There’s a certain house style for hour-long sports documentaries that probably goes back to when there were just three networks and six NHL teams. There’s a narrator and archival footage and talking head interviews and a story about the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat and then it’s over. It’s designed to be the show before the pre-game show before the game that comes on in prime time.
It’s not a bad format, exactly - I remember watching every single Legends of Hockey episode on ESPN Classic years ago and probably would again right now if I could - it just isn’t a particularly innovative or unique one.
Orchestrating an Upset: the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, which premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on NHL Network as the first of a new documentary series on the league’s flagship media arm, fits squarely into that house style and tells the story of Team USA’s underdog victory over the world’s hockey powers of the late 1990’s. About the only thing separating it from its many, many predecessors is that its narrator is Metallica’s James Hetfield instead of Liev Schreiber or someone trying to sound like Liev Schreiber.
The documentary itself is a fun look back at a tournament that had a ton of drama despite not getting much in the way of publicity, especially in the United States. That lack of press is called out early with scandalous news footage of a Seattle bar that didn’t even show World Cup games on the TV (Would a Seattle bar have a hockey game on even now?). So if you’re like me and don’t remember much about the tournament, don’t sweat it.
The movie covers Team USA’s creation and all of the international background going into the World Cup. The US was 0-7 against Canada in previous Canada Cup tournaments and hadn’t beaten their northern rivals in 20 years. A first shift brawl in a round robin game against Canada foreshadowed how the Americans would play for the rest of the tournament. I kinda vaguely remembered the controversy of Brett Hull playing for the US instead of Canada, but I didn’t remember him getting lustily booed by Canadian crowds, even when Team USA was playing Russia. That’s harsh.
Hull lives up to his appointment as “Ambassador of Fun” by being a compelling and funny raconteur throughout the hour. All of the one-on-one interviews are refreshingly relaxed and open, although some sets are so dark that they look like they were shot outside on a camping trip. Speakers include series-winning goal scorer Tony Amonte, tournament MVP Mike Richter, Team USA GM Lou Lamoriello, Doc Emrick, Theo Fleury and Eric Lindros, who sports grayed Mr. Fantastic temples and spends most of his camera time laughing at how little Canada thought of Team USA’s chances to win the tournament. That makes even Ol’ Lou smile.
The most mesmerizing highlights are grainy video of Amonte’s mullet, which could have carried an NHL team on its own in those days.
Islanders seen in archival footage include Tommy Salo and Darius Kasparaitis giving Canada fits and Pat LaFontaine, who isn’t interviewed but figures prominently in a lot of the games. Former Islanders captains Bill Guerin and Doug Weight are frequent interviewees, giving insight to what was going on in the US locker room (and their own heads) throughout the tournament.
It’s cool to see a retrospective like this now, with seemingly half of the players from that tournament having been inducted into one Hall of Fame or another since. The doc ends with current American NHLers talking about how influential the victory was on their hockey careers.
Orchestrating an Upset is an enjoyable, informative and easy hour of sports programming. It won’t break any ground, but that’s okay. Team USA winning that ‘96 World Cup did that already.