Jeremy Roenick

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Our favorite classic Costacos Brothers hockey posters

Costacos Brothers

If you’re of a certain age, you probably remember Costacos Brothers posters. Heck, you may have had some up on the walls of your childhood bedroom. The images married sports and pop culture, often dressing up athletes in various costumes to go along with the theme.

Do you remember Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, also known as the Oakland A’s “Bash Brothers,” dressed as the “Blues Brothers,” giant bats and all? Or Lawrence Taylor, with bodies piled around him, dubbed “The Terminator” with lasers shooting out of his fingers? Perhaps you had the one with Karl Malone dressed appropriately to deliver mail?

The posters took off in the mid-1980s and were a big deal for any athlete who was fortunate enough to be a part of one. As Charles Barkley told Amy K. Nelson of SB Nation in 2013, “The poster made you cool. You didn’t make the poster cool.”

We took a dip into the hockey side of the Costacos Brothers poster world and picked out our favorites for this week’s Power Rankings.

1. Ray Bourque

A five-time Norris Trophy winner and stalwart on the Bruins blue line for 20 years, Bourque was clearly suited for the government role of Secretary of Defense. Though, we’re confident that the hockey stick would be a poor weapon in defense compared to that machine gun on the jeep.

2. Luc Robitaille

A play off the Paul Newman movie, here’s Robitaille cozying up next to a Kings-themed motorcycle standing in front of what appears to be an apocalyptic sky behind him. 

3. Jaromir Jagr

“OK, Jaromir, here’s our idea: You’re going to awkwardly stand, full uniform, and look at the camera, letting those bangs out, and you’ll act as a pawn. Czechmate. Get it?”

4. Brett Hull

Hull would definitely fill the “Ice Man” role in a “Top Gun” movie. And you just know he told Adam Oates, “you can be my wingman anytime.”

5. Magic Johnson and Wayne Gretzky

This “LA Story” didn’t end up being as successful as hoped. In the time that “The Great One” and Magic were in Los Angeles together, only the Lakers made the finals, losing both of them. Johnson returned after a four-year retirement in 1995-96, which would turn out to be the final seasons for both in LA.

6. Wayne Gretzky

Wouldn’t you have preferred Gretzky dressed as Wayne Campbell standing in front of a Marcel Dionne’s Donuts instead?

7. Chris Chelios and Jeremy Roenick

The two Blackhawks stars are hanging out in the middle of a lightning storm without a care in the world. They’re basically just here solely to show off their jeans and turtlenecks.

8. Ed Belfour

“The Eagle” put up his best seasons in Dallas, capping it off with the 1999 Stanley Cup. Surely this movie would be more watchable than “The Love Guru,” no?

MORE POWER RANKINGS:
Teams with the best long-term outlook
Looking at the top 2020 free agents
Best 2019-20 free agent signings
The most underrated players
Top MVP candidates

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT remembers hockey video games: An ode to the NHL 2K series

Thornton NHL 2K cover
via 2K Sports

Every Tuesday, PHT will remember a hockey video game (or games). Since we don’t have every console or cartridge, some posts will be recollections, not reviews. This week, we look back at the NHL 2K series, which served as great competition for EA’s NHL games, particularly during the Playstation 2 era.

This past weekend, ESPN’s feed gave Twitter addicts welcome reprieve from “pick three” lists with the question: “What is the peak of your personal athletic achievements?”

Naturally, I sat that out, as my peak athletic achievements lean toward “not being chosen last in a pickup game.” Now, if you ask about the peak of my fake video game athletic achievements, the NHL 2K series etched one moment in my memory.

A personal highlight from the NHL 2K series

Allow me to set the scene.

It was late in the summer of 2006, in my deeply crummy Texas apartment. If “Guitar Hero” wasn’t on the screen, chances are, it was “NHL 2K6.”

Facing off for the first time against someone who would become a lifelong friend, I was controlling Ilya Kovalchuk. And, folks, I made the move.

If you’ve ever gotten hooked on hockey video games, you know that there are some surefire ways to score goals. In that run of NHL 2K games, this cheesy behind the net plus backhand move was money. Especially with Kovalchuk.

Yet, instead of cash registers ringing from said money, there was … nothing. Was I mad? Perhaps, but I was undoubtedly perplexed.

Well, it turns out that the money move was indeed money. Maybe Kovalchuk doing the move broke the game. The puck actually hit the very top of the glass behind the net, bounced back off of the opposing goalie, hit the crossbar, and went in.

Speaking of being mad or not, if my friend was upset, he didn’t exactly show it. We were both perplexed, and frankly in awe.

During the latter years of the Playstation 2 era, the NHL 2K series captured my attention away from EA’s offerings. That turned out to be short-lived, as EA pulled away with the “skill stick” and jump to the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360.

NHL 2K didn’t just fall behind in the race. It ended up falling out altogether.

But, like the Blackhawks and Kings … hey, we still have the memories. And a lot of the NHL 2K memories ended up being fond ones. For a while.

The birth of the NHL 2K series

As with 2K Sports’ other sports titles, including the still-running NBA 2K franchise, and the still-beloved NFL 2K games, the NHL 2K series got its start on the all-too-briefly realized Sega Dreamcast console.

(If you want to observe people getting weird about video game hardware, do some Dreamcast deep diving.)

  • NHL 2K launched the series with Brendan Shanahan on the cover.
  • The series took a year off, returning with Chris Drury-starring NHL 2K2. It might have been the final North American release for the Dreamcast.
  • NHL 2K3 and the following release ESPN NHL Hockey both featured Jeremy Roenick on their covers. (The 2K games did this around that era, as Allen Iverson basically had a monopoly on the NBA 2K games.)

ESPN NHL 2K5: darkest spot of the golden era

There was a lot to like about ESPN NHL 2K5. It was part of the run of 2K games that were only $20, and it didn’t backfire for the NHL 2K series like it did for NFL 2K.

(People also lionize ESPN NFL 2K5 to this day.)

But whenever I saw that cover with Martin St. Louis, I couldn’t avoid thoughts about the 2004-05 lockout.

2K Sports/Youtube

Dark times.

  • Personally speaking, NHL 2K6 and NHL 2K7 were the last titles in the series that truly hooked me (and friends).

NHL 2K7 wasn’t just a swan song to many. It also featured out of place songs by way of a soundtrack with acts like The Postal Service. It’s uncomfortable that the latter stages of the series were more worthy of emo.

EA Sports pulls away

Things drastically changed when EA made a more successful jump to the next consoles thanks to brilliant execution of “the skill stick.”

  • You could really start to see the strain to catch up with NHL 2K8, which wasn’t received particularly well. Things didn’t get much better for NHL 2K9, either.
  • Consider NHL 2K10 something of the end of an era, as it was the last in the series to appear on the more powerful consoles. It’s also an oddity that Alex Ovechkin was on the cover, being that he also appeared on the cover for EA’s NHL ’07.

NHL 2K10 did cater to fans in two specific ways: being the first to feature the Winter Classic, and also helped turn the tide for the Hartford Whalers’ jerseys to appear in games again.

  • Things really fizzled out from there with NHL 2K11 (Wii and iPhone) and simply NHL 2K (mobile game) years later in 2014. Curiously, Ryan Kesler was the cover star for the latter two games.

***

Basically, the NHL 2K series went out like … erm, Ryan Kesler, actually. But like a beloved star who stayed around too long, let’s try to remember the good times instead of the sadder moments.

PHT remembers other hockey video games:

  • NHL Championship 2000, Fox’s rare foray into hockey video games, starring Mike Modano.
  • NHL Slapshot, a Wii video game with a small plastic hockey stick peripheral that even Wayne Gretzky found delightful.
  • EA’s NHL ’98, when the company hit its polygonal stride, and also featured a great soundtrack (ironically and unironically?).

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.

Patrick Kane hits 1,000 points, and Blackhawks are red-hot

People might really start to ask: “Can the Chicago Blackhawks actually make the playoffs?” They won’t have to ask when Patrick Kane will reach 1,000 points.

Kane managed the feat on Sunday. As you can see in the video above, Kane scored point 1,000 on a beautiful secondary assist. He set up Ryan Carpenter, who fed Brandon Saad for that milestone helper. The Blackhawks realized what happened very quickly, mobbing number 88 to celebrate his 1,000th point.

The atmosphere became extra festive as Chicago beat Winnipeg 5-2, giving the Blackhawks five wins in a row.

Kane makes history with point 1,000

The Blackhawks winger wiped a tear or three away after realizing his accomplishment. Kane indeed made some history by reaching 1,000 points in 953 career regular-season games:

  • NHL PR notes that Kane became the youngest U.S.-born player to reach 1,000 points, doing so at age 31 (and 61 days). Jeremy Roenick reached that mark at age 32 (and 13 days).
  • Kane scored his 1,000th point as the second-youngest of any Blackhawk, in general, according to Sportsnet stats. Denis Savard ranks as the only one who hit 1,000 at a younger age, doing so at 29 and 35 days.
  • NHL PR tweeted out a few other tidbits. Kane is the 10th player of U.S. nationality to reach 1,000 points, and ranks among only five who did so in fewer than 1,000 games. Again, Kane got there in game 953.

Impressive stuff. Sunday’s assist extended Kane’s current point streak to 10 games (four goals, 11 assists for 15 points). He’s on a similar hot streak to Jonathan Toews, his partner in crime.

Blackhawks heat up

Speaking of hot streaks, the Blackhawks are indeed gaining steam. This marks their fifth win in a row, and things look good when you zoom out. They’ve also won nine times in their last 12 games (9-3-0) and 11 in their last 15 (11-4-0).

This surge didn’t push Chicago into the top eight. Instead, they now have the same 54 standings points as the ninth-place Jets, although Winnipeg holds a game in hand. Both teams trail an assortment of Pacific Division teams for the two wild-card spots at 57 points, and the Dallas Stars for the third Central spot at 58.

Such gaps sometimes appear closer than they really are — have you met our frenemy, the “charity point?” — but it’s still promising.

Staying in fighting distance of a playoff spot also makes Kane reaching 1,000 feel sweeter, without the bitterness of Chicago’s recent struggles.

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.

NHL on NBCSN: Sabres, Maple Leafs heating up

Jack Eichel John Tavares
Getty Images

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Not every player, or every team, can be as hot as Jack Eichel is right now, what with his 16-game point streak.

Instead, both Eichel’s Buffalo Sabres and Tuesday’s opponent, the Toronto Maple Leafs, are aiming to survive before they can thrive. Each team has generated three wins in its last four games, staying on course while navigating bumps in the road.

Perhaps Tuesday’s game will serve as an opportunity for the Sabres or Maple Leafs to really accelerate?

Sabres staying scrappy

Buffalo saw a three-game winning streak end when the Islanders beat them 3-2 in OT on Saturday, but coach Ralph Krueger praised his team for carving out eight points in six games from Dec. 5-14.

“It was a big task in a very short period of time where the guys have shown energy right to the end and really just played a consistent game irrelevant of scores,” Krueger said via the Sabres website. “You can see the maturity of the group is evolving in a way we can take a lot of confidence out of this week.”

Naturally, it doesn’t hurt to get Rasmus Dahlin back. The splendid sophomore generated an assist in each of his first two games back, logging 24:02 time on ice during Saturday’s overtime loss. Eichel believes that Dahlin is already “finding his groove again,” which could be a serious boost for Buffalo, particularly on the power play.

[COVERAGE OF LEAFS-SABRES BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Seeing a young player such as Dahlin make a seemingly triumphant return takes some of the sting off of Casey Mittelstadt’s AHL demotion.

Maple Leafs making gains

Few are going to be blown away by the Maple Leafs’ 7-4-0 record under Sheldon Keefe, but Toronto still shows signs of being a sleeper.

It’s been very much a trial by fire for the first-time NHL head coach. The Maple Leafs were in the middle of a six-game road trip when Keefe stepped in, and Toronto won three games in a row, ending that stretch with a loss in Buffalo.

Overall, the Maple Leafs have only played two out of Keefe’s 11 games at home. With that in mind, it would be tough to knock this group for feeling mightier than their 16-14-4 record might indicate.

In particular, captain John Tavares sees positives in earning three wins during a four-game road trip.

“This (trip) should give us some confidence,” Tavares said via Field Level Media. “It should have been even better, but it is what it is. Now we have to follow it up, turn the page. Heading into the Christmas break, we want to make the most of the games we have.”

The Maple Leafs have shown signs of life by quite a few measures, and the upcoming schedule hints at opportunities to grow. That said, the 16-11-7 Sabres serve as a considerable hurdle, especially when Eichel and Dahlin are on the ice.

Tuesday night’s studio coverage will be hosted by Paul Burmeister alongside analysts Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter. Kenny Albert and Pierre McGuire will call Sabres-Maple Leafs from Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.

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.