put together.
It was a milestone USA Hockey has been building on ever since in international tournaments at home and abroad.
"The 1980 team is on a pedestal and it obviously sparked a whole generation of U.S. hockey players, a great generation of hockey players," Bill Guerin said. "USA Hockey saw that and started getting more and more involved in developing the program. It didn't happen overnight, but we got better and better and better."
Guerin and Doug Weight will become the 14th and 15th members of the '96 World Cup team to be enshrined in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday in Detroit at the Motor City Casino.
"It was not a miracle," Guerin said. "We were the best team. Say what you want, but we beat everybody and we deserved it."
Impacting the kids of the '90s
Bobby Ryan, Patrick Kane, Zach Parise, Jonathan Quick, Ryan Miller, Phil Kessel and so many more American players are building on what Richter, Leetch, Hull, Amonte, Guerin and others did Sept. 14, 1996.
The players now were kids or teens when the '96 team won, the way the players on the '96 team were kids of the miraculous '80 squad.
"You ask any player that is within my age range and those were the guys that we grew up on," Ryan, 26, said. "Those were the guys we idolized. They found a way to get it done. That, for me, was really something that I looked at for a long period of time, saying, 'I want to be a part of that, [to] represent my country and play in games that meant as much as those games did to those guys.'"
Ryan was 9 years old in 1996. He helped the U.S. win the silver medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, and barring injury he'll represent America again at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
"I hope that we can affect young kids that are playing and watching and growing up now like they did to us," Ryan said. "Looking back, it's pivotal for a young player's career to have that interaction and to be able to watch players. For me to come full circle and be on the other side of it, I couldn't ask for anything better."
Parise was a 12-year-old from Minnesota who idolized Modano in 1996. He remembers exactly where he was and what he was doing when the Americans beat Canada in the World Cup.
"I was at Shattuck-[St. Mary's] and we had a lot of Canadians at our school watching the game too. We were watching it in our TV lounge," Parise said, referencing the Minnesota boarding school. "That generation of players, they did a lot for USA Hockey and for young American players growing up. They were successful on the ice and good role models for us guys looking to hopefully represent the U.S. one day too."
Parise remembers details like Hull's high deflection -- "I have to be careful not to call it a high stick," he said -- and Amonte's game-winning goal that was oh-so-close to being kicked into the net.
Parise remembers the euphoria he felt in the TV lounge that day, the pride he had as an American celebrating in a room that included Canadian kids, friends.
All these years later, he understands the impact that win had on him and his generation of American players.
"Kids saw that tournament and realized that it was just as meaningful for them as it was for us who played in it," Modano said. "It kind of put us back on the map, put us back into being one of the favorite teams going into those tournaments."
The impact wasn't just felt among elite players.
"A number of people and a number of fans have come up to me to say they love it," Guerin said. "I have a friend that I coach with in Long Island, and he watches that tournament once a year on the anniversary of it. That's how much it impacted him. He loves it. People love it.
"I knew we accomplished something great, but I didn't know it would have such an influence on U.S.-born players in the future," Guerin added. "I didn't realize that it would spark something big, and it did. It's been that big."
Paying it forward
The United States is now experiencing its greatest run of success on the international hockey stage.
Parise, Ryan Suter and Ryan Kesler, three players who were part of the silver-medal team in Vancouver and are targeted for Sochi, were on the under-20 team that stunned Canada to win gold at the 2004 World Junior Championship.
"I think [the win in '96] underscored both to people inside of our program as well as people throughout the hockey world internationally that henceforth, when you had a best-on-best tournament, the U.S. had as good a chance to win it as anybody else," said Dave Ogrean, USA Hockey's executive director. "One of the things that has always made our sport so interesting is there are five or six hockey countries that are so equal, but 17 years ago that list perhaps was one short of where it is now."
USA Hockey's enrollment numbers reflect the success. Total enrollment (players, coaches, officials) has increased from 428,478 in 1995-96 to 591,418 last season. Enrollment reached a high mark of 594,959 in 2011-12.
The United States National Development Team Program, based in Ann Arbor, Mich., has become a powerhouse in the 17 years since it was created. A total of 228 players from the USNDTP program have been selected in the NHL Draft from 1999-2013, including three first-round picks this past June (Jones, Michael McCarron, Ryan Hartman). There were 60 USNDTP graduates playing in the NHL last season.
The United States has won gold at the IIHF Men's Under-18 World Championship seven times since 2002.
"It's been a gradual journey," Ogrean said. "It's not like all of a sudden things changed overnight, but [the '96 World Cup] was a very visible, very successful cornerstone in a couple-of-decades-long trip from hoping to do well to expecting to win when we go into major international tournaments."
How and where it started in 1996
The expectation of winning in 1996 began long before the celebration in Montreal. It started when general manager Lou Lamoriello and coach Ron Wilson brought everybody to Providence College for training camp.
"I very clearly remember Lou giving us this motivational speech about what a gift and opportunity it was to play on this team," Richter said. "Really it was one of those moments that got everybody on the same page early. That was a lot of talent and a lot of potential that hadn't to that point blossomed yet."
The Americans thought they should be favored going into the World Cup. They liked their lineup that much. They were formidable.
Up front they had high-scoring forwards in the prime of their careers: Hull, Modano, Amonte, Guerin, Weight, Keith Tkachuk and John LeClair. Pat Lafontaine could still score. Scott Young, Joel Otto and Deadmarsh were skilled enough to contribute in complementary roles.
Imagine if they had Jeremy Roenick, who sat out the tournament because of an NHL contract dispute. He instead went to all the games on his own dime.
"I would have loved to be a part of something like that, but you make your decisions and don't look back," Roenick said. "I didn't take away from their greatness. My not being there obviously didn't affect their chances of winning. They won, and that made it even better for me. I was really, really proud. There was no jealousy. I cheered. I screamed. I was near tears."
Richter was one of the best goaltenders in the world, a Stanley Cup winner.
"That was a new wave of Americans to come in at the right time, at the right age, in their prime," Tkachuk said. "We didn't get pushed around. We pushed back."
Four players on the team are in the Hockey Hall of Fame, with Modano likely to be inducted soon. Fifteen players are enshrined or soon-to-be enshrined in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.
"I'd go into battle with those guys against anybody," Ogrean said. "A lot of Hall of Famers on that team, or about to be Hall of Famers. We had failed to come through in situations that were somewhat similar to that in the past. It really was part of a breakthrough."
Players on that team said there wouldn't have been a breakthrough had it not been for their camaraderie.
"We had a really tight team," Richter said. "We laughed so hard at every practice, every meal, every pregame warm-up. It was like we had been friends for life. It was like you never wanted the day to end. When you have that camaraderie with that talent, man, that's a tough opponent."
Making it a reality
The Americans showed how tough they would be early in the tournament, opening with a 5-3 win against Canada on Aug. 31 in the first game played at the new arena in Philadelphia, now known as Wells Fargo Center. It was a seminal win because it proved they could do more than hang with the Canadians, they could beat them.
"Canada was considered the power, and for us to come out and win that game it gave us a lot of confidence going through the rest of the tournament," said LeClair, who scored the first goal. "But there wasn't that element of surprise like the Americans against the Russians in 1980 where it was like, 'Wait, we can play with these guys.' We knew what we were getting."
The Americans went to Madison Square Garden and blasted the Russians and Slovakians by a combined 14-5 score on back-to-back nights to finish 3-0 in pool play. The U.S. earned a bye into the semifinals, where it would beat Russia again. Canada had to go to double-overtime before Theo Fleury's goal knocked out Sweden and ensured the North American final.
"Nobody was intimidated and thinking, 'It's Canada, so they're going to win it,'" LeClair said. "That was never a thought for us."
Not even after Canada defeated the U.S., 4-3 in overtime, in Game 1 in Philadelphia. Steve Yzerman scored the winning goal, sending Canada back home with a chance to win the World Cup in Montreal.
"It couldn't have been a better situation, a better stage for us, the drama and all that entailed for that scenario to play out," Modano said. "We felt if we got the first game in Montreal we could put the pressure on them, at home, their home. We all felt that this was something they would talk about for years, down one game and winning two in a row in Montreal."
Game 2 went as planned for the Americans. Richter was phenomenal; LeClair scored twice; Hull gave them a two-goal lead. Canada cut it to one late, but Tkachuk and Young scored empty-net goals to cap a 5-2 victory, setting up the winner-take-all Game 3.
"We felt like we had come a long way as a country in this sport and we needed to take the next step," Richter said. "Wilson was saying, 'You have to respect your opponent, but you have to respect yourselves too. We deserve to be here. If we go out and play as hard as we can we have a chance to win.'"
Hull opened the scoring, and Richter preserved the one-goal lead with a miraculous diving paddle save on Vincent Damphousse.
"He deked five ways at once and I reached back and got it with my paddle," Richter said. "I remember how tight the game was, with people on the edge of their seat, not an inch to give. So even while he's making those moves you could feel the crowd going, 'Oh, oh, there it is.' It was one of those great moments that you never want to go away because here it all is for all the money. Had they scored that goal, momentum shifts."
It shifted anyway when Canada's Eric Lindros swept the puck through a double-screen and past Richter with 5.5 seconds left in the second period.
"We knew that was going to make our life very difficult going into that third period, and it did," Richter said.
Amonte had a shorthanded chance early in the third, but Joseph came up with the save. Not long after, Foote floated a seeing-eye wrist shot from the right point over Richter's left shoulder for the go-ahead goal with 7:10 remaining.
"Somebody was going to score," LeClair said he remembers thinking. "I never once felt like we were defeated."
Tkachuk said, "Any line could score. It wasn't like we were relying on one or two guys. I mean, how many sharpshooters did we have on that team? There was something about that team that made us believe we could do it."
Hull tied it, and before the Americans could catch their breath from the celebration, Amonte scored the go-ahead goal and eventual game-winner, putting home a rebound from Derian Hatcher's shot.
"I think I yelled so loud and hard that my jaw kind of popped and locked," Modano said. "We were losing our minds. Once we saw Tony's goal go in we just lost our minds. We felt, 'This is it. We're so close.' Ron was screaming from the bench to get the next one, get the fourth."
They did, with Derian Hatcher firing it into the net that Joseph had vacated seconds earlier. Deadmarsh stuck the dagger in with 17 seconds left.
"I remember sitting there watching Deadmarsh going in thinking, 'We're going to win this thing,'" Leetch said. "Then he fires one past the goalie."
Ryan cheered from his home in Cherry Hill, N.J. Parise went nuts in that TV lounge in Faribault, Minn. American kids, the dreamers, swelled with pride for their country and admiration for their new hockey heroes.
Years later, those kids impacted by the '96 World Cup team are trying to live up to the expectations created by their role models.
"Now we've got 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds and it's hard for me to grasp that they're looking at us the same way I was looking at those players," Parise said. "It's so hard for me to comprehend those roles have reserved, but I hope and I think we're doing a pretty good job of playing well on the ice and being role models like those guys were. A lot of credit has to go to those guys. We grew up watching them and now we're in that same situation."
Parise and his teammates were close to matching the '96 team in Vancouver, an overtime goal away from America's first Olympic gold since 1980. U.S. hockey fans legitimately expect their team to win gold in Sochi in February.
There's a group of American players, all retired, who know it can happen.
"The '80 Olympics had a huge impact on that '96 World Cup team, and that '96 World Cup team I know made an impact, because you look at some of the Americans that are in the game now and it's just crazy," Tkachuk said. "Look around, it's not just American players, it's star American players. I love that I see more Americans making an impact in the NHL. That's how you know you did your job."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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