Tuesday, August 22, 2017

1996 World Hockey Challenge

The 1996 World Hockey Challenge once again had a very different look than previous iterations. The Soviet Union, who played the 1992 tournament as the Commonwealth of Independent States, now entered as Team Russia. The Russian team, with a lineup full of young talent, was seen as one of the favorites to win the tournament as Vladimir Gaganov returned to the team for the first time since the inaugural tournament in 1976. Canada, after a devastating loss in ’92, entered the tournament as the primary favorites to win it all. Led by Vincent Ducharme, the Canadian team was the deepest in the tournament, while the defending champion Americans, led by reigning Lewis Cup champion Jason Crowley, hoped to prove their upset over their Northern Neighbors in 1992 was no fluke.

For the first time ever, the tournament would feature ten teams. Czechoslovakia had split into two countries, Czech Republic and Slovakia. Both nations would be represented in the tournament while Denmark, led by young Washington star Jakob Olsen, entered the WHC for the first time. The Danes predictably struggled in their first tournament, but still managed a win against Germany in their second-last game. Both the Germans and the British went without a win in the round robin, disqualifying them from the playoff round. The three teams expected to contend for the championship all managed to survive the round robin without a loss. The Americans skated to a perfect 4-0-0 record as Jason Crowley led the team in scoring, while Bradley Pope and Christian Grayson were both spectacular in net.

The race for first place in pool A turned into a dogfight, as Canada and Russia entered their final round-robin game against each other both with undefeated records. Russian star Igor Zharkov led the round-robin in scoring, while Canadian goaltender, Zharkov’s Washington teammate Jake Borman was easily the top goaltender with two shutouts as Canada had only allowed one goal in their first three games. The teams played each other hard in one of the most exciting games in the tournament’s history. Borman and 19-year-old Russian goalie Alexei Rolonov both played the game of their lives, as the teams skated to a 2-2 tie. The Russians took first place on the basis they had more goals.

In the playoff round, the Americans finally had their first scare when Slovakia opened the scoring in their quarterfinal matchup. After Rostislav Stransky scored to make it 1-0, the Americans simply couldn’t solve 33-year-old PHL veteran Jaroslav Danek. Heading into the third period, the Slovaks still led 1-0. Danek still would not yield to the Americans until midway through the period, when Travis Watson finally found a hole and tied the game. Just minutes later, a Randy Fernandez slap shot gave team USA the lead. Mike Bidden sealed the win with an empty-netter and the Americans advanced to the semifinals. The Canadians also survived a quarterfinal scare against Sweden. The game was scoreless throughout regulation and went into overtime, where Martin Vannier finally scored to send team Canada to the semis. An upset over Finland sent the Czech Republic to the semis to face USA, while Russia routed Denmark 9-1 to earn another showdown with Canada.

The rematch between Canada and Russia was the most watched hockey game in Canada since the famous 1980 final between the same teams. It looked good for the Canadians early on, as Ducharme scored just minutes in. After nearly two full periods of a tense 1-0 game, grinder Tory Partridge made it 2-0 for Canada. With the Americans having beaten the Czechs to advance, it looked like it would be a North American rematch in the final. However, a different Russian team showed up for the third period. Gaganov scored six minutes into the third, then Igor Kharitanov tied it. The Moscow arena erupted while the living rooms and bars across Canada went silent. Borman and Rolonov both played very well into overtime, where Kharitanov scored again to win it for Russia. For the first time in the history of World Hockey Challenge, Canada failed to reach the championship game.

The building was packed for the final showdown between the host team Russia, and the defending champions, team USA. Both teams came out hitting and just two minutes in, American defenseman Scott Drayton hammered Russian star Alexei Yolkin, knocking him out of the game. Minutes later, Crowley scored to give the Americans a 1-0 lead. The Russians now had to find a way to overcome the deficit without one of their top players. The Russians attacked hard, but Christian Grayson always had an answer. Finally, veteran Alexander Orlov beat Grayson to tie the game. The tie would last through most of the third period, as both Igor Zharkov and Craig Bush hit the posts late in the third, Finally, Oleg Markov stunned Grayson with a slapshot from the blueline for the winner with just 11 seconds left. The clock ticked down as the Russian players piled off the bench and began celebrating. Even the fans began to pour onto the ice to celebrate with their heroes. Igor Zharkov had proven himself as one of the most dominating young players in the game, leading the tournament in scoring and claiming MVP honours. After a very eventful start to the decade, the Russians where World Champions for the second time in WHC history.

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