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U.S. Hall class united by '96 World Cup run

by Brian Hedger
CHICAGO -- Keith Tkachuk just hunched his shoulders and smiled.

The former star power forward, known to many by his nickname "Walt," was asked on Sunday night if he knows the whereabouts of the trophy that was awarded for the United States' stunning defeat of Canada to win the 1996 World Cup of Hockey.

Tkachuk was on the U.S. roster and contributed 5 goals and 6 points in that tournament. Standing in a basement hallway at the United Center, the day before he and former U.S. teammates Gary Suter and Chris Chelios were to be inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday in Chicago, Tkachuk could only chuckle about the trophy's current residence.

"I don't know," he told, while heading to the elevators with a Cheshire Cat grin on his face. "Somebody stole it. Maybe it was the Canadians."

Actually, it was the Americans.

And it happened 15 years ago with a pair of unthinkable 5-2 victories after the U.S. went down a game to Canada in a best-of-three-series. The final two games were held in Montreal's Molson (now Bell) Centre, and as it turns out, the other two members of this year's U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Class have a connection to that event, as well.

Legendary announcer Mike "Doc" Emrick called it on television and Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider hosted the first game in a newly-built facility that he'd financed -- known then as the CoreStates Center and now as the Wells Fargo Center.

Similar to the 1980 U.S. "Miracle on Ice" team that stunned the world to win the gold medal, nobody gave the Americans anychance of beating Canada two in a row in Montreal, the very lair of hockey itself as many Canadians see it.

Despite downing Canada in North American Group play prior to the playoff stage in 1996 and despite taking their neighbors to the north to the wire in the 1991 Canada Cup Final, the U.S. team appeared to need a miracle in '96 against a team captained by Wayne Gretzky -- with Steve Yzerman wearing an "A" on his sweater and goalies named Curtis Joseph and Martin Brodeur to pick from.

"When the series shifted to Montreal, much of the hockey world thought the U.S. had a great run, but inside (Molson) Centre? No shot," Emrick told "What followed were a pair of 5-2 wins. That (fellow TV broadcaster) John Davidson and I got to be there for all three games was one of the most enduring memories of my hockey life."

What happened wasn't nearly as stunning as what took place in Lake Placid, N.Y., in the 1980 Olympics, but only because it wasn't quite as big of a stage -- and because the "Miracle on Ice" guys had already lit the fuse for an explosion of interest in hockey for America.

Tkachuk, in fact, credits that 1980 gold medal for piquing his interest in the sport and driving him to become as good as he did. After the 1996 team won its own prestigious tournament -- even with Canadian-born Brett Hull playing a key role -- Tkachuk can't help but think that he, Chelios, Suter and the others "paid it forward" for today's American stars like the 1980 team did for him.

"A lot of good things came out of that '96 win, just like the '80 Olympics and what that did for me," said Tkachuk, who starred for four NHL teams and retired in 2010. "I'm sure all of these young players in the League now, who are American, know about that '96 team from watching it or they've heard about it. Maybe that turned a couple kids to play hockey and pursue it a lot more."

"A lot of good things came out of that '96 win, just like the '80 Olympics and what that did for me. I'm sure all of these young players in the League now, who are American, know about that '96 team from watching it or they've heard about it. Maybe that turned a couple kids to play hockey and pursue it a lot more." -- Keith Tkachuk

Maybe it did, and maybe a big reason American hockey took off in the following 15 years -- complete with a U.S. National Team Developmental Program in Ann Arbor, Mich. -- is due in large part to what one team did in a couple of amazing games in the country where the sport originated.

Chelios looks back at that victory for the U.S. in '96 and sees how it helped push along American hockey on the international stage. He smiles at the thought.

"It's where we took the next step, actually," said Chelios, who grew up on the south side of Chicago. "We always came close. We were always coming up short in the Canada Cups and Olympics, but you've got to win. And that group … our group and our wave of players finally got over that hump and beat Canada in the 1996 World Cup."

Since then, it's gotten to the point where Americans have won a pair of World Under-18 Championships, a World Junior Championship title in 2010, pushed Canada to the brink in a thrilling overtime gold-medal game at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. The U.S. now is considered legitimate contenders in every tournament it enters.

All those accomplishments can be tied back to that 1996 World Cup of Hockey title -- which was a continuation, not a culmination, of what happened in 1980.

"Since then, our junior national teams seemed to have blossomed off of that and won some championships -- some gold medals," Chelios said. "So, for us, we needed it. That's why we got to the level we did probably a little quicker than if we hadn't won that."

The way they won it probably had something to do with it, as well.

In 1980, the Americans shockingly were able to skate with the heavily-favored Soviet Union players -- who were regarded as, basically, an elite-level professional team that played against amateurs. It was a feel-good story of epic proportions.

In 1996, the American team was filled with NHL players and who weren't intimidated by the well-stocked Canadians in the least -- not even after dropping that first World Cup Final game on home ice. Yzerman won it for Canada with just 13 seconds left in overtime on a play that video replays showed could've been called offsides, but the Americans didn't care.

They won the next game comfortably in Montreal and set up a dramatic win in the third game, when they got an amazing performance from goalie Mike Richter and came from down 2-1 late in the third to win 5-2 again.

Left wing - career staTs
GOALS: 538 | ASST: 527 | PTS: 1,065
GAMES PLAYED: 1,201 | +/-: 33
"We had one of those teams where everybody was together," Tkachuk said. "I haven't played on many teams like that before. No egos. We just went out and got it done."

What did winning those two games prove for American hockey?

"That we didn't back down to the Canadians," Tkachuk bluntly told "We were right there physically with them and we're down one game to none going to Montreal and we win two in a row. That's pretty hard to do."

He paused for a second, thinking back to the so-called odds they overcame.

"We believed we were fine all along," Tkachuk said. "Nothing really bothered us. We just went about our business. We didn't have to be told. We knew what was at stake and what was on the line -- and we didn't let anything stop us."

They also didn't forget the feeling afterward, walking out of that arena as champions in a country that values its hockey like India values cows or the Middle East values oil.

"It was really special coming into Canada and winning two out of the three games in Canada, in Montreal," said Suter, whose older brother, Bob, won the gold in 1980 and whose nephew, Ryan Suter, won a silver in Vancouver. "You hear all kinds of different stories, but after that last game when we won, the streets were empty. It was like a funeral was going on."

Defenseman - career staTs
GOALS: 203 | ASST: 641 | PTS: 844
GAMES PLAYED: 1,145 | +/-: 126
Gary Suter played for nine seasons with the Calgary Flames, where he helped win a Stanley Cup in 1989 and where he found out what life was like "living in a fishbowl," as he calls it.

"I don't know how familiar you guys are with hockey in Canada," Suter told reporters in Chicago on Sunday. "It's such religion up there, and for us to beat them at their own game was a really special, special thing for all the guys that were lucky enough to be on that '96 team. I know they're great memories for all those guys."

He put double-emphasis on the "special" in that answer for a reason.

It will always be a fond memory for all involved, including all five of Monday's newest additions to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame -- from the three former players right on through the famous TV announcer who grew up in rural Indiana to the NHL owner who proudly hosted the first game in his new building.

"What unifies those of us who will be in that room in Chicago (on Monday) is a series that began in Philadelphia and ended in Montreal -- the best-of-three final for the World Cup of Hockey in 1996," said Emrick, who likes to tell the story of Richter giving away the motorcycle he won as MVP for charity to the New York Fire Department. "Ed Snider provided the venue -- the first hockey events in what is now known as Wells Fargo Center. And though the U.S. lost the first game in OT, the performances of Gary Suter, Chris Chelios, and Keith Tkachuk were going to provide the U.S. with its most glorious moment since the Winter Olympics of 1980."

The thieves.
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