Is there any other sport that translates so seamlessly to the world of video games?
In a word: No.
Hockey is a game that synchronises speedy finesse and bloodthirsty violence; two factors that any video game should aspire to include. It's a meticulous blend of skill and sheer brawn that makes the sport so appealing to watch and to play, whether in real life or in a digital rink.
Besides, as a die-hard Ottawa Senators fan, video games seem to be the only way that I can watch Daniel Alfredsson lift that gorgeous Stanley Cup above his head. Eventually I will see the real thing, but until that wonderful day comes, the digital equivalent will have to do.
No matter what team you support, any of these ten titles are a perfect way to live out your hockey fantasies without leaving the comfort of your couch.
Honourable Mention: NHL Stanley Cup - Super Nintendo
Cover Athlete - Faceless hockey guy going in on faceless goalie
I can still remember the commercials for this one. As a young hockey fan in 1993, I had chills up my spine as the ominous announcer confidently declared "Stanley Cup not included."
While the game today feels a little choppy and doesn't have any real NHL players, it was a revelation when it first came out. The 3-D dimensional mode-7 graphics were phenomenal and created the most immersive hockey game of its day. NHL Stanley Cup also is notorious for being one of the hardest hockey games ever released, with goalies nearly as large as the net. Nausea not included either.
10) NHL 2003 - PC
Cover Athlete - Jarome Iginla
I may be in the minority here, but I loved the goofy presentation that EA instituted for its turn of the millennium hockey games. Video game hockey should not be taken so seriously, and it was great to laugh my ass off with the wonderfully over the top play-by-play commentary by Jim Hughson and Don Taylor. Why talk about digital hockey strategy when you can talk about swivel chairs or trying to replicate the screenshots on the back of the box.
Beyond the hilarity was a very solid hockey engine that ran well on even a modest PC back in the day. The hockey mechanics, coaching options, and goaltender AI were all very solid in this iteration. There was also an ace card collecting mini-game that EA has cut out of all of their next generation titles, much to my chagrin. Forget the middling console versions, this was the last year that the PC version of EA's venerable franchise reigned supreme.
9) NHL 2K6 - Xbox, Xbox 360, PS2
Cover Athlete - Mats Sundin (Canadian version) and Marty Turco (American version)
The NHL 2K series reached its pinnacle in the 2K6 season, the second last on the last generation hardware. There were no stupid "prostick" gimmicks, no arcadey presentation, no cinnemotion, just a hardcore hockey simulation that played like a smooth skating dream. Best of all, it was dirt cheap on day one of its release. To this day, it's still the best of the 2K series.
8) Wayne Gretzky's 3D Hockey - Nintendo 64
Cover Athlete - If I said it wasn't Wayne Gretzky, would you be surprised?
Hockey doesn't come more over the top and crazily entertaining as this N64 party favourite. How can you argue with a game that turns goalies into brick walls after three saves and flaming shots that set the entire net on fire? For pick up and go party hockey, it still doesn't come much better than this arcadey classic.
7) NHL Open Ice 2 on 2 Challenge - Arcade, PlayStation
Cover Athlete - None
A spiritual successor to the classic NBA Jam, Open Ice placed you in a tiny rink where there were no holds barred, and goalies that were as efficient as a cardboard cutout. All the best staples of NBA Jam were here, such as turbo buttons, crazy special moves, an overly enthusiastic announcer, and nets that burst into flames when three goals in a row were scored. To my recollection, this is the only hockey arcade game to see a mass release. If you find this game in an arcade, drop a quarter in. It's arcade hockey done right.
6) Ice Hockey - Nintendo Entertainment System
Cover Athlete - Some Guy...
This was the first hockey game to allow you to pick your team, much like in elementary school when you always the last one picked for any sporting event. Do you stack up your team with speedy skinny guys, or do you intimidate your opponent with the slow-moving, heavy-hitting fat guys? I personally went middle of the road, with one of each and two middle players.
This game didn't feature any NHL teams, but rather a variety of different countries. You have to admire the courage a game developer had to make Canada's jersey green. You can relive the summit series in wondrous 8-bit glory in Ice Hockey, still an eminently playable hockey game. At 500 Wii points, this one is a no-brainer for download.
5) Mutant League Hockey - Sega Genesis
Cover Athlete - An angry looking mutant that could be related to Tie Domi.
Mutant League is an anomaly of its own that unfortunately never saw the success that it so righteously deserved. Built upon the same engine that powered the Sega Genesis NHL titles, Mutant League was no-holds-barred Hockey done bloody right. Score enough goals and the net would explode into a gory mess. You could actually kill and dismember the other team's players. It's unfortunate that the series never saw a continuation, and the game is nearly impossible to find today. For those who like their hockey painful and full of flesh and blood, this is the game for you. Besides, most toothless hockey players resemble mutants anyway.
4) NHL '08 - Xbox 360/PS3
Cover Athlete - Eric Staal
If you're a hardcore puckhead like me, there's no contest. This game is by far the most meticulous, hardcore hockey sim on the market, and it plays like an absolute dream. The skill-stick works like a charm, allowing you to deke your opponents out of their jock strap before backhanding a picture perfect shot over the goalie's glove.
The AI may prove to be a little too much for newbies to handle, as they play hard and they play fast. For someone who has been playing the hockey games for 20 years as I have, it's a godsend to have a challenging hockey game that doesn't end in 10-0 scores every time. Hardcore video game hockey simply does not come any better than this.
3) NHL '99 - PC
Cover Athlete - Eric Lindros
Picking up where the sublime NHL '98 left off, NHL ‘99 to this day remains a gorgeous, smooth skating game of hockey that strikes a sublime balance between hardcore and arcade style play. The graphics still look pretty good today, and the sound design places you right in the middle of the rink.
NHL ‘99's ultimate contribution to hockey's video game lexicon is the amazing opening cinema that equally captures the emotion and raw intensity of hockey. Kicking off with a stirring rendition of We Can be Heroes and Jim Hughson's play by play, the energy gets ratcheted up a notch with an intense guitar riff and quick flash cuts of editing. If you've never seen this amazing opening cinematic, look it up on YouTube, and get yourself primed for some playoff hockey!
2) NHLPA Hockey '93 - Sega Genesis
Cover Athlete - Glenn Healy
If you named your game NHLPA Hockey nowadays, you'd probably imagine a lockout simulator in which you must negotiate with greedy owners to get a fair cut for your playing services. But back then, NHLPA hockey meant you were playing with real players in a lightning quick interpretation of hockey that is as smooth and playable 15 years later as it was the first week it was released.
This game kickstarted a tradition that irritated me to no end as a Super Nintendo fan growing up: EA's sports games were always better on the Sega Genesis.
The real highlight of NHLPA '93 is the first and last NHL game for the Sega Genesis to feature full out brawls and actual blood. Few video games stir as much emotion as punching that smarmy Wayne Gretzky in the head and having him bleed all over the ice. The NHLPA will never allow blood in another hockey game again, so if you want your gore and NHL fix, it'll have to be on your dusty Genesis.
1) Blades of Steel - NES
Cover Athlete - Two random guys battling for the puck
On the 20th anniversary of this video game classic, there is still no better alternative to get your video game hockey fix.
The rules of hockey are bent, but not broken in Blades of Steel, resulting in a gladiatorial game of hockey that I only wish actually existed. You only have two buttons to worry about here, pass and shoot. Hit another player too many times and you'll both drop the gloves. In a brilliant move, the play continues after the fight. The loser gets a trip to the penalty box, and the winner gets possession of the puck.
Who can forget that wonderful announcer with only four or five phrases to his name. Whether he's saying "makes the pass," or "flips the pass" doesn't really matter. Nothing gets that old school adrenaline flowing like when he yells out "fight!" or "penalty shot."
This game could also represent the advent of game demos and in game advertising. In the second intermission, you get to play a brief section of old school Gradius before the game tells you that Contra and Jackal have amazing graphics and "all your friends will want it."
You don't have actual NHL teams here, but rather several cities that may or may not match up with their NHL equivalents. Half the fun is giving your teams their own names like the bafflingly yellow "Montreal Mustard Stains," or the green-clad "Edmonton Ninja Turtles." Come up with your own when you download this game on the virtual console for a pithy 500 points.
At my house, fists have been thrown over particularly intense match ups of Blades of Steel, especially those that end in nerve-wracking shootouts; proof that video game hockey doesn't come any more fun, even more than 20 years later.