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An Old-School Hockey Gamer Laces Up The Skates Again
BILL WOOD | JANUARY 8, 2023
1991 was pretty spectacular, it was the year I was introduced to Nirvana and the National Hockey League. I could write an entire book on the immediate impact of the legendary Seattle band so I’ll leave that one alone; hockey was a bit different. I’d spent most of my youth oblivious, mainly because we had no major teams anywhere near Sacramento (technically there were the California Golden Seals in Oakland, but there's a reason they didn't last a decade). I'd been ice skating exactly once in my life, and if you've ever seen that kid at the rink clinging for dear life to the sideboards, well, that was me. None of my friends had parents that were willing to spend dough on hockey equipment and it wasn't a sport you could simply go outside and play, not in Sactown anyway. No one I knew watched the handful of NHL games that were broadcast on network TV, they wouldn't have been able to pick Gordie Howe out of a lineup. To the kids growing up in my neck of the woods, hockey may as well have been lacrosse or jai alai.
After settling in Los Angeles many years later, I was introduced to the sport of hockey via video games, namely Konami's Blades of Steel on the NES and EA’s NHL Hockey on the Sega Genesis. My friends and I were hooked on those titles, and if you’ve ever seen the gaming scene from the 1996 movie Swingers, well, that was real life back then! I still didn't care much about hockey at the time, but it wasn't long before I developed a real passion for the real sport.
I eventually discovered that the NHL had a unique appeal as a spectator event. It was the most unconventional of all the major league sports, played in three periods with pucks and sticks. The game itself was both graceful and violent, and it required an entry level that not everyone possessed. Walking, running... everyone did that. But ice skating?!? Games could result in a tie, apparently not many fans cared for this but I loved it. After all, if neither team is good enough to win on a particular evening, why should they? The Canadian locales sounded foreign and exotic (a romantic weekend for two in Edmonton!). There were plenty of celebrity players in the NHL, but most guys seemed very unassuming and working class, like your average dockworker complete with mullet and mustache. And then there was the whole face punching thing.
I attended numerous Kings games at the Los Angeles Forum, that historic-yet-musty venue where a cloud of stale smoke seemed permanently affixed to the ceiling. The exterior wasn't much better, if you've ever played Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas you'll know what I'm talking about. But instead of rooting for the hometown Kings, I immediately became a fan of the expansion San Jose Sharks. The Sharks were the hockey team we never had when I was growing up in NorCal (again discounting the invisible Golden Seals), 1991 was their inaugural year and the team was perfectly attuned to the times. Underdog street cred? Check. Aggro cartoon logo? Check. And peep those radical teal uniforms! I probably couldn’t afford all of the Sharks merch I purchased back then—a replica jersey set me back a mind-numbing 40 bucks—but I had to have it anyway. The Sharks had Pat Falloon and Doug Wilson on their roster. I thought Wilson was a badass because he didn't wear a helmet.
The National Hockey League of 1991 was a very different league, lodged chronologically and viscerally somewhere between the bloody brutality of the Broad Street Bullies and the flash and finesse of the modern game. Of course we had Wayne Gretzky dropping jaws here in Los Angeles, and I took it for granted that I was watching the Great One in his prime. Looking back on it now, that was a vintage Kings team and I was fortunate to witness so many classic games. There were other scoring superstars such as St. Louis' Brett Hull and Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux, but Gretzky was in a class all his own.
And then there were the goons. Every team had at least one “enforcer” to keep the peace on the ice, which usually meant they were doing anything but. Tape traders collected VHS cassettes full of knockdown drag-outs, and the wars between Tai Domi and Bob Probert are now the stuff of legend. The dropping of gloves was not only commonplace back then, but somewhat expected. If an opposing player kicked ice in a goalie's mask, it was time to fight. If a teammate took a hard check, it was time to fight. If there was no scoring, it was time to fight. If there was too much scoring, it was time to fight. If two guys simply wanted to fight, it was time to fight. There were goalie fights, fan fights, and my personal favorite, the bench-clearing team fight.
Early ‘90s hockey played differently than it does today. It was the era of dump-and-chase and the two-line pass rule, which slowed the offensive game considerably. The general talent pool was smaller, resulting in less skilled players. It's no wonder jackrabbits on ice such as Gretzky tore the league wide open. Early ‘90s hockey also looked different. The helmet rule was instituted for new players in 1979 and briefly repealed from 1992-94, so you had a few brave (crazy?) men like the aforementioned Doug Wilson who risked facial reconstruction to let their mullets flow freely in the breeze. Missing front teeth were (and still are) considered a badge of honor, if not a prerequisite. There were no flamboyant alternate jerseys or pyrotechnic player intros, just a national anthem or two then the dropping of a puck. Due to the small puck and quick on-ice action, hockey was the worst game to watch on television. Hunt down a broadcast of a '90s NHL game and follow the action, it’s rough. The networks even tried adding a blue glowing orb around the puck to make it easier to follow, but hardcore fans despised this and it soon went away. Thankfully the introduction of HDTV now makes hockey one of the more compelling sports to follow on TV, but it was rough going back then.
Even the team and league structure was different as the NHL hadn't expanded entirely into the Sun Belt and still felt like a chilly Northeastern affair. Sure you had the Kings and the expansion Sharks, but you also had small-market East Coast teams such as the Hartford Whalers and Quebec Nordiques, before they both headed for more profitable climates down south. Eventually NHL teams would appear in Phoenix, Nashville, Las Vegas, Raleigh, Dallas, Anaheim, Miami, Tampa Bay, and briefly, Atlanta. As for the league structure, I doubt there’s a fan from that era who doesn’t prefer the classic division names; Norris, Adams, Patrick and Smythe. All of these elements added originality and flair to the National Hockey League of the 1990s.
This rather lengthy setup brings us to the present. The National Hockey League is still with us, and better than ever in many aspects. The violence factor is definitely toned down, the upside being a faster, more exciting skill-based game with rules designed to protect the player and avoid serious injury. And thanks to modern technology, the sport now looks absolutely amazing on television. EA’s now-legendary NHL game franchise is also still with us, and though it has had its share of ups and downs over the decades, it too may be better than ever. In fact, I’m going on record as saying that NHL 23 is the best version of video game hockey that I’ve ever played.
NHL 23 attempts to be all things to all hockey fans, so much so that it’s nearly impossible to know where to begin. Let's start with the core gameplay and audiovisual content, both of which have been consistently improved upon over the decades. Visually, the game looks stunning on PS5. Arena lights reflect convincingly off the ice surface, which gradually deteriorates with skate activity. Player models are intricately detailed and the fans are lively and animated. Speaking of fans, a lot of detail has been added to arena atmosphere this year. The crowd will erupt when the home team scores a clutch goal and boo them out of the building at the conclusion of a big loss. On the downside, the goalie position does suffer from a lack of fluidity as the same canned animations are seen constantly throughout a game. Controls are where the game has seen the least improvement over the years, but it's also the area that needs the least attention. The skill stick and skating controls are tuned to near-perfection, and if you prefer the old-school Sega Genesis button controls you can always opt for that setup. All in all, with the proper control scheme and true broadcast camera angle, NHL 23 looks and feels as though you’re taking control of an NHL broadcast. It’s seriously that good.
As far as game modes are concerned, there is of course the card-collecting revenue generator that is Ultimate Team, and NHL 23 features of the better UT modes out there. It's simpler and easier to digest than FIFA 23's UT, which can become overwhelming with its myriad leagues and upgrade paths. (NHL 23 has extra leagues as well, but who's playing UT with ECHL dudes?) I never spend actual cash on Ultimate Team and prefer to work with what the game offers up, therefore I’m having a blast trying to stay competitive and occasionally upgrading my team with new and improved players. There’s also a nod to the XTREME SPORTZ! craze of yesteryear with Threes, a 3-on-3 mode where reality takes a backseat to fast-paced, hard-hitting arcade action. Threes is a throwback to NBA Jam-inspired hockey titles such as NHL Hitz and NHL Open Ice, and it's a brilliant pickup game if you're simply messing around with friends. There's also a player career mode (Be A Pro), a casual one-player outdoor mode (Ones) and a newer mode called World of Chel, although honestly, I have no clue what that last one is. With so many diverse gameplay options, NHL 23 actually feels like several hockey titles rolled into one. I'm never bored as there's always something new to get into.
But the crown jewel of NHL 23—and the reason I decided to write this article in the first place—is Franchise Mode. Fans have been clamoring for an overhaul for years, and it seems as though we finally have it. Roster sharing and sliders are available, I’ll explain why those are important in just a bit. You can go full GM with scouting, drafting, free agent signings, salary cap management, hirings and firings, but this is to be expected from a sports game nowadays. Incredibly, NHL 23 also offers the option for complete conference, division and schedule customization, as well as the inclusion of custom teams. What this means is that—yes!—you can actually recreate the 1991-92 NHL season as it was back then, down to minute details such as division opponent frequency, playoff format, overtime rules and the option for tie games. Want to guide the beleaguered Hartford Whalers to their first-ever Cup? You can do that. You can even go waaayyy back in the time machine and set up a throwback season for the Original Six if you prefer. The only things I’m not seeing are the option for the two-line pass rule (which I’m guessing would create a programming nightmare) and a no-helmet option for custom players, which is probably an NHL health and safety mandate. If they ever add a logo customization function, you can bet I'll be recreating the entire league from Paul Newman's 1977 classic Slap Shot.
Gameplay sliders are available for Franchise Mode, and they’re essential to setting the stage for that old-school hockey environment. Decrease the game speed, increase the checking impact and aggression factor, and voilá!, instant Norris Division in digitized form. Of course you can and should go much deeper than that, but you get the picture. Online roster sharing means that you can grab rosters from any number of users who have painstakingly created realistic rosters from different eras. You’re not going to find everything you want but it's close enough, for example I couldn’t find a ’91-92 roster on PS5 so I used one from ’93-94. If that isn't accurate enough, you can always create your very own dream roster from scratch.
Few sports games are perfect, and EA's NHL series has had plenty of detractors over the years. I’m not a hardcore season-to-season player so I really can’t comment on whatever longterm issues may persist. What I can say is that NHL 23 delivers an incredibly diverse amount of gameplay options out of the box, including playing a full managerial career of vintage hockey from the era I loved the most. For this casual old-school gamer, that's what matters. As for the rest? Oh well, whatever, nevermind. - BW