Scotty Bowman

via Sony/989 Studios/Wikipedia

PHT remembers video games: Sony made a surprisingly long series of hockey/NHL games

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Every week, PHT will spotlight hockey video games you might not have heard of, ones you fondly recall, and ones we’d all like to forget. This time around, we’ll look back at the surprisingly sprawling run of hockey video games from Sony.

When it comes to lamenting old hockey video games, we look back fondly on arcade-style games or honest attempts at sims, and often wish for more. Even with a game like “Hit the Ice,” which was ported in many different ways, there wasn’t really a sequel. But from “ESPN National Hockey Night” to the “NHL FaceOff” games down to “Gretzky NHL” titles, you can’t say that Sony didn’t take enough kicks at the can to make hockey video games.

Zooming out, Sony pumped out a really staggering legacy of … well, largely hockey forgettable video games.

The sheer volume of those titles means we won’t go into too much depth on any given title. Instead, let’s ponder the twists and turns, from different consoles, to brands, to killing 99 time.

Sony’s hockey video games begin before Sony consoles with “ESPN National Hockey Night.”

Released on 16-bit consoles (Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo), Sega CD, and computers in late 1994, Sony Imagesoft put out what would be far from the last hockey video game with ESPN branding. It seemed like a pretty ambitious title for its era. Though maybe I’m an easy mark because of that sweet ESPN hockey theme kicking this video off:

And also FMV Bill Clement!

Bill Clement in "ESPN National Hockey Night" Sega Genesis
via Sony/YouTube

Alas, this title began a trend. While Sony hockey video games sometimes experienced big changes and displayed varying levels of ambition, they rarely made much of a mark. Most of these titles were either met with a shoulder shrug, or during bad times, a grimace.

Sony transitions to “NHL FaceOff” series on Playstation, then Playstation 2

If you grumble at there only being one “Mutant League Hockey” game, or only a few “NHL Hitz” titles, then you might furrow your brow at just how long-lasting “NHL FaceOff” existed — even ignoring the pivots from Sony before and after “NHL FaceOff.”

Beginning in 1995, Sony pumped out the “NHL FaceOff” titles alongside other sports series. Frankly, one of my lasting memories of Sony’s sports titles was the “NFL GameDay” intro song, which for some reason is etched into my brain:

Early on in the “NHL FaceOff” series, you could see some pretty significant jumps in graphics. This came at a time when video game developers were still wrestling with the jump from 2D to 3D, and sports video games were not immune to such challenges. Consider the leaps from the first title in 1995 to the 1998 edition (“NHL FaceOff ’99”):

Top Left: “NHL FaceOff”; Bottom Left: ’97 edition; Top Right: ’98 edition; Bottom Right: ’99 Edition (via Sony/989 Studios/YouTube screens)

It turns out that EA Sports’ “NHL” series isn’t the first instance where a hockey video game presentation went from featuring ESPN and/or Bill Clement to NBC’s own Mike “Doc” Emrick. Emrick ended up being a fixture for the series, alongside Darren Pang, even once the “FaceOff” games transitioned to their next bit of packaging.

Again, the various studios that worked on the series definitely tried things. Enjoy, for instance, 989 Sports “made by the pros, played by the pros” video featuring 1) Warren Sapp, 2) Vin Scully(!), and 3) Scotty Bowman (!!).

There were even foot-in-the-crease reviews in “NHL FaceOff 2000.”

NHL FaceOff screen, Sony hockey video games NHL
via Sony/989 Studios/YouTube

… And this beautiful visage of Mike Modano.

Modano NHL FaceOff Sony hockey video games
via Sony/989 Studios/YouTube

The series truly loses its way

While the first “NHL FaceOff” celebrated hockey on the Playstation’s first iteration, the next console jump might explain why an OK-to-good series went sideways. Starting with “NHL FaceOff 2001,” the series transitioned to the Playstation 2. (That 2001 edition appeared on both Playstation 1 and 2.) Things were bumpy enough that the 2002 edition ended up being canceled. (According to the series’ Wikipedia page, Luc Robitaille was supposed to be the cover star.)

The last in the series was “NHL FaceOff 2003,” initially published in 2002. (NHL seasons spanning parts of two years often makes these titles feel a little confusing, right?)

The 2003 version didn’t get the series back on track. That said, the little in-game “previews” were a mix of pretty nifty and so-bad-it’s-good.

Overall, the “NHL FaceOff” series enjoyed a long run even if you ignore the other Sony-related hockey video game titles, releasing from 1995-2002 (with one year off, which really feels true to the sport’s era of lockouts).

Just like “ESPN National Hockey Night” made way for “NHL FaceOff,” Sony’s titles would get new life once more in a different wrapper.

Sony puts out a couple hockey video games with Wayne Gretzky involved

Sony pivoted from “NHL FaceOff” titles to “Gretzky NHL 2005” and a 2006 version on Playstation 2.  As Alex Navarro noted at Gamespot, the Sony Gretzky titles mainly distinguished themselves as Sony hockey video games that weren’t terrible.

Navarro also pointed out that Sony revived the series under that Gretzky NHL title during a lockout. If that didn’t set the table for a letdown, both EA’s “NHL” titles and the “NHL 2K” series attracted far more attention from sim-minded hockey gamers. It’s not particularly surprising that the titles were met with a general “meh.”

That said, the Gretzky titles were also ported to Sony’s handheld PSP system, and seemed to fare reasonably well.

Being that EA largely ignores handhelds such as the Nintendo Switch — aside from maybe one release of a “FIFA” — it’s a bummer that the Gretzky/”NHL FaceOff” series couldn’t have pivoted to that format. Being able to play a pretty good, NHL-licensed hockey game on a plane would have been cool right up until the mere thought of air travel became deeply terrifying.

I also wonder if “Gretzky NHL 2005/2006” should have gone full-arcade. Beyond evoking the pretty fun Nintendo 64-era Gretzky games, you’d lean into something that could make it stand out. The 2006 edition of the game had a feature where you could basically … summon Gretzky to help you win? Bonkers, sure, but what if it was the focus of development rather than a feature?

Wayne Gretzky representing a hockey video game series’ answer to the obnoxious blue shell in Mario Kart? I don’t hate it.

Again, a rather startling series of Sony hockey video games

OK, so let’s consider the timeline of Sony hockey video games one more time. Do note that it’s possible something will be left out because there really were so many of them. (Share in the comments if you notice something. Maybe there was an off-shoot inside an off-shoot wrapped in bacon and enigmas?)

  • “ESPN National Hockey Night” (Various 16-bit consoles/PC, released in 1994)
  • “NHL FaceOff through NHL FaceOff 2000” (Playstation, released  each year from 1995-1999)
  • Consider “NHL FaceOff 2001” a break in the trend because it was released on two consoles. (Playstation 1 and 2, released in 2000)
  • … The process of making one on each console might explain why “NHL FaceOff 2002” got canceled for PS2.
  • “NHL FaceOff 2003” (Playstation 2, released in 2002.)
  • “Gretzky NHL 2005” (Playstation 2, released in 2004; PSP version released in 2005)
  • “Gretzky NHL 2006” (Playstation 2, released in September 2005; PSP version released in October 2005)

Sony produced one heck of a run of … bad or OK hockey video games. They might have challenged the limits of Michael Scott’s favorite Gretzky quote in doing so. Today, they mainly focus on baseball with the generally well-received “MLB The Show” series.

As enticing as variety can be, Sony was probably smart in moving away from hockey/NHL video games.

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.

Quick hits: Rheaume’s return, Coach Q’s milestone and more

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Plenty is going on heading into Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final. Here are a few things that you may find interesting, even if they’re not full-blown posts.

  • Remember Manon Rheaume, the first (and only) woman to play in an NHL exhibition game? She did so with the Tampa Bay Lightning more than 20 years ago, and tonight mark’s her first visit back. Sportsnet’s has a fantastic Q & A session with her, which includes the shocking realization that she never heard of David Letterman before appearing on his show.
  • Dynasty talk often boils down to semantics. The bottom line is that the Chicago Blackhawks have done some special things, and you can see that in one form by noticing the milestones head coach Joel Quenneville (pictured) is starting to pile up. Game 2 marks Coach Q’s 200th career postseason game behind an bench, becoming just the third coach to do so. The list is as elite as they get, too:

One would expect him to pass New York Islanders great Al Arbour, but legend Scotty Bowman’s mark is almost certainly safe.

Quenneville’s record is impressive, too, as he heads in with a 112-87 record in playoff games coached.

  • Should we expect overtime tonight? The league points out that four straight Game 2’s have gone beyond regulation. (Grinds extra coffee beans.)

  • Obvious point alert: the Lightning really, really need to win this one.

Scotty Bowman doesn’t much care for how the game is played now

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Scotty Bowman has been in hockey a long time. He’s seen the game change and evolve many times over through his career but he says the way things are being played now don’t sit well with him.

Jim Matheson hears from Bowman about how the strategy teams use that sees players all falling back to defend and block shots is one that doesn’t help the game look good.

“It’s three against five to score. The two defencemen (on the attacking team) don’t come in because they’re worried about getting caught. You get so many outnumbered situations down low. Look at how close the defending wingers are to their net and how far away they are from the other net. It’s a good ploy defensively, but it’s why there is not as much offence.”

That makes plenty of sense, even to fans that don’t know the game well. Then Bowman draws it up a bit clearer.

“When I was coaching in Montreal, Lafleur and Shutt wouldn’t even know what the ice was like below the top of the circle. Look at Wayne Gretzky; he was always out between the blue-lines. Brett Hull? Maybe it’s wise to put four guys down low and one other guy way high,” said Bowman.

If you’ll recall, Bowman used a defensive system called the “left wing lock” to help the Red Wings shut down opponents. Instead of stopping shots in the zone, it kept teams from gaining the zone easily and turning it over in the neutral zone. A lot of people thought that was a scourge once, too.

Scotty Bowman honored with Order of Canada

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Scotty Bowman has won the Stanley Cup numerous times in his life but now he’s been given one of the highest honors in Canada.

Bowman was awarded the Order of Canada, the highest honor a Canadian can get aside from the Queen’s Order of Merit, thanks to his history as a head coach and the charitable work he’s done in his life. Bowman tells NHL.com the honor is truly special.

“It’s certainly different from my Stanley Cup rings, and I look forward to wearing it on special occasions,” Bowman told reporters after the ceremony at Ottawa’s Rideau Hall in which he received the red-and-white medallion from Governor General David Johnston.

Bowman has won nine Stanley Cups over his 40+ years in hockey, winning the Cup with three teams as a coach (Montreal, Pittsburgh, Detroit) and one as an executive (Chicago). Now the only question he’ll have to figure out is where to display his award amongst all the Stanley Cups. Perhaps draping the medal around a Stanley Cup replica is the way to go.

GM meetings: Ringette line doesn’t sound much fun either

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The GM meetings gave us the scary possibility that the red line would be reintroduced, bringing back the two-line pass. Thankfully, GMs couldn’t support that idea and it’s been turned down, but there’s another plan that’s piqued their interest that essentially does the same thing.

Legendary coach Scotty Bowman once had an idea to introduce a “ringette” or a line above the faceoff circles and NHL.com’s Dan Rosen tells us about how it’s gaining popularity at the meetings and might get tested out in the future.

The ringette line, which comes from the Canadian game of ringette — a derivative of hockey — would be painted across the ice at the top of the faceoff circles at each end of the ice. The team with possession of the puck in its own end would have to gain the ringette line in order to make a legal pass across the center red line. Passing the puck across the center red line from behind the ringette line would be considered an illegal pass.

In essence they want to bring back the two-line pass but don’t want it to look as obvious. Considering how poorly the two-line pass played out while it was a rule, it doesn’t make much sense that this mutant version of it is going to play out any differently.

Coaches will always figure out a way to defend against everything. Finding a way to guarantee more whistles, not turnovers, doesn’t do much to make the game entertaining.