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Many Flyers Connections to Landmark 1996 World Cup Teams

by Bill Meltzer / Philadelphia Flyers

The 1996 World Cup of Hockey tournament, won by Team USA, was arguably the second most important international accomplish in U.S. hockey history, topped only by the stunning “Miracle on Ice” gold medal victory by Team USA at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid. Even the Americans’ gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley or the underrated 1972 Olympic team’s march to a silver medal did not have quite the same lasting impact.

In many ways, the 1996 World Cup bookended the 1980 Winter Olympics. In 1980, even a squad of American-born pro players would have been hard-pressed to accomplish what a team of mostly collegiate players did. By 1996, in part because of how much the Miracle on Ice had inspired many American kids, a team of American NHL players showed they were capable of going up against the very best among their peers from other countries and emerging victorious.

The growth of American hockey from 1980 to 1996 was astounding. The growth over the last 20 years has also been dramatic.

That is the legacy that will be celebrated when the Team USA squad from the 1996 World Cup of Hockey is collectively honored with induction into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame as part of the U.S. Hall’s class of 2016. The World Cup team will be joined by longtime NHL standout Craig Janney and iconic Mount Saint Charles Academy coach Bill Belisle as fellow inductees this year.

As one of the key host cities for the spectacular 1996 World Cup tournament, Philadelphia played an important role in the hockey history-shaping event. In the meantime, the Flyers’ connections to the tourney ran deep, and not just from the Team USA side.

The pageantry, stunning skill displays and emotional thrills that mark elite-level international hockey at its very best are best appreciated when witnessed live. In late August and early September of 1996, Philadelphia had the rare opportunity to host three games of the World Cup of Hockey tournament.

The 1996 World Cup of Hockey was the inaugural event at the brand new multipurpose arena then known as the CoreStates Center and now called Wells Fargo Center.

While the decisive game of the best-of-three finals between Team USA and Team Canada took place in Montreal, the new arena in Philadelphia played host to some of the tournament’s most memorable moments, and the various competing teams were heavily represented by then-current or future Flyers players.

The victorious American team featured Flyers all-star left winger John LeClair and checking line center Joel Otto. Team Canada boasted superstar center Eric Lindros, two-way center Rod Brind’Amour and top Flyers defenseman Eric Desjardins.

In addition, Flyers team president Paul Holmgren (then the club’s director of pro scouting) served as an assistant coach on Team USA. Other future Flyers to play prominent roles in the tournament games played in Philadelphia included Team USA’s Derian Hatcher and Tony Amonte, Team Canada’s Keith Primeau and Team Sweden star Peter Forsberg. Additionally, Team USA member Bill Guerin had an unsuccessful preseason tryout with the Flyers before the 2010-11 season.

“Our team came together at the right time,” recalled Holmgren in 2010, coinciding with the 15th Anniversary season of the Flyers’ move from the fabled Spectrum to their current home.

“There was a lot of talent and speed on the roster, but maybe not as much as Canada or Russia. But it was a complete team and it was very focused. We got great goaltending from [Flourtown native Mike] Richter and the team was cohesive from top to bottom.”

Added Hatcher, “The biggest thing I remember from the games in Philadelphia was how loud the building was, especially when John LeClair scored with six seconds left to force OT in the first game of the finals. It was kind of like the [1980] Olympics again, with everyone in the place going nuts and chanting ‘U-S-A! U-S-A!’ It was cool to be part of that experience.”

A tense and emotional preliminary round meeting between Team USA and Team Canada was the first of three tournament games played in Philadelphia. Subsequently, the Flyers’ brand-new arena hosted a thrilling double-overtime, single-elimination semifinal between Canada and Sweden (won 3-2 by Canada) that some have opined was actually the tournament’s best game from start to finish. However, by far, the most dramatic game in Philadelphia was the overtime first game of the best-of-three final between Team USA and Team Canada.

In honor of the championship winning Team USA squad’s induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, the following is a look back at the two USA-Canada games played in Philadelphia.

August 31, 1996: Team USA vs. Team Canada (Preliminary Round)

The opening night commemorative ticket featured side-by-side action photos of Flyers teammates John LeClair and Eric Lindros in Flyers uniforms with the U.S. flag behind LeClair and a Canadian flag behind Lindros. Fans were also given a keepsake inaugural event medallion upon entering the building.

As the first guests explored the brand new arena roughly two hours before the opening faceoff, Comcast-Spectacor chairman Ed Snider walked through the concourse to personally greet as many people as he could. The opening event was the realization of a long-time dream and the beginning of a new chapter after what had been a drawn-out and very difficult process to see the new privately funded arena project from conception to completion.

Back on August 12, 1996, there had been an “unofficial” arena opening – a Ray Charles concert, staged for free as a thank you to roughly 12,000 employees, construction crew members and their families – but this was the first event to which tickets were sold to the public. Characteristically, Mr. Snider was eager not only to thank the inaugural event attendees for their patronage but also to personally solicit feedback on their first impressions.

In the meantime, the opening-round meeting between Team USA and Team Canada was one of the most highly anticipated game of the preliminary bracket.

The only preliminary-round matches that drew similar pregame hype were Russia-Canada at Madison Square Garden on Aug. 29 (a controversial 5-3 Canadian victory in which the Russians claimed biased officiating after two goals were waived off and the Russians were called for several penalties) and Sweden’s 5-2 win over archrival Finland at Stockholm’s Globe Arena on Sept. 1.

Unlike an NHL All-Star Game, in which players representing the home city’s rival teams are often greeted with boos during player introductions, NHL allegiances were largely put aside during the introductions of the American and Canadian players. The sellout crowd contained a significant, extremely vocal minority of Canadians but the crowd on the whole was partisan to Team USA and would become even more so during the finals.

The three Flyers on Team Canada – Lindros, Brind’Amour and Desjardins – were all cheered upon introduction but the response was subdued in comparison to the fan reaction at a typical home opener of the NHL regular season. By far, however, the loudest ovation for any player on either side was reserved for LeClair. Flyers third line center Otto, assigned to his customary defensive shutdown duties, also received a particularly warm welcome.

Once the game started, nationalism prevailed over NHL team loyalty. The crowd even cheered when Chelios – a hated visiting player during his days with the Montreal Canadiens – laid a body check on Flyers’ captain Lindros.

The roars got even louder when LeClair scored the first goal of the game, putting Team USA up 1-0 at the 5:01 mark of the first period. Proving that his success with the Flyers wasn’t merely the product of riding shotgun to Lindros, LeClair played brilliantly throughout the tournament (6 goals, 10 points in 7 games) on a line with Bryan Smolinski and Amonte.

The other top Team USA offensive line consisted of Mike Modano, Keith Tkachuk and Guerin. For Canada, Lindros centered a physically imposing line, flanked by Keith Primeau (later by Joe Sakic after the lines were juggled) and Brendan Shanahan. Brind’Amour played left wing on the third line.

The physical play and intensity of the match picked up as the game moved along. Team Canada’s defense struggled to handle the Americans’ forecheck, and the Americans skated away with a 5-3 victory that showed they meant business in the tournament.

September 10, 1996: Team USA vs. Team Canada (Championship series, Game 1)

Unlike the Canadians’ extremely difficult road the finals, which saw them barely squeak past Sweden in the double-OT semifinal (at 99:47 of game-clock time, it was the longest game ever played in tournament history), the Americans had a surprisingly easy time dispatching in Russia in the semifinals by a 5-2 count.

The stage was set for a best-of-three showdown between USA and Canada in the tourney finals, with the first game taking place in Philly and the last two being held at the new Molson Centre in Montreal.

“We had beaten Canada once, so we knew we could do it again,” Guerin recalled in 2010. “There was a lot of confidence on our team.”

Team Canada had juggled its lines by this point of the tournament. For example, Lindros was now primarily playing right wing rather than his usual center position. The still-undefeated Americans did not change anything heading into the game but head coach Ron Wilson made some in-game strategic adjustments.

Lindros scored Canada’s first goal of Game One. The Canadians led, 3-2, in the waning seconds of the third period with the Americans skating 6-on-5 with an empty net.

Otto, Team USA’s best faceoff man, was assigned to take an offensive zone draw against Canada’s Mark Messier; a longtime rival from respective days as members of the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers. Messier, however, got tossed from the faceoff circle, and winger Adam Graves stepped in to take the draw as Team Canada coach Glen Sather had not sent out a second center as a precaution.

Otto won the draw cleanly. Moments later, LeClair got a piece of a rebound and the puck crossed the line past Martin Brodeur with 6.3 seconds left. Replays showed it may have actually been Team Canada defenseman Desjardins, trying to tuck the puck to his goaltender for a stoppage, who accidentally put the puck over the line. Perhaps LeClair’s swipe would have resulted in a goal regardless of Desjardins’ desperation touch.

In either event, the game was tied and LeClair was the credited goal scorer. Bedlam ensued in the stands, as complete strangers embraced and high-fived their neighbors in surrounding seats. Even during intermission before overtime, the stands and concourses were filled with nonstop “U-S-A! U-S-A!” chants.

The crowd continued to stand, hooting and chanting, during overtime. On an apparently offside rush for Canada (Brind’Amour was the guilty party), there was no whistle. A moment later, Steve Yzerman scored on a shot that Richter got a piece of with his glove. The raucous crowd of Team USA partisans fell silent.

In the next two games in Montreal, however, the Americans skated off with a pair of 5-2 victories to capture the championship. The decisive Game Three saw the Canadians dominated most of the action, but Richter single-handedly kept the game close.

Finaly, in a stunning turn, Team USA rallied from a 2-1 deficit in the third period with four goals in the final 3:18. Amonte scored the game-winning goal on the rebound of a Derian Hatcher shot. Derian Hatcher and Adam Deadmarsh added empty-netters in the final minute to create the deceptive 5-2.

“None of us gave up after we lost the first game. It could have went either way, and we were still confident,” Hatcher said in 2010. “It was a great group of guys and something special in my career for sure.”

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