They were inspired by the greatest moment in hockey history and grew up to be known as the “Greatest Generation.” In turn, they inspired future generations of American hockey players to rise up and accomplish their own great things.
Now, as many of them look back on their long and storied careers, the benefit of time has helped them realize their impact on the game.
Three of the greatest Americans to ever wear the stars and stripes — Chris Chelios, Gary Suter and Keith Tkachuk — were recently inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, joining Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider and broadcaster Mike Emrick in the shrine to the American game.
Their acceptance speeches at a Chicago ceremony on Dec. 12 were part reflections on the past as well as a look ahead to the promise of the future.
Tkachuk was just starting out in hockey in Melrose, Mass., when a group of American college kids shocked the heavily favored Russians in Lake Placid, N.Y., but even then he knew he was watching history unfold.
“I was 7 years old when I experienced the Miracle on Ice and even then I understood the significance of that feat,” said Tkachuk, now 39.
For Gary Suter, the magnitude of the moment hit even closer to his Madison, Wis., home as his older brother, Bob, was a member of the 1980 squad.
“Bobby has always held it over my head that he’s the only one with a gold medal,” said Suter, who represented the United States eight times in international competition, including two Olympics. “He’s constantly been ribbing me about that.”
Who can blame him? Named the century’s top sporting moment by Sports Illustrated, the Miracle on Ice will always be the apex of USA Hockey’s history. It not only changed the way Americans looked at the game, it also changed the perception of the American hockey player among those at the highest level of the game.
“The ’80 Team paved the way for our group,” said Chelios, who called it a career in 2010 after 27 seasons in the NHL. “No one was drafting college kids, but as soon as the ’80 Team won it, all of sudden the first pick overall was [Brian] Lawton [in 1983]. That really jump-started our group of guys to get where they wanted to go. NHL teams all of a sudden were looking at U.S. players.”
Still, in the eyes of many in the hockey world, one miracle does not an international dynasty make. It took something bigger, something on a grander scale to fully earn the respect of the hockey world. That opportunity came nearly two decades later, when the U.S. assembled a formidable cast to take on the best in the world at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey.
While much of the American sporting public was fixated on a rookie shortstop named Derek Jeter, who was making a name for himself with the New York Yankees, eight of the best hockey-playing countries in the world faced off in a late summer tournament that culminated with two North American teams skating in a best-of-three final.
After dropping the first game in overtime on home soil, the Americans packed their bags and headed for Montreal. A decisive 5-2 victory guaranteed a third game, where Tony Amonte broke a 2-2 tie late in the third period to stun the partisan Canadian crowd at the Molson Centre and give the Americans international bragging rights.
“For our group, we needed to win something to get over the hump,” Chelios said. “Getting close wasn’t good enough. We had to win.”
Even now, all these years later, after winning Stanley Cups and setting records that may last for decades, all three players of the Class of 2011 say that winning the World Cup stands out.
“The ’96 World Cup is probably the biggest thrill of my hockey career,” said Tkachuk, who is one of four Americans to score at least 500 goals in his NHL career.
“It was a great hockey moment not just for me but for USA Hockey. I think that a lot of the reason you see these younger players in the league is because of the ’96 Team, just like the 1980 Olympics were for me.”
Over the years, the nucleus of that team stayed together through various international competitions, including the 1998, 2002 and 2006 Olympic Winter Games and another World Cup in 2004, earning the reputation as the “Greatest Generation” of American hockey players.
“The majority of us were the same age, in the prime of our careers,” Tkachuk said. “We did a lot of great things together. I take pride in the fact in what we did and what we accomplished with that group, building and building, and we helped out some of the younger stars who are in the game today.”
Along the way, they raised the level of American hockey, going from teams that hoped to keep games close to teams that entered international competitions expecting to win.
“It was pretty rewarding to be part of an American hockey generation that went from being happy to keep the scores close against those top teams in the world to becoming one of those top teams in the world,” said Suter, who retired in 2002.
And now the torch has been passed. A new generation of American hockey stars is writing its own chapter in the book of USA Hockey history.
The seed that was planted in 1996 has taken root in Ann Arbor, Mich., where the National Team Development Program continues to train the stars of tomorrow.
It continued on with the first World Junior Championship in 2004 and culminated with a silver-medal run at the Vancouver Olympic Games that captivated a nation, including those who wore the USA crest in the past.
“It was a great group of players, and they let no one down,” said Chelios, who served as an assistant coach at the team’s orientation camp in suburban Chicago.
“Overtime in the gold-medal game, what more can you ask for, other than a different outcome? And they’re going to be good for a long time. That was a young team, and they have the swagger. They know they can compete with anybody.”