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Brian Leetch discusses 1996, 2016 World Cups in Q&A

by Adam Kimelman / NHL.com

After the United States assembled its team for the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, Hockey Hall of Fame member Brian Leetch remembers there was a different feeling than when he skated with earlier USA Hockey teams.

"That was the first tournament I remember going into that … we didn't go in with just hope that we could catch some breaks and our goaltending would play well and we could win some games," said Leetch, who was U.S. captain. "We went in with the expectation that we could win that tournament."

Leetch did his part, tying for the tournament scoring lead among defensemen with seven points, all assists.

Here's a Q&A with Leetch on his World Cup memories and what he thinks of the return of the World Cup in 2016:

What did you think when the group got together for training camp ahead of the tournament?

"We knew we had a lot of good players that were hitting the prime of their careers or were about to become players that were really good players in the NHL. We finally had what you would call a team. We had size, we had skill, we had toughness, we had goaltending. That's what I remember going into it. Of course, none of the games were easy, all close games. We needed Mike Richter to be the MVP of that tournament to come back and win it. I remember expectations were completely different than any of the other tournaments I had gone to when I represented the U.S."

Chris Chelios wasn't expected to be part of your group. How much did it mean when he joined the team?

"Just that we had our leader back; we had our complete team. We knew how important Chris was on the ice. It was obvious for everybody that we would miss him there. He was the glue guy between the younger guys that had strong personalities as well as some of the older guys that had played on a lot of USA teams. He was the crossover. There wasn't anyone he didn't get along with. He was very pro-U.S., very hard on we have to win this. Didn't matter if he was playing against an NHL teammate, a guy he was friends with. He was the U.S.'s Mark Messier, a guy that was heart and soul and passionate about USA Hockey and about competing and doing whatever it took to go out there and get the job done. It meant our team was complete and ready to go."

During round-robin play, the U.S. defeated Canada 5-3 in Philadelphia. What did that mean confidence-wise to the team?

"We had played them in some lead-up games that got out of hand a little bit. We knew in the locker room because these were all players that people had competed against in the NHL. But when you looked around our locker room you saw captains from other teams, you saw leading goal-scorers from other teams. You saw tough guys, leading penalty-minute guys. Top goaltenders. When you sat there, it wasn't like you looked at one line that needed to get it done or you had one top player. Everywhere you looked, there was someone important to their NHL roster. The U.S. team did a great job of putting players in familiar positions with guys that complemented each other. Anytime you have success and you win, it breeds more confidence. We knew. And we knew Canada would be in the medal round and we knew we had to get points and move on, and that was one of the games."

After defeating Canada, the U.S. had to play Russia in the final game of round-robin play. Were you worried about any emotional letdown?

"It's a whole different style of play. Even though the rinks were smaller, the style of play with the passing and speed, they played a different system. It was a different type of game than Canada, no doubt about it. But the confidence was still there that we could win. That game wasn't easy either. But we had the depth and we had the ability to get it done."

The U.S. defeated Russia in the semifinals and advanced to the best-of-3 final against Canada. In Game 1 in Philadelphia, John LeClair scored in the final seconds of regulation for the U.S. to force overtime, but then Canada's Steve Yzerman scored the winning goal. What was the feeling on the team having to go to Montreal for the next two games?

"We were disappointed in ourselves. I don't think we played very well in that game. I remember there were reporters asking us about the goal being offside at the end. I remember there wasn't really a lot of complaining about it because we hadn't really played well enough. I thought Canada had played better than us that game. We were disappointed in that, that we had let an opportunity go by in Philadelphia, where we had played well before that and the fans were really good and behind us. That was more disappointment. I thought we bounced back good in the next game and played a complete game. I don't think we carried the play, but I thought we played more of the game we expected from ourselves and got the victory and moved on to the third game."

In Game 3, the U.S. trailed in the latter part of the third period but tied the game when you set up Brett Hull's goal, and then went ahead when Tony Amonte scored 43 seconds later. What was the swing in emotions like?

"I remember keeping the puck in and throwing it at the net and watching Brett Hull tip it and go through Curtis Joseph's legs to tie it. That was the big release, that we got it tied. I don't know if it was the next shift or the shift after that, but Tony scores and it happened so quick in those four minutes that you went from trying to figure out a way just to get pucks to the net and how are we going to tie it up to we can't lose. We went from tied to ahead to knowing we were going to win in a few minutes. It was a real change in emotion from tension and nervousness and stress to a lot of relief and celebration in a short amount of time. It was something that we were all in the locker room that we were still on such a high afterward because it happened so quick."

Mike Richter was the MVP of the 1996 World Cup, and you had won the Stanley Cup with him in 1994. Can you compare his play in those two events?

"I can compare them in the semifinals against New Jersey in Game 6; he was the reason that we were able to stay in that game. Mark Messier scored the three goals, but Mike played the same important role and played that well in that game that he played in Game 3 in 1996. The game … the memorable parts are never reached if Mike doesn't continue to play like the way he did. Those two games always stick out to me as real career-changers for me. And for Mike too. Without that performance in either of those two games, there's no Stanley Cup and no World Cup for either of us. Those two performances always stick out for me from him."

The U.S. win at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics is pointed at as the seminal moment in making hockey popular in the United States. But for a lot of current American NHL players, they point to the 1996 U.S. World Cup win as their first big hockey memory. Can you compare the gravity of those two tournaments?

"I think that 1980 was so unique with the political ramifications and the real underdog status that nothing can match it. But it is interesting when you read a quote from some of the younger players that they remember watching that series and rooting for the U.S. and it was one of their first real memories they have of international competition. It is nice to hear that. It's neat to talk to those guys about that impact. Nothing can compare to 1980 and what it did for hockey in the U.S. and attention to U.S. hockey. We came a long ways from 1980 to 1996, and it continues to make that jump to 2015-16. It continues to improve and the play continues to get better."

Are you looking forward to the World Cup is coming back next year?

"Yes, especially with the uncertainty about the Olympics and where they're going to be in the next few years. Certainly doesn't bode well for viewing for the majority of the public. In North America, being able to see [the 2016 World Cup] live at good times, you have the best against the best in the world, I always think it's good to do. It puts a lot of extra commitment on the players, but it sounds like the [NHL Players' Association] is behind it, and I'm interested to see how the two other teams shape up, Team North America, the younger guys, and Team Europe, play out and whether that's a success or they'll go back to more of a national stage and representing the other countries. That'll be one thing to keep an eye on. And then I expect the hockey to be at a high level and exciting. The venue that they're going to have it in should have a lot of interest, and it should be filled. Definitely should be something that's unique and isn't every year so the players can prepare for it and want to be on that team the next opportunity they have.

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1996 World Cup Standings, Scores, Top Scorers
North American pool   European pool
Team W L T GF GA Pts   Team W L T GF GA Pts
United States 3 0 0 19 8 6   Sweden 3 0 0 14 3 6
Canada 2 1 0 11 10 4   Finland 2 1 0 17 11 4
Russia 1 2 0 12 14 2   Germany 1 2 0 11 15 2
Slovakia 0 3 0 9 19 0   Czech Republic 0 3 0 4 17 0
Scores   Scores
Aug. 29 Canada 5, Russia 3   Aug. 26 Sweden 6, Germany 1
Aug. 31 Russia 7, Slovakia 4   Aug. 27 Finland 7, Czech Republic 3
Aug. 31

United States 5, Canada 3

  Aug. 28 Finland 8, Germany 3
Sept. 1 Canada 3, Slovakia 2   Aug. 29 Sweden 3, Czech Republic 0
Sept. 2 United States 5, Russia 2   Aug. 31 Germany 7, Czech Republic 1
Sept. 3 United States 9, Slovakia 3   Sept. 1 Sweden 5, Finland 2
Quarterfinals
Sept. 5    Russia 5, Finland 0
Sept. 6    Canada 4, Germany 1
Semifinals
Sept. 7    Canada 3, Sweden 2 (2OT)
Sept. 8    United States 5, Russia 2
Final (best-of-3)
Sept. 10 (Philadelphia)    Canada 4, United States 3 (OT)
Sept. 12 (Montreal)    United States 5, Canada 2
Sept. 14 (Montreal)    United States 5, Canada 2
Top Scorers
Player Country GP G A Pts PIM
Brett Hull USA 7 7 4 11 4
John LeClair USA 7 6 4 10 6
Mats Sundin SWE 4 4 3 7 4
Doug Weight USA 7 3 4 7 12
Wayne Gretzky CAN 8 3 4 7 2
Brian Leetch USA 7 0 7 7 4
Paul Coffey CAN 8 0 7 7 12
Keith Tkachuk USA 7 5 1 6 44
Theo Fleury CAN 8 4 2 6 8
Sergei Fedorov RUS 5 3 3 6 2
Eric Lindros CAN 8 3 3 6 10
Brendan Shanahan CAN 7 3 3 6 8
Alexander Mogilny RUS 5 2 4 6 0
Mike Modano USA 7 2 4 6 4
Tony Amonte USA 7 2 4 6 6
Calle Johansson SWE 4 1 5 6 8

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