The best American hockey team of all time didn’t need a miracle. No U.S. team has ever achieved more fame than the 1980 Olympic squad that stunned the Soviet Union in the semifinal before completing the ‘Miracle on Ice’ by beating Finland for gold in Lake Placid, N.Y. That squad’s spectacular rise is one of the best stories in sports history, period. The reason for that, though, is because it was the ultimate underdog tale, a group – as they’ve so often been described – of rag-tag college kids shocking the world. The shock was still there 16 years later at the next big triumph for Team USA, but it was more about how good the team was rather than the fact it took on the world and won. The American team that beat Canada in a best-of-three final at the 1996 World Cup is the best collection ever to wear stars and stripes. It was a coming out party for Team USA, which rolled through the round-robin, toppled Russia in the semifinal and bounced back from a Game 1 overtime loss in the final to earn consecutive victories over Canada in Montreal to win the tournament previously known as the Canada Cup.
It became America’s Cup thanks to a stunning combination of speed and strength contained within a mix of veteran leaders such as Chris Chelios, Brian Leetch and Joel Otto, and an emerging crew of young power forwards such as John LeClair, Bill Guerin, Adam Deadmarsh and Keith Tkachuk. Its brightest star up front was scoring machine Brett Hull, who led all point-getters at the event with seven goals and 11 points and was named to the tournament all-star team. And don’t forget about goalie Mike Richter. As strong as the U.S. was, beating Canada three out of four times in the tournament, including round-robin play, they still needed Richter to play spectacularly before rallying late to win Game 3 by a 5-2 count, the winner coming from the stick of Tony Amonte. Tkachuk, who had a fantastic tournament for the Americans at age 24, scoring five goals in seven games, gives Richter credit for the big win in the decisive game. “No question, he won us the game,” Tkachuk said. “You need that goaltending. I don’t think we played as well as we should have, but he made big saves at the right time and kept us in it.” The final game notwithstanding, the Americans overpowered teams – including Canada – throughout the event. Constructed by GM Lou Lamoriello, they were big, fast and tough, and coach Ron Wilson pushed all the right buttons. Distraught as Team Canada and Canadian fans were at losing a hockey showdown to their southern neighbors, this was no upset; it was simply a case of one country announcing its presence as the sport’s newest superpower. “I respect this team as much as any team we’ve ever played in a Canada Cup tournament,” said Canadian Mark Messier of the Americans before Game 2 of the final. “This American team, with the program they’ve put together, it’s one of the greatest teams to play in international competition.” And demonstrating just how good they were in Canada in front of the rabid Canuck fans was particularly sweet for the victorious Americans. “I’ll never forget walking to the rink for Game 3 with me, Billy Guerin and Doug Weight just getting abused by fans up there,” Tkachuk said. “It was so packed outside the rink before the game. And then to come back and win and go outside the rink, it was a ghost town. I think everybody couldn’t believe what happened.”
This story originally appeared in the book “We Care The Champions – The Greatest Hockey Teams Of All-Time”, published by The Hockey News in 2010.