Posted by: viewfromacouch | May 22, 2010

NHL 11: Great game, or greatest game?

With 109 days to go before its release, EA Sports just made next season’s instalment of their popular NHL video game franchise a must-own for every die-hard fan of the sport (as if it wasn’t already).

For the first time ever, the Canadian Hockey League, and all of its players, will be featured in the game.

Split amongst the WHL, the OHL and the QMJHL, that’s 60 new teams being added to the game, with accurate rosters full of Canada’s top prospects.

While this might not seem like a big deal, consider this: NHL 2002, with Mario Lemieux on the cover, made me the hockey fan that I am today. This is almost a shameful admission, as I didn’t really become passionate about the sport until I was 14 — it’s supposed to bred into you in this country, isn’t it?

Now, that’s not to say I was never interested in the sport. I have fond memories of watching the ’94 playoffs, and putting the newspaper player posters up in my room. I still have a pennant from that year that I hang on my wall to this day. I still have a plethora of hockey cards from when I was young (including some hilarious ones, which I promise to post at a later date). Unfortunately, I can’t remember everything. I was just six years old. Don’t hold it against me.

While it may seem like 2001 would be an easy time to become a Canucks fan, as the West Coast Express era team was just rounding into form, I assure you, the timing is pure coincidence. NHL 2002 endeared me to the sport more than Markus Naslund ever did.

Thanks to NHL 2002, I quickly re-acclimated to the game’s rules (as I broke them constantly).

Thanks to NHL 2002, I learned the names of every player in the league, and which organization he belonged to. These include some of my all-time favourite hockey names, such as Rocky Thompson and “Hot” Karl Dykhuis.

But it also includes a long list of players who were relative nobodies at the time, and went on to make something of themselves in the years that followed. Players like Willie Mitchell, Dan Boyle, Miikka Kiprusoff and Ruslan Fedotenko. All four were in the early stages of their careers in 2001. But success found them all, to some degree. Three of these four figured prominently in the 2004 Stanley Cup Final.

There are many others. And every time one of them took to the spotlight, I had a frame of reference for who they were and where they came from. Coincidentally, the three ’04 Cup Finalists were on three different teams in 2001, and none of them were the teams they’d go to the Finals with. Dan Boyle went to Tampa from Florida, Fedotenko from Philadelphia. Kiprusoff went to Calgary from San Jose. I knew that because of NHL 2002.

Of course, that list also includes a slew of relative nobodies who actually were nobodies, like the aforementioned Mr. Thompson and Darcy Hordichuk. (Oh…wait.) But if learning the names of a few plugs (most of whom I can’t really remember anymore anyway) is the price to pay for knowing the names and general abilities of future stars before they break out, then so be it.

What does this have to do with junior hockey? Everything! The NHL games are the only Xbox 360 games I seem to play with any consistency these days. To be able to play as recent draftees and upcoming top prospects is a huge tool to exposing these kids to a broader audience before they become stars.

On a recent edition of Kurtenblog Radio, Puck Daddy’s Greg Wyshynski spoke about how tough it is to build buzz for the NHL Draft in a city like Los Angeles, where the draft will be held next month, when all of the top picks are flying under the radar of American media playing major junior hockey in Canada.

On May 21st, 2010, Electronic Arts did more to promote future editions of the NHL Entry Draft than the league itself could ever begin to.

I can’t wait to play as the Giants.

P.S.
I recently revisited NHL 2002 with a few friends. It wasn’t as I remembered it, and the game was incredibly easy. That’s probably how it always was. But I could see how I used to love it. It was still fun.

[Editor’s note: I am aware it is a stretch to say Mitchell and Fedotenko went on to become stars, but Fedotenko was the goal-scoring hero in the deciding game of the Cup Final, and Mitchell, well…I just love the guy. Shuddup about it.]

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