July Fourth is a day citizens in the United States celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It was signed by this nation’s Founding Fathers to let Great Britain know the 13 colonies were no longer subject to British rule. The document features the oversized signature of John Hancock. The story goes he did that so King George could read it without his glasses. The quintessential cherry on top defining the Spirit of 1776.
While the United States had some recent success at the World Junior Championships in 2010, 2013, and 2017, they have had little on the big international stage. Almost always being bested by Canada.*
Their last win in the IIHF World Championships was 1960. In the Olympics it is the 1980 Miracle on Ice team. The last U.S. National Team to win it all was at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. They were led by the incredible goaltending of Rangers legend, Mike Richter.
*If only the U.S. Men’s National teams had the success of U.S. Women on the Olympic stage.
The 1990’s rivalry between the USA and Canada
The feud between the U.S. and Canada hockey began in the 1991 Canada Cup tournament. America wasn’t considered to be good enough to contend, yet finished the round-robin play 4-1. The only loss came at the hands of Canada.
In the best of 3 finals, Canada swept the U.S. 4-1 and 4-2 respectively. But bad blood began to brew in game one, when U.S. defenseman Gary Suter hit Wayne Gretzky from behind and knocked him out of the tournament.
The 1991 U.S. Team wasn’t ready for primetime because they had so many young players. Names like Chris Chelios, Brett Hull, Pat Lafontaine, Mike Modano, Brian Leetch and Mike Richter were all on that squad. They and many others got a taste and wanted more, it would come five years later.
USA Hockey a Force to be reckon with
Unlike the Miracle on Ice Team, the 1996 WC roster was not going to surprise anyone. They were ranked highly, second only to Canada. This squad was now older and wiser with Brian Leetch as its captain. Of course, Chelios and Suter were back with the towering Hatcher brothers. Up front, Hull and Lafontaine got help with some needed size and speed with Keith Tkachuk, Bill Guerin, John Leclair and Tony Amonte.
The most important player though was goaltender Mike Richter. Till this day that Canadian team will tell you he was outrageous and impossible to beat. So much so that he was named the MVP of the tournament. Richter finished the WC with a 5-1 record, 2.89 GAA and a .923 save percentage but those numbers do no justice to the MVP’s incredible play.
The United States went 3-0 in round robin play, beating Canada 5-3 as well. Remember the bad blood? There was a brawl in the game that saw Keith Tkachuk flatten Claude Lemieux’s nose and pit Devils teammates against each other when Scott Stevens squared off with Bill Guerin. That game set the tone once they met in a best of 3 finals.
Game 1 was in Philadelphia and the U.S. would fall in OT on a Steve Yzerman goal. The U.S. was now faced with having to win twice in Montreal of all places. Enter the hero Mike Richter, who faced an onslaught of Canadian shots but made the big saves to allow the U.S. to win 5-2. The game was 3-2 with 5 minutes to go in the 3rd, so it was closer than the final score indicated.
Mike Richter the American Hockey Hero
It all boiled down to one game for the right to be World Champs. Another game in front of a hostile crowd and a Canadian team boasting the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Eric Lindros. Yet, the hero was a goaltender from Flourtown, PA that would shine brightest.
Early in the 2nd period with the U.S. up one but under assault, Vincent Damphousse got by Leetch for a breakaway. What appeared to be about 5 dekes, Mike Richter contorted his body to reach back and stop what looked like a sure goal. In hindsight, the save was Mike Richter’s oversized signature to make sure every Canadian could read it when the game was over.
The 1996 U.S. World Cup comeback
The US needed that save and many more as Canada tied it late on the PP and took a lead in the third. In truth, it only set the stage for the hockey version of the Spirit of ‘76 to materialize on the ice.
The comeback started with a Brian Leetch shot that Brett Hull deflected behind his back in mid-air. What’s an American win without some controversy? Canada argued that Hull’s stick was above the crossbar and they demanded it reviewed. After several intense minutes the call came down; stick below the crossbar, good goal.
Soon after, Tony Amonte off a big Curtis Joseph rebound, went top shelf. Hold up! Another review as Canadian players and fans were holding their breath. This simply could not be happening. However it was, as the goal went off Amonte’s blade and not his skate as they had hoped.
All that remained after the U.S. took the lead was an empty net goal. And about that oversized signature thing, Adam Deadmarsh blasted another goal for good measure. America beat Canada to reach the pinnacle of the hockey world, 5-2!
John Hancock, no, I mean Mike Richter
When it was all said and done Mike Richter remembered the save in Dan Rosen’s great article. “He deked five ways at once and I reached back and got it with my paddle,” Richter said. “I remember how tight the game was, with people on the edge of their seat, not an inch to give. So even while he’s making those moves you could feel the crowd going, ‘Oh, oh, there it is.’ It was one of those great moments that you never want to go away because here it all is for all the money. Had they scored that goal, momentum shifts.”
The save is now history. Mike Richter was the MVP of that tournament and to a man, all will say they wouldn’t have beat Canada without him. Thus making him the America’s last great hockey hero.
Relive the excitement of the game in the video. The SAVE can be seen at the 4 minute mark. The comeback starts at 10:11.