'They had a swagger to them:' An oral history of the 1996 World Cup of Hockey

The U.S. team's dramatic victory in the 1996 World Cup "really established USA Hockey," says journalist Frank Brown, who covered both that tournament and the 1980 Miracle on Ice team. Rick Stewart /Allsport/Getty Images

The inaugural World Cup of Hockey began with the expectation of yet another Canadian triumph by a collection of some of the greatest players ever to take the ice and ended with an unexpected celebration by a band of upstart young Americans that included a dislocated jaw for future Hall of Famer Mike Modano and a raucous celebration at a Greek restaurant in Montreal while the host nation mourned.

Twenty years later, Team USA -- victors in that unforgettable 1996 tournament -- will be enshrined in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in November as part of its 2016 class. So with a new, revamped World Cup of Hockey set to unfold Sept. 17 to Oct. 1 in Toronto, we revisited one of the seminal moments in American hockey history.

The World Cup was a direct descendant of the wildly successful Canada Cup -- an international hockey tournament in which the best players from all nations, pro and amateur alike, could compete against one another -- which had been the brainchild of former players' union head Alan Eagleson. The first Canada Cup, held in 1976, was notable for Bobby Orr's gritty performance for Team Canada as his NHL career neared its premature conclusion. Subsequent tournaments took place in 1981, 1984, 1987 and 1991.

In 1998, less than two years after the first World Cup, the NHL would send players to the Olympics for the first time, and the face of best-on-best hockey would change forever. But until that point, the Canada Cups represented the grandest stage for the sport. Those tournaments had produced some of the greatest hockey ever, but through its five incarnations no American team had ever managed to break through against Canada and come home a winner.

Until 1996. This is the story of the memorable first World Cup of Hockey, as told by people influential in the hockey world.

Joe Pelletier, co-author of "The World Cup of Hockey: A History of Hockey's Greatest Tournament": The Canada Cup was always kind of haphazardly scheduled. You never quite knew when the next one was going to be. There was a lack of international hockey at the time, with the Canada Cup's demise and the Olympics not quite there yet. So this was a great way of quenching that [thirst] here in Canada. Everybody loves best-on-best hockey, whether it's in September or in February or on the moon.

Lou Lamoriello was the general manager of a New Jersey Devils team that won a Stanley Cup in the spring of 1995. After being selected as Team USA's GM, Lamoriello chose an old pal from his days at Providence College to coach -- Ron Wilson.

Ron Wilson, head coach, Team USA: I had coached the world championships the year before, and we did pretty well. So Louie flew me out to New Jersey, and by the end of that day I knew I was going to be the coach. It's Lou Lamoriello. He's my college coach. He's not flying me out there for nothing. I didn't expect us to win or anything like that. But I was certainly thrilled to be the coach.

Phil Housley, Team USA: [Wilson] was a great technician. He understood the game, as far as systems and what worked. And then he had to orchestrate the players to get them into that system. Canada always had a pretty physical team, starting with the back end and some agitating forwards. So we had the Hatchers [Derian and Kevin] and John LeClair and Joel Otto and Keith Tkachuk and Bill Guerin and players like that who could match up physically to them. That was one of the things [Wilson] looked at: not only having the skill set, but having the physical part of the game as well.

Brett Hull, Team USA: Ron was the best coach for us. He was funny. He was sarcastic. He knew that all he had to do was, I guess you could use the word 'motivate.' He talked about how nobody respected us and how we needed to go out and earn that respect. That was kind of the credo of the team: 'Yeah, let's go and earn some respect. Let's not have them just hand it to us. Let's go and get it ourselves.'

Doug Weight, Team USA: I knew we could have a good team, but I was like, 'Oh this is going to be a crazy tournament.' From the minute we got there it was, 'Nothing's acceptable except winning.' It was unbelievable. I thought it was going to be loose, like, 'Hey, we've got something to prove.' But it was adamant to the point of anger, almost, in the first 10 minutes. It was, 'Joke's over. We're going to be treated like kings, but we're going to expect this, this and this. We need everybody to come together. No selfishness, and we will win this thing.' And Ron was paramount in that -- not only in his confidence, but in his demanding message.

Brett Hull: You just looked at that team. It was like that group of guys finally had matured enough, not only as people but as players, and were at the real peak of their careers. They were young, but they were unbelievably good players and they had grown up playing with each other. It was kind of like they were family. You had a few interlopers come in there, like me. But it was such a close-knit group. We'd go out after practice for lunch or beer or whatever and everybody came. Everybody had a good time, and when it was time to put the work boots on, we'd go out and play hard. It was a real fun summer.

Mathieu Schneider, Team USA: I remember how fast the pace was from Day 1. It was just incredible. Every single pass was on, and it was the highest level of hockey I had ever played. When I went back to training camp after the tournament was over, I was three steps ahead of everyone else. It was really after we played the first couple of exhibition games that we realized how high of a level we were playing.

Doug Weight: I roomed with Hull. I still summer with Brett now. And he hasn't changed. People think he was all, 'Oh, let's go score a goal.' But he said, 'Dougie, we're winning this thing, and we're going to be the best line on the ice every night. And if you don't do it, I'm going to get somebody else to play with.' But he was also awesome with me. Just a great guy. Everybody thinks he's out having dinner every night. But every minute we were in the room we were either doing a New York Times crossword puzzle or talking about how we're doing this play. 'Hey, you see how they played us on that?' I couldn't believe how focused he was.

Brett Hull: It may have not gone exactly that way, but I [told Weight], 'With your ability and the way you can move the puck and score as well, if we do it the right way, there's no question we could be one of the best lines -- if not the best line -- in the tournament.' I was expecting to get the biggest goals. 'Let's go out when the chips are down. Let's have our line get those big goals and show everybody else that we have a full complement of players on this team and that we're going to be a force to be reckoned with.'

"We definitely had a swagger about us and a chip on our shoulder. We were maybe a little cocky. And we didn't care. That's why we wanted to play Canada." Bill Guerin, right wing for Team USA

Doug Weight: Right after the doors closed and [Wilson] was done bitching, [the players] got up. It was like, 'If you're not going to fight tooth-and-nail and give every single thing you have -- whether it's five minutes or 30 minutes. ... I don't care if you play 30 minutes on your [NHL] team and you're playing six here and you're blocking shots here and you're not there, if you're on the power play.' [Chris Chelios] was like, 'You better give everything or I'm going to be f---ing waiting for you after the game.' Excuse my language.

Joe Pelletier: I think there was great respect for the U.S. team [heading into the World Cup]. You always kind of have Canada as the so-called favorite. But I think the U.S. team was right there, a co-favorite.

Brett Hull: It was realistic [that the U.S. could win] because in the years before there were good [American] players, but it wasn't a full complement of real good players. It wasn't really a team. And all of a sudden these guys like [Tony] Amonte, Weight, Guerin and Tkachuk all just came up at the same time and were all really great players. So you finally got the sense that this is a really good team. There just wasn't enough depth of quality [on the past teams that U.S. put together] and then all of a sudden there was tons of it.

Bill Guerin, Team USA: I remember wanting to play Canada and being prepared for those types of games. We definitely had a swagger about us and a chip on our shoulder. We were maybe a little cocky. And we didn't care. That's why we wanted to play Canada.

While Team USA worked out at Providence College, Team Canada gathered in the picturesque ski town of Whistler, British Columbia, in preparation for the start of the tournament.

Andy Murray, associate coach, Team Canada: I can remember the rink being packed with fans in Whistler for the first practice, and watching [the players] walk in one at a time. It was a pretty special group, that's for sure. We got right to work. Everybody was pretty committed, pretty focused. I don't think there's ever been a Canadian who went into an international competition with the mindset of, 'We don't want to dictate how the game is played.' That just sort of goes with the territory. We had skilled players. We were going to play a puck-possession kind of game. We were going to emphasize our skill and size and speed. The one thing we looked at was, 'How are you going to divide ice time? Who's going to be a healthy scratch for the games?'

Wayne Gretzky, Team Canada: Obviously, we were really excited about our team. We had some really good players and really good chemistry coming out of camp. It was a fun camp up in Whistler, and the Canadian guys always work hard, so it was a really strong, solid, hard-working camp. Everybody was really positive about it. But we knew, coming out of camp, that the dynamics of the tournament had changed. It wasn't so much going to be the Russians as our sort of nemesis. We knew the Swedes were going to be better. We knew the Czechs were going to be better. We knew the Americans were going to be way better. So we knew we were in for a tough tournament.

Rod Brind'Amour, Team Canada: Gretzky was my hero as a kid. Then to get to play with him? I can't even really put it into words. I got to play with him in the Olympics as well, and that was something special, too. But I think for young players it's all about what you take away, and the guy who helped me the most [at the World Cup] was Steve Yzerman. I was on his line. It was me and him and Theo Fleury. I kind of piggy-backed [on Yzerman], what he was doing, his habits. Just the little things in the training room. I realized, 'Wow, there's a reason this guy's so good.' I remember following his routine as much as I could. And then he let me play center on that line. Here's Steve Yzerman. He should be the guy saying, 'I'll play center.' But he was like, 'Rod, you take it. I'll play the wing.' Stuff like is what sticks in my mind. We all know he's a great player, but there's much more to him than that.

If Team USA represented a collective coming of age for a generation of young stars, the '96 tournament would represent a shifting of the guard for Team Canada, as Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey and other future Hall of Famers slowly edged toward the end of their careers.

Wayne Gretzky: We sort of knew we were getting, not to the end, but we knew changes were going to be made -- especially from that '91 [Canada Cup] team and of course from the '87 team. So we knew there was going to be new energy, new blood, new excitement. And that was a positive. We looked at that as, 'OK, this is a good measure for Canadian hockey. We've got new blood and new energy and new players with great skills who are hard-working.' So it was all positive. Everyone was genuinely excited about it.

Mark Messier, Team Canada: Canada had always been so focused on Russia. Even some of the teams like Sweden had been very strong in international play for so long. But in that '91 [Canada Cup, when Canada beat the U.S. in the final], we noticed how the U.S. was getting much stronger and presenting a bigger challenge for us. Fast-forward to the tournament in '96, and now they've got some players in the NHL who are pretty much superstars. They put a team together that we knew was going to be a formidable foe in that tournament, even before it started. You just looked at their lineup and the accomplishments that their players already had in the NHL. So we knew at some point that the United States would be a force to be reckoned with.

"I'd played in the Quebec league, lived in the Quebec border. And in '96 it wasn't really that long past the referendums (to determine Quebec's sovereignty and possible separation from Canada) and all of those things. I was so enthralled with how unified Quebec was with the rest of Canada at that time. I remember thinking that it would be really good when we won it in Montreal." Team Canada assistant coach Marc Crawford

Keith Tkachuk, Team USA: There were so many great teams. Canada always won. And they deserved to win. And so I think everybody was under the assumption it was just going to be a Canadian tournament win again. But we looked around that [U.S.] dressing room. How many Hall of Famers were in there? You had Chris Chelios, Brian Leetch, Mike Modano, Brett Hull. It was so deep. And you had Mike Richter in net. I think it was important that we believed in ourselves and in Ronnie and Cunny [assistant coach John Cunniff] and Paul Holmgren. I mean, we probably had one of the toughest coaching staffs around, minus Ronnie.

Joe Pelletier: The teams were so big and heavy. It was 1990s hockey. [Canada had] Eric Lindros, of course. Sweden's [Mats] Sundin was impressive, too. I think [Canada] was really trying to force this into being Eric Lindros' coming out. They named him the captain. [GM] Bobby Clarke was highly involved, and there was some controversy back behind the scenes -- the old guard, the new guard.

Marc Crawford, associate coach, Team Canada: What I really remember was the first game against the Americans. It was a war. I had just come off the Stanley Cup final [as coach of the Colorado Avalanche]. We'd won the Stanley Cup that year. That game, Canada-U.S. in the preliminary round, was so intense. I was so worried that people were going to get hurt.

Ron Wilson: The one thing Canadian guys had was that they were mentally willing to do anything to [an NHL] teammate. If it was an American, they didn't care, they'd just run them over. I made sure our guys had the mentality to do whatever it took to win the games. I had no problem with the Hatchers. Derian Hatcher was scary. He's so big. So mean and tough. I had no problem with Chris Chelios. I knew Chelly would do anything, but I needed to get the other guys -- the Brian Leetches and so on -- to be as aggressive as they were. But really, once the tournament got going, I didn't have to say anything to the players. They were unbelievable.

One of the early challenges for Team USA was in getting Chelios into the fold. He was coming off a groin injury suffered during the Stanley Cup playoffs, and his sister was getting married in the middle of the tournament. In the days leading up to training camp, Chelios often heard from his World Cup teammates, who cajoled him to get to Providence.

Chris Chelios, Team USA: I got calls at 2 or 3 in the morning -- at bar time -- from the guys during the two weeks prior.

The wedding proved a bit of a sticking point, though, as Chelios' sister was scheduled to get married on the same day the U.S. was to play Canada in Philadelphia in round-robin play. Chelios didn't want to miss the wedding, but GM Lou Lamoriello wanted his players committed to the process from the get-go.

Ron Wilson: If you know Lou, you know he doesn't make exceptions for anybody. He initially said, 'Then [Chelios] can't be on the team.' I remember thinking, 'This is the best player in America.' Finally, Lou agreed to let him go to the wedding.

Lou Lamoriello: I can recall that game in Philly vividly. We had a plane get [Chelios after the wedding], then we picked him up at the airport. He missed warm-up, but he got there just in time for the game. He was one of the best players on the ice. What more can you say. You know that story? Chris told you that story? I had a lot of conversations with Chris and his dad. We all talked. A fathers' conversation. Chris was an integral part of that.

Chris Chelios: As soon as my brother-in-law and sister kissed, I was out the door and on the way to the airport. I took a lot of heat from my parents for that one.

Team USA knocked off Canada 3-1 in the round-robin game and would go 3-0 in preliminary play before facing Russia in the one-game semifinal. Led by Pat LaFontaine's short-handed goal and two assists, the Americans beat the Russians 5-2 in a game played in Ottawa. Meanwhile, Canada had its hands full with Sweden in the other semifinal, where it was taken to double-overtime before Fleury delivered the winner with 12.5 seconds left in the second OT to set up the best-of-three final with the U.S.

Wayne Gretzky: You know what? The amazing thing about Team Canada -- and it goes all the way back to probably '72, and then '76, with Orr and Bobby Hull -- it's a generation that just keeps passing the torch down all the way to when we played '87. You never think, 'Oh my gosh, we might not win.' We never thought that way. Our mindset was always, 'Hey, we're playing good teams here. They want to win as bad as we do, but we're really comfortable heading into a tight game, we're really comfortable heading into overtime. This is where we're going to shine.' So there was never any negativity in a Team Canada locker room. We knew the Swedes were going to be tough, and we knew they were a good team. We were genuinely happy [after the game] because we knew we beat a good team.

"[Before the finale against Canada] I said to Tony Amonte. 'Are you ready to be our Mike Eruzione? You're both Italian. You're both full of s---. You both went to BU.' I said, 'I have a feeling you're going to be our Mike Eruzione.'" Team USA coach Ron Wilson

The best-of-three finale between Canada and the U.S. began in Philadelphia on Sept. 10, with Games 2 and 3 (if necessary) set for Montreal and the new Molson Centre (now the Bell Centre).

Wayne Gretzky: I'll give you a little bit of trivia as to why it's two-out-of-three. Because in 1981 we had a really strong tournament in the Canada Cup. When we played the Russians in the final and got beat 8-1, it was Alan Eagleson who said, 'OK, this isn't right. You have a great tournament and you lose one game and it's over. What we're going to do is make '84 a two-out-of-three.' So they highly anticipated a Canada-Russia final [in '84], and we had a horrible tournament. There was a sort of Oilers-Islanders thing, and the team didn't really come together until the end. Lo and behold, we finished fourth and the Russians were first, so we had to play them in the elimination game. We beat them in overtime, so that set the stage for '87, when we did two-out-of-three [against Russia in the final]. Then '91 was two-out-of-three against the Americans and of course '96. So that's why the two-out-of-three series was originally set up. It was because we got beat 8-1 by the Russians. You know it's called the Canada Cup, so we make the rules, right?

The Canadians took Game 1 of the 1996 World Cup final 4-3, but the Americans served notice they were not going to be cannon fodder for their neighbors to the north. Team USA tied the game with 6.3 seconds left in regulation after Otto won a key offensive zone faceoff. But Yzerman put the Canadians one win away from a championship with a goal midway through the first overtime period.

Mike Modano, Team USA: They were stacked. They couldn't have any more legends and superstars on that team. I think after we beat the Russians, we knew Canada was going to be tough because we only had one game in the U.S. and two in the Forum. Even Yzerman's goal was controversial. He was a couple of feet offside, but no one said anything about that.

Ron Wilson: The play was like 10 feet offside. I'm not kidding. Right after the game, I didn't know it was as offside as it was. Burkie [Brian Burke] was working with the league. He came running down and said he wanted to see me. I said, 'What's up, Burkie?' He goes, 'Don't you f---ing dare say a word. The last goal was offside. It's at least 10 feet offside.' I said, 'What are you talking about?' I had no idea. He didn't want me to say anything, like I was known to do, or complain about the referees. When they asked me after the game, I just said, 'We got beat. I thought it was a good goal. I understand it might have been offside. It wasn't the linesman's fault. It was just a play that happened, bang-bang. Anybody can make that mistake.' Stevie Y beat Mike Richter, simple as that. We didn't use it as an excuse. We didn't play the game we needed to play to beat Canada. The speech I made after that game was the best one I gave to the team. I said, 'We're not making excuses. We can play better than this. Now we have to.'

Bill Guerin: I'll tell you what, we just thought we had such a great opportunity. Even though we lost the game, we kind of accomplished what we wanted to accomplish because during the first shift of the game, there were fights breaking out all over the place. And that was the stand that we had to make. Win, lose or draw, we're not going to f---ing get pushed around. And that, to me, was a pivotal part. It was dirty, mean hockey. It really was. It wasn't for everybody.

Mike Richter, Team USA: We never got too far ahead of ourselves, where we felt, 'Oh, geez, we're behind a goal,' or 'We have to win two in Montreal.' We were just worried about the next game, the next shift, the next moment that we could control. That's when you have to have patience mentally, knowing that when the puck is dropped, we'll do what we have to do to give us the best chance to win. I didn't feel like there was ever a point in that tournament when there was any panic or any concern we weren't going to figure out a way to get it done.

Doug Weight: We were positive. I'll never forget how positive we were when we lost the first game in the finals. It was like, 'Ah, we're a better team. We're going to beat 'em.' I swear to God. I was young, I was like, 'Oh man, how are we going to beat these guys twice?' Seriously. We were so close. Why couldn't we win that game? We came in with a purpose the next day. I give a lot of credit to Ronnie and our leadership.

Mathieu Schneider: [Going to Montreal for Games 2 and 3] was an incredible uphill battle. The tournament is so intense, so short. It wasn't like you're playing a seven-game series and you have time to think about it. Every single game that we played, the intensity level was through the roof. After losing in Philadelphia, and knowing we had to play in Canada for the next few games, in Montreal in particular, it was daunting -- no question -- but I don't think there was ever a thought that we wouldn't be able to overcome it.

Marc Crawford: I'd played in the Quebec league, lived on the Quebec border. And in '96 it wasn't really that long past the referendum [to determine Quebec's sovereignty and possible separation from Canada] and all of those things. I was so enthralled with how unified Quebec was with the rest of Canada at that time. I remember thinking that it would be really good when we won it in Montreal.

Two nights later, with the balance of the series shifted to Montreal, Team USA bounced back with a solid 5-2 victory in Game 2. Richter foreshadowed his series-changing play in Game 3 with a 35-save performance in Game 2, including 17 saves in the third period as Canada tried desperately to rally and prevent a third game. The Americans scored twice into an empty net to produce a score that was no way indicative of the closeness of the match.

Mike Modano: When we went to Montreal after being down a game, Ron was great, too. He was like, 'What better opportunity to do this, win two games in a row in Montreal against Team Canada?'

Two nights later, the entire hockey world held its collective breath as Canada and the U.S. met in a winner-take-all finale.

Keith Tkachuk: Me, Billy and Dougie almost got in a couple of scraps [with fans] on the way from the hotel to the rink before the game. I mean, these people were nuts. They were crazy. Yelling at us, throwing stuff at us. All these people with the flags and their faces painted.

Bill Guerin: Keith, Dougie and I were walking to the rink and there were truckloads or vans of people just driving by and screaming at us, just giving it to us. It was a riot-type atmosphere, it really was. It was amazing. There was a lot of tension.

Ron Wilson: When we were having the pregame skate, I said to Tony Amonte. 'Are you ready to be our Mike Eruzione? You're both Italian. You're both full of s---. You both went to BU.' I said, 'I have a feeling you're going to be our Mike Eruzione.'

Mike Modano: Because of the circumstances, I think your focus and your commitment to detail is always much better when you're on the road, even in playoff series. You really become tuned into what you have to do. And in that sense, we really were. Because you're on the road, you're in a tough rink to play in, the fans, the buzz around town, the whole thing. All those things forced us to focus and think about what we were doing even more than we would have at home in a more comfortable situation.

The Americans opened the scoring in Game 3 and held a 1-0 lead late in the second period. Richter was sensational again, stopping 23 shots in the second period alone as he cemented his place as tournament MVP.

Mike Richter: [Vincent] Damphousse had a breakaway on me in the second period. He made about 14 moves -- and I was going about 15 different ways -- but I was able to get my stick back on the puck toward the end. There were other ones when you're in position and you're able to make a save and then control the rebound because you're not behind the play; you're anticipating and you're in front of it. I felt somewhat sluggish in the first period, but I got better as the game went on. Sometimes it's easy when you get a lot of work because you get into a rhythm, and that was the case [in that game].

Mark Messier: Richter kept them in the game, and [to] win championships, that's exactly what needs to happen. They got the goaltending that they needed. They found themselves in a game that they could win -- basically, a next-goal-wins type of scenario. And they had some guys who could score goals and take advantage of mistakes. We made some mistakes, and they took advantage of it. That's all they needed to tip the scale in their favor.

Wayne Gretzky: We did have a great second period. Richter was real good. I remember sitting beside Mess, who had played with Richter in New York. Being in the [Western Conference], you don't see a guy as much as you do in the East. Mess was just going on and on about how if this guy gets on, he's one of the greatest goalies who ever played. And Richter had a second period like you dream about. I always say it's like in '98 [at the Olympics]. We dominated the Czechs but [Dominik] Hasek stood on his head. We were 1-1 going to overtime and we got beat. In '04 [at the World Cup] Marty Brodeur got hurt and Roberto Luongo went in net. The Czechs dominated us but somehow we got into overtime and won it in overtime. So you just never know. Goaltending is part of it, and that's part of what makes the game so sensational.

Mike Modano: [Richter] was getting peppered. He was phenomenal. He was just in such a zone. He had some of the best scorers in the history of the game on him, one after another, and he was just kicking and making saves. At a whole different level. Everybody was just ranting and raving on the bench. Ron was losing it. He was like, 'Come on, Mike's keeping us in it and we've got to do something.' But I think that, save after save, [Richter] just gave us much more confidence. It was like, 'Hey, we're still alive here.'

Andy Murray: I've never seen a goaltending display like the one that Richter put on in the second period of the final game in Montreal. That may have been as good a 20-minute period that any Canadian team has ever played.

Brett Hull: We knew we were going to have to weather a storm at some point. You can say the game should have been over. Well, guess what? You can have all the best players in the world, but if your goalie sucks, you're not going to win. So an integral part of our team was Mike Richter, who was spectacular in the whole tournament.

Rod Brind'Amour: I thought we dominated, but when I watched it again it was like, 'We should have won that.' Mike Richter kind of stood on his head, and the Americans capitalized when they had to.

Brett Hull: You didn't have to say anything. It's pretty blatantly obvious that we'd better get our s--- together here because if we're going to win, we need to start turning the tables the other way and start tilting the ice toward their end.

Team Canada finally tied the game at 1-1 late in the second period and then took the lead on an Adam Foote goal with less than eight minutes to go in regulation. For legions of Canadian fans -- and maybe the players themselves -- this seemed to be the break they were waiting for, a foreshadowing of a dam about to burst.

Ron Wilson: As the game was going on I remember thinking, 'It's going to come down to the last minute.' We started the third period in a 1-1 tie. When they took a 2-1 lead, I said, 'There's no way Canada is going to beat us on a goal like that from Adam Foote.' He wasn't an offensive player at all.

Brett Hull: It's crazy. It's back and forth. It's just nail-biting. We're feeling the same things on the bench that the fans are feeling. You're just looking for something to turn the tide. Maybe the best thing that happened was that Foote goal that put them ahead. Because maybe you get that first goal and you relax and let your guard down. And all of a sudden they come back kind of like we did.

Frank Brown, current NHL VP and former hockey journalist: Foote's goal was a shot from the top of the right-wing circle. I think it was actually Hatcher who was in front of Richter. Richter never saw it. It whizzed past his ear, and that was it, and it was 2-1. You're playing in Montreal and you know the noise there is unlike anyplace else. The other thing that [Doc] Emrick says, again an impeccable truism, 'The expectation of a nation was on Canada -- and, well, that can be pretty heavy.'

Instead, it was the Americans who responded and put the game away with four goals in the final 3:18 of play, beginning with Hull's controversial deflection goal that tied the game at 2-2 and set the stage for the American victory. Amonte netted the go-ahead goal just 43 seconds later.

Doug Weight: [Richter] got us through that 10-minute period, when it literally could have been 6-1. We were just going, 'Oh my god. He's giving us a chance.' Chelly was like, 'Wake the f--- up and play our game. He's kept us in it and now they're deflated. We take it over.' And [the Canadians] are saying, 'Oh my god, we didn't take advantage of the empty nets and those saves.' And then it was all about taking that will away from them. As a player or a coach, it's taking that will and capturing those big plays and riding that wave -- and we did. We came at them and came at them and came at them and got two, three big goals ... and the rest is history.

Ron Wilson: Brett Hull scored the first goal to tie it up with about five minutes to go. They thought it was a high stick. It was the first time they ever used video review, too. We're cheering, and I said, 'Guys, just relax. That goal is going to be good. We're going to be able to cheer twice for this goal.' Of course, we did. The goal counted. Within a minute, Tony Amonte scored the next goal, but it looked like he kicked it in. He got it on his stick. We had another video review. We had to wait five minutes and then we get to cheer again. We were going nuts.

Brett Hull: Not until we got up by two and there were a few minutes left [did the Americans think victory was assured]. Canada was just too good. If you think you've got them, then you're crazy. But it kind of turned into a blur. You have to do your job. You can't make mistakes. You have to have your guy covered. And you get so focused that, all of a sudden, you look up and realize there's a minute left and you're up by two. You take a deep breath, and that's when you go, 'Holy cow, we really could win this thing.'

Mike Modano: I was with Keith and Billy and Dougie and those guys on the bench. I screamed so loud that I dislocated my jaw. It was locked. So I ducked back down on the bench and had to pop it back into place. I just screamed so loud that I cracked my jaw. I couldn't believe it. Because I had gotten hit by Ulf Samuelsson years ago and my jaw hurt for six or seven years after that hit. And sure enough I screamed so damn loud it popped right out.

Brett Hull: I was just kind of dumbfounded. I'd really never won before. So I'm on the ice and I look at Chelly and I go, 'What do I do now?' He goes, 'Well, drop your gloves and stick and start hugging people.' I was like, 'Oh, OK.'

Frank Brown: That team was created to answer every challenge. Every time you'd say, 'Yeah, but it's in Canada and Canada's going to be better at this or at that ...' Then you saw a Joel Otto, you saw a Derian Hatcher, you said, 'Wait a minute, Canada isn't bigger than the U.S. anymore.' And you saw a [Bryan] Smolinski out to win faceoffs or when you saw the American defense as active as it was in the offense. When you saw Richter staring down [Curtis] Joseph and everything that Canada could muster -- including a Mount Rushmore of Gretzky, Lindros, Messier, Sakic and Yzerman -- how in the world do you sit there as a coach and go, 'Yeah, we can take them?' And not only can we take them, but we can take them in their country with -- what was it? -- four goals in what the last five minutes?

Doug Weight: If we had played 10 games we might have lost the next six. We battled and we won two straight in a place where no one in the world probably would have, and it just made for such a great story.

Frank Brown: There was just a defiance to [the Americans] throughout. And it wasn't like, 'We hope we can.' It was, 'We know. We're not taking a backward step.' There was an answer for every challenge. It reflected a change from hope to determination.

David Ogrean, executive director, USA Hockey: Here's the spicy story: Game 3. [Longtime USA Hockey executive] Art Berglund and I are in a suite. Lou Lamoriello is very much a guy who doesn't like distractions, so I intentionally kept Art and myself away from the locker room prior to the games. We didn't go down there and say, 'Hey, good luck guys.' We just stayed the heck out of the way. We didn't go down until after we'd won the final thing. We were in a suite with Bob Goodenow [head of the NHLPA] and Dick Pound [a top International Olympic Committee member and a Canadian]. I think there were only six or eight of us in there. With about five or six minutes to go, I swear that Dick said something like, 'Geez, you guys played well,' because Canada was up by a goal. And after the final buzzer goes off, I turn around. There's no one in the suite, just Art and I. They've left. But it was an interesting vantage point from which to watch the game.

When it was over and the final score of 5-2 had been recorded, the teams met for the traditional handshake line, and then the victorious Americans would find the streets of Montreal almost deserted as they made their way to a local Greek restaurant for a celebration organized by Chelios. In time, players on both sides of this epic series would come to consider it among the most important hockey played in their careers. For the Americans, the win would stand as one of the seminal moments in the history of the U.S. game.

Mark Messier: We saw it coming in '91 [during the Canada Cup]. When we got to '96, we knew we couldn't just go out and intimidate them. They had a big, strong, physical team, and they could answer us in every way. So it became a real evenly matched game in every way. And in that particular tournament, they got the best of us.'

Andy Murray: That feeling in the dressing room after [the '96 final] was pretty tough. It's like any loss, but it's even more. I lost in the finals with the North Stars [in 1991], but I don't know if anything is as emotional as when it involves country.

Frank Brown: I have say to that [NHL commissioner Gary Bettman] greeting 12 U.S.-born players on the stage in Buffalo last June [at the NHL draft] -- including one of them named Tkachuk -- is telling and compelling. Because just as the '80 team was the real launch pad, in my view, for the generation of players that became the focal points in the '96 victory, this '96 victory really established USA Hockey. That applies to the entity as well as the macro of hockey in the United States as credible, as serious, as a factor in the hockey landscape. There would be no going back from that moment. One of the truly wonderful Mike Emrick comments after the Americans had scored that cluster of goals in the last few minutes of the third period, was when he said, 'This is no miracle. This is a reward for building excellence.' That's really the summary that stands through the ages.

"There'll never be a team that's as important (in the U.S.) as 1980. It's kind of like there's only one '72 team (for Canada). Nothing will ever be that, but '87 was as close as there'll ever be for Canada and that '96 American team will be as close to the 1980 team as there'll ever be. And those guys had charisma too, guys like Chelios and Leetch and Hull and Tkachuk and Modano. They had a swagger about them, and that helped to popularize the sport of hockey in the U.S." Wayne Gretzky on the 1996 World Cup of Hockey

Brett Hull: Like I said, I'd never won before, and it taught me what it was like to win and how awesome it was to feel that bond and the effort that it took to do it. So from that point forward in my career it was like, 'OK, I want to do this again.' Sometimes it's out of your hands. It depends on your team and your organization, if they have the ability to put a team together that has a chance to win. And, fortunately for me, I got to go to Dallas and Detroit, where they did. I think it was really a game-changer for me in terms of my mental awareness of what it took and how awesome the feeling was to win.

Frank Brown: If Richter had been one molecule lesser than he was, we wouldn't be having this conversation. It's really very, very simple.

Bill Guerin: All Canadian teams, when they're playing at home, just have such immense pressure on them. And you could just see that, for some of the [Canadian] guys who had the weight of the world on their shoulders, that it was such a downer. Things like aren't supposed to happen.

Rod Brind'Amour: I can tell you it's not so much for me, because I was just one of the young guys. No one talked about me. I wasn't counted on like a Gretzky. But Gretzky didn't play that much either. [Coach Glen Sather] used Mess and Lindros' line a lot. But I think that the weight of it all was on Gretz. He took a lot of the brunt of [the loss], whether it was right or wrong. I roomed with him at the Olympics. This guy cared so much about Canada and how it was perceived. He was Hockey Canada. I know it was devastating to everybody, but I think to him especially -- just because of who he was and what he meant to the game of hockey, especially in Canada -- that he felt like he was letting people down. And it wasn't his fault. That's another takeaway I had from it: just how much this guy cared about the game. I was so impressed.

Wayne Gretzky: You know what? There'll never be a team that's as important [in the U.S.] as 1980. It's kind of like there's only one '72 team [for Canada]. Nothing will ever be that, but '87 was as close as there'll ever be for Canada and that '96 American team will be as close to the 1980 team as there'll ever be. And those guys had charisma too, guys like Chelios and Leetch and Hull and Tkachuk and Modano. They had a swagger about them, and that helped to popularize the sport of hockey in the U.S.

Bill Guerin: That team was a groundbreaker. It wasn't just a fluke. We weren't just a one-trick pony. We changed the way people look at USA Hockey because it wasn't a one-and-done. It was a series. And we did it in the toughest environment in the toughest way against the toughest team. It was big.

Doug Weight: You're shaking hands and you go by Mess, and you go by [Paul Coffey] and you go by Gretz and you go by Shanny [Brendan Shanahan] and you go by Joe [Sakic]. I was like, 'We just won?' It's amazing. Playing on North American ice, it was the perfect storm. It's probably the best hockey we've ever been a part of.

Chris Chelios: I know it still bugs Canada. They claim it to be their sport. We claim it's their only sport. Talking about that makes them sick to their stomach. Winning it on their ice, it was a big step for all of us, that group of guys.

Brett Hull: We had a fun time in Montreal. And it was funny walking down the streets. It was almost like someone had died. [The Canadian fans] were like zombies walking down the street, like, 'Oh my god, we lost.'

Doug Weight: I'll never forget walking to the restaurant afterward. It was tumbleweeds. It was like Utica, New York. It was people with painted faces just walking by us with their flags over their shoulders, no talking. It was quiet. I've never seen anything more surreal. My father and my in-laws were there. They were like, 'I can't believe this place. It's like a religion.' I said, 'Their country's going to be on shutdown for a week, you watch.' Then we went to Chelly's Greek place and started breaking plates and had a great time.

Bill Guerin: We all ended up going to this Greek place that would stay open for us and, next thing you know, plates are flying, smashing. I remember one of the guys on top of a cab jumping up and down. I won't say who. We had to watch each other's backs that night because we were out and there were some people who were not happy about their team losing and wanted to try their luck with some of us.

Mike Modano: I think it's like winning a Cup with a guy. When you see him [later on], all of a sudden you go back to that point. It's the same with Chris, every time I see him, or Billy or Keith or those guys. We all won something together, so there's always that instant flashback to those experiences and that time. It's still there and will probably be until the day we die. It's the same with the Stanley Cup guys. As soon as you see them or talk about them, it's instant.

Bill Guerin: We couldn't believe it. But we were also like, 'We did what we had to do to win.' We finally kind of confronted our demons. And we won. It was unreal. It was unbelievable. It really was.

--with files from Scott Burnside, Craig Custance, Pierre LeBrun and Joe McDonald