The old and gold standard

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- As much as these weathered American hockey faces will insist this is about the present -- that they are facing forward not looking through the back window -- there is no way to separate them from the past and the past from them.

Look at the names as they spill onto the ice at Nationwide Arena for their first World Cup of Hockey practice: Hull, Leetch, Chelios, Modano.

Keep going.

Guerin, Konawalchuk, Amonte.

Almost half of this World Cup of Hockey roster, 11 players, were on hand for that seminal moment in Montreal eight years ago when they rose up, and with the raw words of coach Ron Wilson ringing in their ears, moved from the back of the hockey bus to the very front.

Eight years ago. No other team in this tournament returns as many players from that tournament.

Rival Canada returns only four. Russia lists five, but given the fluidity of that lineup, who knows who'll actually show up?

Reach back even further into the mists of American hockey history, back to 1991 and the last Canada Cup tournament. Before there were NHLers at the Olympics and lockouts and a 30-team NHL, there was Hull, Chelios, Leetch and Modano helping America turn a hockey corner.

"You want Chris Chelios to pass those memories along to Jordan Leopold or Brian Rafalski or Hal Gill," Wilson said on the eve of training camp.

Like an ancient culture passing its history around the campfire, American hockey history will hang like cobwebs from the dressing room.

"That's the whole thing. We've done this. It's fun to talk about," Wilson said. "When you win something like that, there's a bond or a relationship that's always there."

To trace the history of this World Cup of Hockey tournament and its predecessor, the Canada Cup, is to trace the recent history of the game itself. It is so for every country.

The Finns, who were once drummed out of the Canada Cup tournament because they weren't considered worthy competition, are now as good of a bet as any to emerge victorious. The Czechs first announced to North Americans that it wasn't just the Russians who knew hockey, taking Canada to overtime in the deciding game of the first Canada Cup final in cold-war 1976 before Darryl Sittler beat Vladimir Dzurilla to secure victory for the home side.

But no team's national hockey fortunes have more closely mirrored their successes and failures in this tournament than the Americans.

In the first four Canada Cup tournaments (1976, 1981, 1984, 1987), the Americans were 8-9-3 in pool play and 0-2 in elimination games including a 9-2 drubbing at the hands of the Swedes in 1984. But in 1991, the Americans served notice that they were no longer content to play whipping boy for the rest of the international-hockey bullies, going 4-1 in pool play and beating Finland 7-3 to advance to their first final, where they lost in two straight games to Canada.

Tim Taylor, the longtime coach of the Yale hockey team, was an assistant coach with that 1991 U.S. team. He recalls coming back from a pre-tournament scouting trip to Pittsburgh to find that head coach Bob Johnson had been hospitalized, finally laid low by the cancer that would ultimately take his life.

"We had no idea that Bob was even sick. It was very sad and very emotional," Taylor recalled. "Everybody loved Bob. Everybody liked the way he coached. He was a natural leader."

The team responded to Johnson's grave condition with inspired play. "That was a very good team," Taylor said. "We had a lot of good players at the height of their careers."

Was it a coming-of-age moment for the nation's hockey program? "Absolutely," Taylor said.

Instead of hanging on against world powers like Canada and the Russians and Swedes, "we were playing a style of hockey and at a level that gave us the opportunity to win those games," Taylor said. "It was a time in our hockey history where there weren't just a lot of American players who played in the National Hockey League but players who starred in the National Hockey League."

In the 1991 final, the Americans were beaten in two straight games by the Canadians, 4-1 and 4-2. But they learned a lesson: While they could match the Canadians in skill, they couldn't match their toughness.

"We just got pushed around by the Messiers and the Lindroses," Taylor said.

Five years later, the Americans put what they'd learned into practice and were the physically dominant team in winning their first tournament championship. They completed the cycle by beating Russia in the semifinals and then upending Canada in a wild, three-game series in which the U.S. dropped the first game and then won two in a row in Montreal, both by 5-2 counts.

"That was what was so impressive. Our guys looked them in the eyes," Wilson recalled. "It's not expressed verbally, but you see it in body language and general comportment."

It was an important tournament, "and not just because we won," said goaltender Mike Richter, the MVP of the 1996 tournament. "But because the games were so close and how we played it. We all felt we were at the top of our game. You're in a position to make a real statement that our country has arrived and that it wasn't just a fluke in 1980.

"In 1991, I really enjoyed myself and I thought I played well. But in 1996, you're not just content to be on the team. Your expectations are higher.

"You knew you weren't part of a team that won the championship and you know you can do it. But until you do, there are always questions, always that doubt in your mind and in others' minds, too."

If the 1980 gold medal by the U.S. men's hockey team, better known as the "Miracle On Ice," helped shine a light on the country's amateur program, the 1996 win helped complete the picture for American hockey. It showed that the patience and practice and systems in place throughout the country "were paying off," according to Don Waddell, the assistant general manager of the 2004 World Cup team.

"Winning brings out more people," Waddell said. "Let's just face it. People want to be involved in a winning program. By winning that tournament I think that helped the U.S., especially in some of those markets that aren't traditionally hockey markets, especially in those markets where there are NHL teams."

You can't draw a straight line from 1996 to 2004. The American hockey lifeline veers through the disaster of the Nagano Olympics in 1998 and the silver-medal effort on home ice in Salt Lake City in 2002. But there is an element of finality here in 2004.

Even if NHL players take part in the 2006 Olympics in Turin, how many of the 12 (and remember it would be 14 returnees from 1996 if Jeremy Roenick and Mathieu Schneider had not sent their regrets) will be back? One has to assume this will be it for Chelios, Leetch and Hull. Who knows how many others will be gone by then?

So as much as this team has its sights set firmly on defending that 1996 title, there is more than a little nostalgia at play here -- a journey through the past, not just for those players but an entire nation.

"There isn't one guy in that room who's here reluctantly," Wilson said. "This is what you do. We're competition junkies. The guys are committed."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.