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TV Review: Orchestrating An Upset: The 1996 World Cup of Hockey

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The NHL is launching a new series on the NHL Network tomorrow night. The first episode focuses on Team USA’s 1996 World Cup of Hockey victory over Canada

USA V Canada
Oh, uh, spoilers.

The 1996 World Cup of Hockey finals is the first major hockey event I remember sitting down to watch on my own. I had watched hockey games in the past with family, but on September 14th, 1996 I was alone at home and made the decision to lie on the couch and cheer for Canada to win the tournament they always win. My cheering didn’t help, and Canada lost the final deciding game 5-2 in Montreal.

How did they assemble a team to beat Canada, who had previously won 4/5 Canada Cup tournaments? On the premiere episode of NHL Network Originals, we go on an inside look at how the 1996 World Cup team was built.

The cold open to the show features current Maple Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello talking about how to build a hockey team, how each role plays like a section of the orchestra. Skilled players are your delicate strings, physical players are the hard hitting percussionists, and the brass is made of those players who fit somewhere in the middle.

As we go through a supercut of interviews, CBC news anchor Peter Mansbridge reminds us how much national pride is on the line for Canada. When it was called the Canada Cup we won four out of five times. Now that it’s the World Cup, the pressure is on to keep that dominance alive.

Jagr, Forsberg, Gretzky, Hull. Their best moments of the tournament play out for us as the narrator, James Hetfield of Metallica, begins to describe the setting, and how there’s only one team, one orchestra, that stands above the rest: Team Canada. 10 out of 20 roster players from that team are currently in the Hockey Hall of Fame. They were a formidable opponent.

This sets up our Canada vs Goliath theme when talking about Canada versus Team USA. In previous tournaments Canada would physically dominate Team USA and win that way, or make Team USA overcompensate with the physical play, Canada would draw penalties and run up the score on the power play.

Team USA was 0-7-1 at Canada Cup tournaments. They had a 20 year drought in World Championships vs Canada. The only title the USA won in 35 years before the 1996 World Cup was the 1980 Olympic Games.

Team USA wasn't just going up against Canada in this tournament, they were fighting apathy on the home front as well. As camps began around the world in late August, it was big news everywhere but the United States. There were MLB pennant races to contend with, NFL camps opening, and the 1996 presidential race was entering it’s final turn. A news report from Seattle interviews patrons at the biggest sports bar in the city:

“Hockey is Canada's sport”

“They’d have to play nude to get any attention”

“This is first I’m hearing about it”

How do you get through to the American public? You take down the giant the first chance you get. Lou brought in a coach he knew could help build and guide that team of giant killers: Mighty Ducks of Anaheim head coach Ron Wilson. Wilson was asked to outline his speech to the players in his interview. The biggest theme? It was the Americans turn to drive the bus.

(It’s no “feed the chickens” from Randy, but it’s something.)

In Canada’s second round robin game, on August 31st, 1996 they were coming off a high of knocking off the Russians easily. The theme of this game: fights, fights, fights. 20 seconds into the game, there are fights galore. Terry Gregson, the referee for the game, wondered “Have I lost control of this game already?”

Keith Tkachuk wound up getting ejected from the game after twenty seconds of ice time; however the view from the executives was favourable. “It was an asset to us, for it to transpire”, said GM Lou Lamoriello said, as if this was all part of the plan. The game continued in this direction, we see clips of hits, fights, even a linesman taking a punch.

The plan is working for Team USA.

The United States defeated Canada in the round robin, and that turns the crowd against them in the semi-finals. There’s focus on the story of Brett Hull, born in Belleville, Ontario, but has chosen to play for the United States internationally. In the Russia vs USA semi-final Hull was booed by the Ottawa crowd every time he touched the puck. The semifinals end. USA over Russia easily, 5-2. Canada needs double overtime to beat Sweden.

The final half of the program focuses on the finals. Canada vs USA. There’s more coverage of the tournament now that USA is in the finals, and continues to play up the fact that the Americans are the underdog. While the team is undefeated coming into the finals, everyone points to flaws in Canada’s game for the reason, not the talent of the Americans.

Mike Richter is credited with keeping the score close enough for the Americans to force overtime in game one of the finals, however a fumbled save in overtime gave Canada the first game.

Team USA must now win two games against Canada in Montreal.

There’s lots of focus and praise for Mike Richter in this segment, and then after the victory focus shifts to the stunned Canadian fans after seeing Canada lose handily to the Americans on home turf.

The final segment, the final quarter hour, shows us the final game of the tournament.

The game is rough. The game is physical. There’s a clip of Eric Lindros giving Keith Tkachuk a slash to the back of his head. That got him a two minute penalty. Lindros guiltily calls that a bad call. It’s a bit understandable that Tkachuk takes a baseball swing at Adam Foote in the second period after that. Tkachuk would get 5 minutes and a misconduct.

More focus on Mike Richters play, clips of Canadians celebrating before realizing Richter made the save are shown. Mike Richter is Team USA’s guardian angel in this game. He kept Team USA in the game, making 21 saves in the second period alone.

Above: The Lindros penalty, Mike Richter being Mike Richter.

Lindros would find a way past Richter in the dying seconds after two. The game is tied 1-1 heading into the home stretch.

The music ramps up, the highlights are more exciting. Halfway through the third Canada takes a 2-1 lead, and Montreal erupts in cheers. The interviews with the Americans don’t show any defeat though. Team USA ramped up it’s play, and didn't accept it’s fate.

Just over three minutes to go Team USA ties the game up, but there was a review on Hull’s goal about whether it was a high stick or not.

The goal stands however, and with three minutes to go, the game is tied. Seconds later Tony Amonte scores to give USA the lead, but yet again we have a review on the play. Curtis Joseph says the goal was kicked in. Canada was just delaying the inevitable with the reviews.

Gretzky misses on a wide open USA net. USA scores with Canada’s goalie pulled. Adam Deadmarsh drills a slap shot past Joseph. Four goals in three minutes and Team USA takes the World Cup of Hockey.

Orchestrating An Upset: The 1996 World Cup of Hockey is a great telling of the construction, triumphs, and the reflections of the American team in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. It’s a solid first outing for the new production group at the NHL Network. The visual package is slick (aside from the non-HD video we suffered through in the mid 90’s), the entire feel of the program is well produced, it’s heads and shoulders above many other programs I’ve seen on cable that combine interviews and past footage. There’s no cheese here, just hockey and hockey players telling stories. So if you want to listen to hockey players tell their stories from the 1996 World Cup, this is for you. If you want an hour to recap the tournament, with a Team USA slant, this is a great program.

Seeing the interviews with the GM, coach, and players for team USA from 1996 was eerily close to everything coming out of Team USA in 2016. From the demands of physicality from the players, to the increasing aggression between Canada and the United States in the pre-tournament games.

Orchestrating An Upset: The 1996 World Cup of Hockey premiers on the NHL Network Wednesday, September 14 at 10:00 p.m. ET, following the replay of game three of the 1996 World Cup final.