PHT remembers hockey video games: ‘NHL Hitz 2003’ still delivers

Every week, PHT will remember a hockey video game (or games). For the first time in this series, PHT invites a guest contributor. Enjoy a fun take from Tony Abbott (@OhHiTony) on the very fun Midway title NHL Hitz 2003. Some refer to it as “NHL Hitz 20-03,” but for the sake of simplicity, we’ll drop the hyphen.

I’ve always been a sucker for the cult classic.

My favorite movie? The Room. I’ll tell anyone who will listen that the best rock record is a science-fiction punk album called Death By Television. Catch me on the right day and I’ll argue that Dollhouse was better than both Buffy and Firefly. And of course, hockey is my favorite sport. For whatever reason, if it isn’t for everyone, there’s a good chance it might be for me.

So it may not surprise anyone that my favorite hockey video game is NHL Hitz 2003.

The Hitz series, published by Midway as a companion to games like NBA Jam and NFL Blitz, hasn’t endured quite like other hockey games. It wasn’t an early pioneer like Blades of Steel or the NES’ Ice Hockey. It wasn’t the classic perfection of NHL 94. And it certainly isn’t the monolith that the NHL games of today are.

While I’m not immune to the charms of those games — I’ll gladly play any of them today — none of them will ever make me as giddy as NHL Hitz 2003 does. Thought making Gretzky’s head bleed was pure joy? You haven’t lived until you’ve knocked Jeremy Roenick through the glass, then centered the puck for a one-time goal.

Intensive research shows: NHL Hitz 2003 holds up, and the hits(z) keep coming

I dug up my Playstation 2 last night, strictly for research purposes, for the first time in over a year. It took two games for me to get used to the controls again. Super easy. A button to pass, to shoot (hold for a slapper), to deke and to protect the puck from poke checks on offense. A button for body and stick checking on defense. Left trigger for a limited turbo.

The polygonal graphics may not be crisp anymore, but that gameplay still is. Every match is 3-on-3, and it perfectly replicates the excitement of today’s NHL overtime. Oversized players zip around on undersized ice. The passing is tape-to-tape. There are odd-man rushes. You will see breakaways. All game long.

And there are the Hitz! The Hitz keep coming! You’ll have to play a heavy style of hockey that will make Tom Wilson blush if you want to win. Open-ice hits that send players flipping. Body checks that put the unlucky recipients through the glass, creating a temporary 3-on-2 rush. Casually grabbing opponents and ripping them down. Even the poke checking is nothing more than tripping half the time.

You ride this tense line all game: You have the speed to be five seconds from scoring at any time. If you can’t dodge the other team, you’ll get knocked down before you can fire even a weak wrist shot.

Experiencing that again was like visiting an old college friend again. And it reminded me of another one.

A friendly rivalry forms around “NHL Hitz 2003”

There’s a lot to do as a single player in NHL Hitz 2003. There’s a franchise mode where you start as a terrible team and work your way into the NHL. You can play as any team in season mode, and even jumble the rosters up in a fantasy draft. There are a massive number of classic jerseys to unlock, and trivia questions to answer after every match. When you get bored of playing the main game, there are plenty of minigames to conquer.

But there’s nothing like a good rivalry. These were the pre-online days, so any multiplayer was local. And a couch or dorm room is a terrific cauldron for a bitter, decade-long grudge with your best friend.

It happened to me. I learned of the game from my freshman roommate’s GameCube collection. It wouldn’t take long for me to find a copy for myself at a game store. And once I had it, it wasn’t long before I fired it up for the first time with my neighbor Danny.

Danny picked up the game instantly, and we were both hooked. We’d play late into the night, cycling through our favorite teams, and trash-talking loud enough to garner the occasional threat from the RAs. The 15-minute games made for the perfect study break during the school year. And stringing seven of them together made for an even more perfect study break.

Hitz’ appeal lasted through the years. Danny left to study abroad in Germany for a year. Upon his return, we were back to Hitz in a week. After we graduated and Danny had moved two hours south? I’d bring my PS2 in tow whenever we visited. And when he moved back to the area, the game was there and the rivalry was as fierce as ever.

This was in large part due to how evenly matched we were. In games like NHL 94 or NBA Jam, I stood little chance. Whether it was the ease of play of the scores of hours I sunk into it, I could keep up with him in NHL Hitz 2003.

The legendary rivalry of Ron Francis vs … Mike Comrie?

We both succeeded with vastly different styles. I was skilled with poke checks and dined out on one-timers. Danny had incredible reflexes around the net, cashing in rebounds with regularity. He also had a frustrating ability to score on breakaways without making any fancy moves whatsoever.

But the defining dynamic of our rivalry boiled down to two players, the mere mention of whom will cause one of us to cackle and the other to spit. Ron Francis and Mike Comrie.

I played a memorable game as the Carolina Hurricanes, who had Francis on the team. Francis was very slow, but had a cannon for a shot and was the best passer in the game not named “Mario”. One game I was able to feed one-timer after one-timer to Francis, who couldn’t be stopped. He scored five goals, and my gloating increased every time he lit the lamp en route to victory.

Ron Francis in "NHL Hitz 2003/20-03"
Try to avert your eyes from Jeff O’Neill’s sweet highlights for a second and check out Ronnie’s ratings (via Midway/Youtube)

Shortly after, Danny got his revenge in picking Edmonton. He got a quick hat trick with Comrie, then a fourth goal. Getting blown out, I decided to give up on the victory and devote myself to only one task: Stop Comrie by any means necessary. Danny scored a fifth and sixth goal with Comrie, completing my humiliation.

We cycle through a number of teams (about half the league is extremely fun to play as) so as not to get stale. But when one of our backs are against the wall, we’ll go back to Carolina or Edmonton to break a slump. Our message to each other: “You’re going to lose, and you’re going to lose to the player you hate the most.”

The NHL Hitz didn’t exactly keep coming

Other games have come along to fulfill Hitz’ legacy, but none have filled its shoes. EA released an arcade version of its game that was more stripped-down than Hitz’ brand of hockey. NHL 18 offered a 3-on-3 mode that, while fun, lacked the sharp passing and heightened reality that Midway offered.

18 years later, we’re still looking for a true successor to Hitz (This is the part where I beg Metalhead to create Super Mega Hockey). But that’s OK. As long as my PS2 is working, I’ll gladly revisit Hitz. And the next time I visit Danny, I’ll make it a priority to reacquaint him with Ron Francis.

Note from James O’Brien: For whatever reason, the “shooting out windows” minigame stood out for me:

Also, it’s worth noting that NHL Hitz Pro served as a sequel to NHL Hitz 2003. That doesn’t make Abbott wrong, about the lack of a true successor, though. That’s because Hitz Pro tried to blur the lines between hockey sims and the arcade-style action. While the reviews were reasonably decent for NHL Hitz Pro, it also represented the end of that series. What are hockey video games without Hitz? They’re less fun.

Now, as bonus, Tony Abbott shared his power rankings for the top 10 teams in NHL Hitz 2003. (Do note that Abbott wasn’t counting the create-a-team you made with cowboys or giraffes or whatever.)

NHL Hitz 2003 Power Rankings:

  1. Colorado Avalanche: Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic bring the skill, Rob Blake pounds opponents into submission, and Patrick Roy is in net. Honestly, it’s unfair.
  2. Detroit Red Wings: With Brendan Shanahan, Steve Yzerman, and Nick Lidstrom at their peaks, Sergei Fedorov can’t even crack the lineup.
  3. Philadelphia Flyers: Jeremy Roenick and company punished you with a bruising style, and this game happened to be released when Roman Cechmanek was a thing.
  4. St. Louis Blues: Cover Athlete Chris Pronger and Keith Tkachuk were more than enough to cover for occasionally shaky goaltending.
  5. San Jose Sharks: Vincent Damphousse’s top-notch passing means you can set up Teemu Selanne and Owen Nolan all game.
  6. New Jersey Devils: Surprisingly light on the defensive end. Patrik Elias brings some skills, but the game underrates Scott Niedermayer. If Martin Brodeur falters, you’re in trouble.
  7. New York Rangers: Will Mike Richter let you down? Frequently. Are Eric Lindros, Pavel Bure, and Brian Leech fun enough to cancel that out? Absolutely.
  8. Boston Bruins: Another bad goaltending team, but with Joe Thornton and Brian Rolston blasting shots, you have plenty of opportunity to out-score the other guys.
  9. Dallas Stars: Bill Guerin and Mike Modano form an elite power/speed duo. Too bad the Stars’ goal song doesn’t make it in, as it’d fit perfectly with the metal-focused soundtrack.
  10. Carolina Hurricanes: The playmaking Francis, a speedy sniper in Sami Kapanen, and the do-it-all Jeff O’Neill make for a balanced team.

Tony Abbott is a freelance writer, primarily covering the Minnesota Wild. His work has been featured at Zone Coverage, The Athletic Minnesota, and SB Nation’s Hockey Wilderness. Follow him @OhHiTony on Twitter.

PHT remembers other hockey video games:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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    Mitch Marner extends Maple Leafs-record points streak to 21 games

    Mitch Marner
    USA Today
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    TORONTO — Mitch Marner extended his franchise-record points streak to 21 games with a second-period goal and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Los Angeles Kings 5-0 on Thursday night.

    Marner gave Toronto a 4-0 lead with his 11th goal of the season, scoring on a slap shot after a Los Angeles turnover inside its blue line.

    Marner became the 10th player in the past 35 years to string together a streak of 21 or more games. He has 10 goals and 16 assists during the run.

    Auston Matthews, Pierre Engvall, David Kampf and William Nylander also scored for Toronto. Ilya Samsonov made 29 saves for his first shutout with the Maple Leafs and the seventh of his career.

    Toronto has won seven of eight to improve to 17-5-6.

    Los Angeles dropped to 14-11-4 with its seventh loss in 10 games. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick made 36 saves.

    Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

    Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports
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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice with his teammates just 10 days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

    The 35-year-old Letang remains out indefinitely, with the club describing him as “day to day.”

    Letang said he felt “pretty good” after being greeted by stick taps from his teammates when he skated onto the ice at the team’s practice facility. Still, the married father of two called the experience “scary,” particularly for his family.

    “My kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not,” he said. “They care about having a dad. Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there’s so much more. After hockey, there’s a long time and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.”

    Letang missed more than two months in 2014 after his first stroke, which was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. The condition also led to the second stroke, which Letang suffered on Nov. 28 after dealing with a series of debilitating headaches.

    This time, the symptoms have resolved themselves much more quickly, according to team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, who described this stroke as “smaller” than the one Letang endured in 2014.

    Letang began skating on his own just two days after the diagnosis and was cleared to return to practice on Thursday though both Letang and Vyas stressed they are in no rush for him to play in games.

    “We don’t think this is accelerated in any way,” Vyas said. “We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play and when that time comes we’ll let him go back to playing his sport.”

    Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said it was a “relief” to see Letang back at work.

    “It’s a great visual that he’s making progress,” Sullivan said. “Our medical team that has monitored him extremely closely feels comfortable with some of the progress that he’s making and the steps he’s taken. Everyone was excited for him to join the group.”

    Letang signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that will carry him into his 40s if he decides to play that long. Vyas said the data around strokes is “evolving” though it is unclear if Letang is now more susceptible to having additional strokes now that he’s had a second one.

    The six-time All-Star is cautious but optimistic.

    “We’ve been through this,” Letang said. “Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding that we’re going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it’s no danger for me to keep going.”

    The Penguins are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games and have won three straight heading into a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They’re also eager to have Letang’s familiar No. 58 back in the lineup, but only when he’s ready.

    “He’s been here for a long time and his experience and everything that he brings on and off the ice, the way he competes (is important),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But I think in the (locker) room, (he has) poise and (he’s) somebody who’s been around a long time and whose experience you feel when he’s around.”

    Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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    Russell LaBounty/USA TODAY Sports
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    COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

    Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

    “It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

    Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

    “That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

    Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

    Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

    Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

    Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

    “We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

    Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

    Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

    Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

    Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

    Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

    STREAKING

    Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

    NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

    UP NEXT

    Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

    Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

    Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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    Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports
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    PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

    T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

    Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

    Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

    Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

    Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

    Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

    The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

    Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

    UP NEXT

    Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

    Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.