They came, they cheered, and in the end, the United States conquered.
Backed by a sellout crowd of 19,500, chanting "USA, USA," the underdog Americans upset Canada, 5-3, last night their opener of the World Cup of Hockey.
Toe Blake himself couldn't have scripted a more emotionally charged debut for Ed Snider's $210 million CoreStates Center.
What made it all the more memorable was that the Flyers' John LeClair, playing for the Americans, scored the first goal in the building. Eric Lindros, playing for Canada, had one assist.
"It [the goal] means a lot to me because it shows just how far U.S. hockey has come," LeClair said.
The victory was the most significant win by a U.S. team since 1990, when the Americans defeated Canada at the Goodwill Games with all amateurs. In eight previous games against Canada using NHL players, the U.S. had only a tie.
"It'll give us confidence, but it's only one game," said U.S. coach Ron Wilson. "Now we can expect to win against Canada, and not just hope to win."
Brett Hall provided the game-winner when he blasted Chris Chelios' cross-ice pass into the net 25 seconds into the final period. Hull also scored an empty-netter.
Canada cut it to 4-3 in the final three minutes on Wayne Gretzky's second goal of the game before Hull sealed the win. "It's just one game," Hull said. "If you don't build upon it, it goes for naught."
U.S. goalie Mike Richter made several outstanding saves in the final two periods, including a crucial one on Scott Stevens with 8:54 left to play on a rush into the zone with Mark Messier.
Richter finished with 23 saves. Canada's Martin Brodeur had 21.
"We believed all along we could beat any team, including Canada," Richter said. "In tournaments like this, you're expected to play hard and play well. I had to make a couple of saves in the second and third period, but that was my job."
The game's tone was established it the first 20 seconds.
"Gloves went flying, and then all hell broke loose," Wilson said.
The action began with Lindros pulling off Joel Otto's helmet immediately after the opening faceoff. Canada then rushed the puck into the offensive zone offsides and Bill Guerin pushed Lindros from behind after the whistle.
Canada tough boy Keith Primeau then squared off with Guerin to finish a fight that actually had begun in the second game of exhibition play. While that was happening, U.S.A.'s Keith Tkachuk took on Claude Lemieux. (Those two have never liked each other.)
Primeau got a five-minute major for fighting, a 10-minute misconduct and an instigation penalty. Under a new rule, an instigation call doesn't get a player tossed from the game, though a second instigation penalty in the same game is grounds for a game misconduct.
Guerin got five for fighting and Lemieux and Tkachuk each got 10-minute game misconducts, plus five for fighting. Naturally, the fights got the crowd roaring.
The House That Ed Built really rocked, however, at 5:01 when LeClair tipped in the game's first goal.
The play began with Bryan Smolinski's shot from the left wing circle that Tony Amonte spun around and chipped over to LeClair, who wasted no time beating Brodeur to his left.
"That was very exciting to me," LeClair said. "It helped relieve a lot of jitters."
That was the last shot the United States had that period as the Americans were outgunned, 10-3.
Both teams had opportunities in the middle period but Richter, the Flourtown native, who got cheers from the Philadelphia crowd, came up with a huge kick save on Vincent Damphousse on a two-on-one break near the midway mark.
"The Americans just beat us," said Canada coach Glen Sather. He downplayed fatigue noting that "my two best players [Gretzky and Messier] are 35."
Asked about the play of Lindros, Sather said, "Lindros played under a lot of pressure. He worked hard, skated hard, but sometimes, it's a case of trying too hard."
Trying without his usual linemates, too.