In the hockey world the 49th parallel is less a line of demarcation than it is a suggestion. Like Hull, U.S. forward Adam Deadmarsh was born in Canada—and so, for that matter, was Wilson. Seven of the Americans in the finals played junior or minor hockey in Canada; some, like Vermont-native John LeClair, grew up a slap shot from the border and watched Hockey Night in Canada as kids. The Americans knew the hockey culture—Amonte could not help but be familiar with Henderson's goal—even if they had not shared in all of its glories. "We've all said we could beat Canada," center Doug Weight said last Friday, "but when you're alone in your room, do you believe it? This team does."
The U.S. brought to the World Cup a physical presence and a snarling attitude, which had been the trademarks of Canada in previous meetings with fancy-dan Russians and Swedes and mostly Smurfish American teams. The U.S. has always been able to rustle up good goaltending and solid defensemen—although nothing that matched Richter's World Cup MVP play and the punishing, breakthrough performance of the 24-year-old Hatcher—but the biggest difference between this and U.S. teams past were the young, quick, tough forwards. Deadmarsh, LeClair, Keith Tkachuk, Bill Guerin and Bryan Smolinski (average age: 24) banged the Canadian wingers and were almost impossible for Canada's defensemen to dislodge from the slot.
"They've got the two premier power forwards in the game—Tkachuk and LeClair—and that's something they didn't have a few years ago," said Theoren Fleury, the terrier-tempered 5'6" Canadian forward. There's no mystery why the power forward has become the U.S.'s position. "At least in my case, it's lack of skill," says LeClair. "You don't need as much skill if you're going to bang. Americans usually learn to skate first and then put the rest together. Not many of my goals are scored from more than three feet."
LeClair was being unduly modest, although, like American pro hockey in general, he's a late bloomer. Early in his career, while playing for the Montreal Canadiens, he was as unsteady on his skates as Bambi was when he took to the icy pond with Thumper. However, LeClair exploded with 51 goals for the Philadelphia Flyers last season, and if there had been suspicions that he was simply an appendage of Lindros's, he dispelled them by scoring six goals in the World Cup while playing on the No. 3 line with Amonte and Smolinski. LeClair has one of the hardest shots in the game, but he does his best work in close. There's a physical price to be paid for getting into position to score LeClair-type goals. Saturday night's World Cup finale, which included 47 minutes of penalties and a slashfest that resulted in Tkachuk's ejection with a game misconduct, served as a reminder that fierce hockey has an aesthetic value of its own. "I don't think you can look back in the annals of hockey and find three better games," Hull said of the World Cup finals.
The message should be translated into Russian. Canada versus Russia, long the gold standard of international hockey, has been devalued, if for no other reason than that Russia is no longer the Soviet Union. Apparently lost in the upheaval in the former U.S.S.R. has been pride in performance in these global competitions; the Russians treated the World Cup as a tune-up for the NHL exhibition season. After his team was ousted from the tournament, Sergei Fedorov noted that September is not the optimal time for such an important event, but then Fedorov's Russian-laced Detroit Red Wings, last season's Stanley Cup favorites, demonstrated with a six-game loss in the semifinals that May isn't their favorite time of year, either. May. September. Gentlemen, you are running out of months.
The U.S. clearly has climbed past Russia on the hockey ladder. David Ogrean, executive director of USA Hockey, notes that until recently America had barely enough elite players to fill one international-caliber team and now could fill two. Of course, Ogrean adds, Canada could probably field four such teams. Canadians still account for a disproportionate number of NHL players (62% last season, compared with the Americans' 18%) but at the game's top level there is little difference between Canada and the U.S. The World Cup trophy that the USA players triumphantly paraded around the Molson Centre doesn't prove that American hockey is No. 1, though for a special month, the kind of September people used to write songs about, it was. "This put to rest what a lot of people said out loud and are probably saying now in hushed tones—that the Americans didn't have the character and grit to play the great game of hockey," Wilson said.
They did. They do. Too bad you probably missed it. Maybe you found the World Cup while searching for an old In Living Color episode on fX. Maybe not. Two years from now, when hockey's Dream Teams meet in the Olympics, U.S. television viewers will lap all this up. Then, bearing the five-ringed seal of approval and distanced, in February, from the start of the football season and the pennant races, top-level international hockey will dazzle a country that adopts the sport only occasionally. At the same time, the just-concluded World Cup, played at a higher emotional pitch than Septembers warrant, is going to make the upcoming NHL season seem insufferably dull.
So once upon a time some Americans without a story of their own won the World Cup of hockey by rallying in the third period to beat Team Canada on its home ice, turning Canadian DNA into DOA. Because the major U.S. networks didn't show it, and it happened in late summer, the Team USA victory wouldn't mean that much beyond the hockey community. But, gee, wasn't it a story?