It’s not going to take another miracle for the U.S. men’s hockey team to win Olympic gold.
The ragtag band of amateurs that stunned the Soviet Union in 1980 has been replaced by NHL professionals, competing for the first time in the Olympics.
The United States and Canada are favored to meet in the gold-medal game Feb. 22 in Nagano. And the Americans, led by Keith Tkachuk, Brett Hull, Chris Chelios and goaltender Mike Richter, are still filled with confidence from their 5-2 victory over a Wayne Gretzky-led Canadian team in the 1996 World Cup final.
That victory in Montreal, and an earlier one in the same tournament, upset the hierarchy of hockey. No longer was Canada on top and the rest of the world several notches below.
“It finally put us right up there,” forward Mike Modano said. “It gave us a taste of what it is like to beat Canada and some of the other countries in the world.”
But the Americans also know that Canada is still the team to beat.
“They’ve been known as the hockey power for years and I don’t think one loss in the World Cup changes that,” forward John LeClair said.
In that game, Tony Amonte scored the winning goal as the United States rallied from a 2-1 deficit with four unanswered goals in the final 3:18.
Richter made 35 saves and finished with a 2.43 goalsagainst average to earn most valuable player honors. His teammates and the Canadians still marvel at the performance.
“When you get down to the very end in high-level competition, the teams are so evenly matched sometimes one special athlete can take the bull by the horns and get you over the hump,” Gretzky said. “Michael was exceptional in that series. He’s a big-game goaltender and a guy that plays well under pressure.”
Richter, who’s struggled in the first half of the NHL season with the Rangers, will be joined in net at the Olympics by Guy Hebert and John Vanbiesbrouck.
Chemistry and goaltending were keys to winning the 1996 World Cup, as they will be during the 10-day Olympic tournament.
All but six players from the U.S. World Cup team will play in Japan, making the Americans a cohesive group.
“We put together a talented bunch of guys who got along real well,” Modano said of the World Cup team. “No one had a problem with ice time or the power play or penalty killing. Everybody put those things aside for the team. That was a real big difference.”
Because the NHL break doesn’t start until Saturday, players will have just three practices with their national teams before competition begins. But most of them will arrive in Japan already having played more than 50 NHL games this season.
“The players are going to be in midseason form,” U.S. coach Ron Wilson said. “We’re going to have to use a couple of the games to fine-tune our team.”
With so many players from the 14 competing nations already in the NHL, there won’t be too many surprises.
The United States opens round-robin play on Feb. 13 against defending Olympic champion Sweden.
In 1994, the Swedes defeated Canada 3-2 on a dramatic goal by Peter Forsberg in a shootout for the gold. The United States finished eighth in Lillehammer, Norway, with a 1-1-3 record.
For six members of Team USA, the Games represent a chance to erase the disappointments of past Olympics.
Chelios and Pat LaFontaine played on the 1984 team that had the misfortune of trying to live up to the “Miracle On Ice” of four years earlier. The United States finished seventh with a 2-2-2 record.
Brian Leetch and Richter were on the 1988 team (seventh place), while Tkachuk and Shawn McEachern played in 1992 (fourth place, the highest U.S. finish since the 1980 gold medal).
“There’s lots of different factors that are involved here, but there is one common denominator,” Wilson said. “We’re all Americans and we’re all trying to win a gold medal, so that’s motivation enough.”