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Down Goes Brown's Grab Bag: 1996 Was a Much Happier Time for USA Hockey Than It Is Today

Things will get better but Team USA is getting killed, with snub Phil Kessel leading the charge. Plus more on the World Cup's excellent ref-cam and weird tie-breaking language.

Sean McIndoe

Photo by John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

(Editor's note: Welcome to Sean McIndoe's weekly grab bag, where he writes on a variety of NHL topics. You can follow him on Twitter.)

Special emergency three stars of comedy, implosion of Team USA edition

The third star: Phil Kessel's tweet from five minutes after Team USA was eliminated:

The second star: No seriously, Phil Kessel's tweet:

The first star: Holy crap this Phil Kessel tweet:

The backstory here, of course, is that Kessel was left off of Team USA despite being one of the country's most-skilled players. Nobody's quite sure why, although it probably has something to do with him being a bad fit for international play (he led the Sochi Olympics in scoring) or not coming through in big moments (he led the Stanley Cup champions in scoring) or not battling through adversity (he's a Masterton winner and cancer survivor) or... yeah, you know what, let's not even bother trying to figure it out.

It may not have mattered, since Kessel ended up having surgery on his wrist and probably couldn't have played even if he had been chosen. But the point here is that Phil Kessel—the same boring, aw shucks guy who has never said or done anything interesting in his entire life—watched Team USA hit rock bottom, and chose that moment to absolutely ether them. It may have been the greatest moment in Twitter history.

He certainly wasn't alone. Team USA is getting destroyed by everyone from beloved alumni to women's hockey stars to Paralympic gold medalists. It's been brutal. And rightly so, given the ridiculous approach the brain trust took toward the tournament, one that they'll now be forced to rethink entirely.

Things will be better, guys. Maybe start with getting rid of Tortorella, though. Photo by John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Look, USA Hockey will recover from this week. They've got good young players on the way, some of whom would have been on the team if not for the addition of an under-24 Team North America entry. They'll catch up with the rest of the hockey world in terms of how they think about the game, and their next roster will feature their actual best players. They'll be back, and they'll be better.

But please, spare us all the faux outrage over Kessel's tweet, which already started yesterday with players like David Backes grumbling about finding all the criticism "distasteful and aggravating." Yes, sure, Team USA may have built a team full of heart-and-soul warriors who'd run through walls to win games by sheer force of will, but please, no distasteful tweets. Somebody might get their fee-fees hurt.

We'll give Backes and others a pass for yesterday; it was a media availability, they were asked a question, and they answered. But it's going to be fascinating to see who drops the subject after this week and who lets it linger. There's no clearer symptom of a loser mentality than the instinctive need to respond to adversity by seeking out excuses and sideshows. Team USA and its players have been handed one such sideshow on a platter. We're going to learn a lot by seeing who grabs on and clings to it, and who looks in the mirror instead.

The NHL actually got something right

We've had a week of World Cup hockey coverage to watch on TV, and I think that by this point we can probably all agree: The ref-cam is freaking awesome.

The gimmick has been used frequently during broadcasts, popping up whenever there's a penalty, scrum or controversial play. And it's fantastic every time. It's fascinating to see the game through the referee's eyes, and there have been times when the ref-cam picked up on details that the standard angles missed. It's especially great on goal-mouth scrambles, where normal views can't really capture the madness that's going on. And after watching enough action, you even start to gain some respect for the referees who have to follow it.

The ref-cam isn't new—we've seen it used in hockey coverage for years. But it never quite worked; it was always a little too jumpy and shaky. But now that they've eliminated most of that, it's just about perfect.

Heck, fans seem to like it so much that we're even willing to forgive the tournament's other innovation: those weird new CGI ads on the boards, the ones that plaster one sponsor all over the entire rink. Those will take some getting used to, especially since they only work on some angles, so you get different ads in the same spot depending on which replay you're watching. I'm not sure how I feel about the whole thing yet, although I'm leaning toward saying that it's totally fine when Sportsnet does it but terrible when it's ESPN. Uh, no reason.

But yeah... ref-cam. If this was an experiment, consider it a success. Here's hoping it carries over to the regular season and beyond.

Obscure former player of the week

Continuing the World Cup theme, let's use this week's obscure player spot to remind everyone that sometimes, unlikely heroes can emerge. And sometimes, it doesn't end up mattering. This week's obscure player is Alexander Semak.

Semak made his name over the course of a decade in the Soviet League, while also winning two gold medals at the world juniors. He was drafted by the Devils at the age of 22, all the way down in the 10th round of the 1988 draft. (He wasn't the only late gem who got picked that year; he went a few picks after Bret Hedican, and two rounds ahead of Claude Lapointe). He wouldn't make it to the NHL for three more years, finally coming over to North America in time to play a few games in the 1991-92 season. But it was the next year that he broke out; in his first full NHL season at the age of 26, he recorded 37 goals and 79 points.

He'd go on to play six NHL seasons for the Devils, Lightning, Islanders and Canucks, but never approached those numbers again—that 1992-93 season would end up accounting for nearly half of his career production in the NHL. His other NHL claim to fame is that he was once traded for obscure player favorite Shawn Chambers.

But Semak's biggest moment probably came in the 1987 World Cup. With the Soviets facing Canada in the final and Game 1 in overtime, Semak took a pass and snapped a shot over Grant Fuhr's shoulder for a 6-5 Soviet victory. That score, of course, would end up being repeated as the final for the next two games, as well. But Canada won both of those on winners by Mario Lemieux, one in overtime and one late in regulation. And so Semak's goal was, for the most part, forgotten.

Trivial annoyance of the week

Today's the last day of the round robin, which means we'll know the playoff seedings by the end of tonight's action. In a short tournament like this, we shouldn't be surprised to see a tie or two. Luckily, the NHL has that covered.

That all seems fair enough, and the teams will know that... hey, wait a second. Did anyone else notice something weird about that? Can we go back and zoom in on the first step in the official World Cup tie-breaking formula?

Um... guys?

If two teams don't have the same number of total points, then they're not tied, are they?

I'm just trying to imagine a scenario where that first step would come into play.

World Cup Official #1: Huh, we've got a problem here.

World Cup Official #2: What's wrong?

World Cup Official #1: We need a way to break this tie in the standings between Canada and Team USA.

World Cup Official #2: Oh man... that's a tough one. Well, just out of curiosity, do they have the same number of total points?

World Cup Official #1: Oh no, Canada has way more.

World Cup Official #2: OK, then I say we go with that.

Now I want to know what tie-breakers the NHL rejected as being too obvious for the list. Did the original draft specify that we were only counting points from this tournament, and not the 1972 Summit Series? Was there a detailed explanation that points would be calculated using the Hindu Arabic numeral system and not John Napier's location arithmetic? Did it make it clear that preference would be given to actual hockey teams and not a duffel bag filled with angry raccoons?

This whole thing bothers me way more than it should. I hope Phil Kessel tweets about it soon.

Classic YouTube clip breakdown

It's a tough time for American hockey fans. For today's clip, let's be nice and take them back to happier times.

  • So it's Sept. 14, 1996, and we're coming to you from the brand new Molson Centre in Montreal. It's the deciding game of the best-of-three final for the first-ever World Cup. Canada won the opener in overtime on a really weird Steve Yzerman goal, but Team USA fought back to take the second game by a 5-2 final. So this one is for all the marbles, and we all know Canada is going to win because Canada always wins.
  • I was at this game, way up in the nosebleeds, by the way. Wave if you see me.
  • Apparently there are 21,500 Canadian fans in attendance, an international hockey record. But you know what they say—years later, there will be a million of us who'll claim to have been there, left early, got drunk and then vomited fake hot dogs into a Peel Street sewer grate.
  • After an early Mike Richter save, we cut to a clip of Brett Hull smoking a one-timer from the top of the faceoff circle. Man, Hull was good. When they build a Hall of Fame of hockey players we didn't appreciate enough at the time, he's a first-ballot honoree along with Kessel, P.K. Subban, Pavel Bure and Al Iafrate. That hall of fame will be three times larger than the actual hall of fame, by the way.
  • That goal also reminds us that the Canadian goalie in this tournament was Curtis Joseph, and not Martin Brodeur (who was the backup) or Patrick Roy (who didn't play). Does Canada not using its very best goaltender mean the Team USA win is tainted and shouldn't count? Not at all! I mean, a little, sure, everyone accepts that. But not much.
  • Richter makes a big stop on a breakaway by Vincent Damphousse, this clip's top "Guy I had no idea was on Team Canada" player. It's 20 years later and I'm still not sure how I feel about the Damphousse era. He played 18 years, had 1,200 points, was the first person other than Wayne Gretzyk or Mario Lemieux to score four goals in an all-star game and was the captain of the Montreal Canadiens. And he apparently made this Team Canada roster. Was he a superstar? I don't think I know one person who thinks he was. I may need to reflect on this further.
  • Canada ties it on a goal by Eric Lindros, from Paul Coffey and Gretzky. So #88 from #77 and #99. In case you're wondering, #66 missed this tournament because of a bad back. Does the absence of the best player in the world invalidate the USA win? Again, no, it would be silly to think that, at least not completely. But mostly? Sure, we can all agree with that.
  • That goal came on a powerplay. These highlights don't really convey it, but this game was nasty. The two teams did not like each other—as had been made clear in the opener—and this one featured plenty of scrums and cheap shots, including Keith Tkachuk getting a major for slashing Adam Foote. I know that sounds like something Canadians should be mad about, but it's international hockey—foot-slashing is kind of our thing.
  • We get a big save by Joseph on Tony Amonte, who fails to score because he uses his stick as per the rulebook. Spoiler: He learns from that mistake.
  • We're midway through the third period when Foote's long point shot beats Richter, and it's 2-1 for Canada. At this point, every Canadian fan is secretly thinking "Paul Henderson... Darryl Sittler... Mario Lemieux... Adam Foote? There's no way this holds up as the winner." Then again, it was 1996. It was a big year for defensive defenseman scoring seeing-eye point shots. We were torn.
  • By the way, if you're wondering how many drunken brawls there were in the stands of this game: a lot. There were a lot. Some of them might still be going on right now.
  • Late in the third, Brian Leetch throws one at the net and Hull tips it in. We don't get a replay because that would show that Hull used a high-stick, but sure, whatever, we'll give the Americans one illegal goal. Bring on overtime!
  • Or not. Instead, we get another Team USA goal, this one by Amonte with less than three minutes left. We do get a replay this time, and it sure looks like Amonte kicks this one in. Referee Terry Gregson signals a goal, and confirms the call after a replay review. You could ask Gregson about that call today, but you'd have to find the ice floe he's been living on since roughly three minutes after this game ended because he BETRAYED HIS COUNTRY.
  • But seriously, hockey was so much better when referees just put down the phone and signaled goal/no goal call instead of awkwardly announcing it into a broken microphone.
  • OK, so the greatest American team of all time is facing a depleted Canadian roster, they're using dirty stick work, and they've scored two illegal goals that were ignored because the Million Dollar Man hired Terry Gregson's identical twin brother to referee the game. Still, there's two minutes left for Canada to tie it up
  • Nope. Gretzky just misses a tap-in, Derian Hatcher gets a long-distance empty netter, and Adam Deadmarsh runs up the score because Americans have no class. Make the final 5-2 for Team USA. The Americans scored four goals in the final 3:18 of action to claim their first (and so far only) win in a best-on-best hockey tournament.
  • We get a shot of the Team USA coaching staff celebrating, as everyone congratulates Ron Wilson on his unique and risky "actually bring your best players" strategy. I like that one guy behind them in a Team Sweden jersey who looks kind of sad. Sorry dude, not exactly sure how you were expecting this to turn out.
  • We close with a shot of Richter getting a motorcycle for some reason, and Team USA gathering around their trophy. That trophy would never be seen again, replaced by the current monstrosity for reasons never fully explained. One thing we know for sure: It was certainly not because the trophy was struck by lightning because the hockey gods had to smite down the ill-begotten spoils of a stolen tournament that Canadians are still bitter about two decades later. Definitely not that. Nope. Not at all.
  • (Kicks laptop into garbage bin, but lies and pretends he hit it with his stick instead.)

Have a question, suggestion, old YouTube clip, or anything else you'd like to see included in this column? Email Sean at nhlgrabbag@gmail.com.

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