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TORONTO -- Lou Lamoriello and Brian Leetch were on opposite sides of the Devils-Rangers NHL rivalry, but they share a lifetime bond with a hockey memory that grows in stature with each passing year.
As they slipped on their Hockey Hall of Fame induction rings Monday morning -- along with Steve Yzerman, Luc Robitaille and Brett Hull -- the great New Jersey general manager and legendary New York defenseman shared their thoughts on a moment that forever will be remembered in Team USA hockey lore: capturing the 1996 World Cup of Hockey.
"That, to me, was a major achievement after the '80 Olympics, to win the '96 World Cup," said Lamoriello, the GM of that '96 team. "That was really the center stage for the best against the best. We do take pride in that bond. Those are great memories."
Leetch anchored a deeply talented U.S. squad that also featured fellow Hall of Fame inductee Hull, as well as Mike Richter, Mike Modano, Keith Tkachuk, Tony Amonte, Chris Chelios, Mathieu Schneider, Bill Guerin and Doug Weight, among others.
"That was the first year as a group that we went in thinking we didn't need to get lucky to win the tournament," Leetch said. "We thought we were good and we thought we could compete and win that thing if we played well. A lot of our players played prominent roles on their NHL teams. We had a great combination of size and toughness from the blue line through our top lines, which we had not always had. And obviously the great goaltending with Richter -- we still needed that to win. We were extremely excited and proud to win it. I hear quotes from some of the younger [American] guys in the NHL now that say they remember watching that team and watching that victory. That makes me feel good, because my reference point was the 1980 Olympic team."
The '96 World Cup win over Canada was the high-water mark for that era of a U.S. hockey program that desperately wanted to measure up to its neighbor to the north. Nothing will ever compare to the "Miracle On Ice" of 1980, but what made the '96 achievement important in its own way is that it came in a best-on-best format -- these weren't college kids at the Olympics; they were the very best professional players in the world. In this context, the U.S. had lagged behind Canada for so many years at this elite level. The '96 victory was a watershed moment that changed the psyche of the American hockey player overnight.
"I don't think there's any question," Lamoriello said.
Perhaps what makes the '96 World Cup achievement even more special 13-plus years later is the fact that Team USA hasn't been able to duplicate that success at the next four tournaments featuring best-on-best: 1998 Olympics, 2002 Olympics, 2004 World Cup of Hockey and 2006 Olympics.
The 2010 U.S. Olympic team will be an underdog in Vancouver, but at least it will have two former students of Lamoriello at the helm. GM Brian Burke and head coach Ron Wilson (also the coach of the '96 World Cup team) were teammates for coach Lamoriello at Providence College in the 1970s. If that doesn't make the hockey world seem as through it just shrunk a size, tack on the fact that another player on that team was Bob Nicholson, the current head of Hockey Canada.
Lou's boys are everywhere.
"They were outstanding student-athletes," Lamoriello said of Burke, Wilson and Nicholson. "Their careers were not a surprise to me. They would have been successful no matter what vocation they chose. They had great worth ethic, and all three are very intelligent."
That worth ethic is a Lamoriello staple. It was present during his 20 years at Providence College (1967-1987) and followed him to the NHL level and New Jersey (1987-present). Even after 40-odd years in the game, some basic elements have never changed on a Lamoriello hockey team.
"I like to think that the first component would have to be work ethic; the second would have to be an unselfish commitment to what their responsibilities are," Lamoriello said. "And then, a burning desire to win, to sacrifice individual achievements or individual satisfactions to allow for the chance to win. It's a team sport, and you have to not let down your teammates. I think that's the base."
Those values are at play again this season in New Jersey, where the Devils are doing what they always seem to do: stump the experts. The injury-riddled team sits at 11-4-0, defying critics.
"The team is going well right now, but it's not surprising to us because that's what we expect," Lamoriello said.
And it's not surprising at all to see Lamoriello inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday night.