Ron Wilson, coach of Team USA, sidled up to forward Tony Amonte on the morning of the most important game in American pro hockey history and told him, "You're going to be our Paul Henderson." Amonte answered, "Who the hell is Paul Henderson?"
"I was kidding," Amonte said later. "Sure, I had heard of Paul Henderson. But Ron said, 'Let me put it in your terms. You're going to be our Mike Eruzione. You both went to Boston University. You're both Italian. And you're both not the best-looking guy in the world. But you're going to do something special for us.' "
In literature, Wilson's chat with Amonte would be known as foreshadowing. In real life, it was a premonition. Certainly Amonte relished its retelling last Saturday night an hour after the U.S. had defeated Canada 5-2 in one of the most compelling matches in hockey history to win the inaugural eight-nation World Cup. Amonte's disputed goal with 2:35 remaining—maybe he scored with his stick, maybe he kicked the puck in illegally with his skate—was one of four goals the Americans scored in the last 3:18 of Game 3 of the best-of-three Cup finals to secure the U.S.'s position as an elite hockey nation. Just as important, the victory, occurring in Montreal in a tournament formerly known as the Canada Cup, gave American professional hockey its "Once upon a time...."
On the day before Game 3, Wilson didn't lament that he had no Wayne Gretzky or Mark Messier in his locker room, but he did lament that his players had no lore to sustain them, something that Canadian stars like Gretzky and Messier had in abundance. If Canada is hockey's enduring home, U.S. hockey had been a Potemkin village, a facade constructed from the surprising American triumph in the 1960 Olympics and the 1980 Miracle on Ice, in which Eruzione and his U.S. teammates beat the Soviet Union and went on to win the Lake Placid Games gold. As wondrous as those accomplishments were, they paled next to Canada's rich hockey legacy.
"It's like tribal storytelling," said Wilson, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim coach, of Canada's heritage in the sport. "The information is passed on from generation to generation. But the U.S. hasn't won anything in professional hockey, so there's nobody in our room telling stories of our great victories of the past. If we could put ice in Yankee Stadium, maybe the ghosts of Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth would help us."
Wilson had only fresh, strong legs to pit against Canada's societal memory in the final series, which began with a 4-3 Canadian win in overtime in Philadelphia. That was followed by a 5-2 U.S. victory in Game 2 in Montreal. Beneath their scars and dental plates, Canadian players have a hockey DNA that's supposed to remind them who and what they are in the dying moments of important one-goal games. Thirteen of Canada's 20 players in last Saturday's showdown were five years old or younger when Henderson's goal for Canada in 1972 beat the Soviet Union in the concluding game of the Summit Series, the first and best of the mega-international hockey events, but that goal remains their lodestar. Last week the U.S. players looked around cavernous Molson Centre in Montreal and saw Maple Leaf flags and signs boasting THIS is OUR GAME. Canadians are not shy about their birthright. The T-shirt that Canada's backup goaltender Martin Brodeur wore to practice last Friday read, CANADA IS HOCKEY. PERIOD.
Of course, if there were truth in sloganeering, the shirt would have been emblazoned CANADA IS HOCKEY. EXCEPT IN THE THIRD PERIOD. Just when Canada was supposed to act on its primal hockey instincts, the Americans were starting story hour.
Once upon a time...but when does the story really begin? Was it last Friday night when Wilson woke up from a dream three times screaming, "We won! We won!" Or does it begin with the Amonte-Wilson dialogue at the morning skate on Saturday? Or when U.S. goaltender Mike Richter frustrated Canada for the first 39:55 of Game 3—until Eric Lindros finally scored on a power play? Or does it begin in the third period when Brett Hull of the U.S. deflected a shot with his stick near his shoulder to tie Canada 2-2 with 3:18 left, a goal that sent referee Terry Gregson scurrying to the telephone to speak with the officials in the video-replay booth to determine whether Hull's stick was legally below the height of the crossbar? Forty-three seconds of playing time later Gregson was on the phone again to discuss Amonte's shot, which he might have Pele'd in. Wilson wasn't dismayed by the video verification. In fact, he said it allowed Team USA to cheer twice for each of the disputed goals. On each score the Americans exploded when the puck went in, waited for the replay officials' decision and went nuts again when Gregson signaled that the goal counted.
Canada had a chance to spoil the party with 50 seconds left, but Gretzky, national icon though he is, failed to redirect a pass from Paul Coffey into a yawning net for what would have been the tying goal. Eight seconds later U.S. defenseman Derian Hatcher iced the victory with an empty-netter.
Or should the story begin 10 years ago when Hull, who was born in Canada but has dual U.S.-Canadian citizenship, accepted an invitation from the Americans to play in the world championships, a lower-level event held every spring? Canada wasn't interested in a gifted but reputedly lazy and self-absorbed college goal scorer, which explains why Hull has since played for the U.S. in international games. In the World Cup he had a tournament-high seven goals, including two on Saturday, and left Gretzky wondering, "Who was the guy who cut Brett Hull?" Each time Hull scored on Saturday, the 21,273 partisan fans at the Molson Centre broke into a chant of "TRAI-tor! TRAI-tor!"