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Burke, O'Connell feud over Thornton trade
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Brian Burke, Mike O’Connell feud over claims about Joe Thornton trade talks

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Hockey fans have fond memories of Brian Burke’s feud with Kevin Lowe, and now it seems we have a sequel. Burke and former Bruins GM Mike O’Connell are in a war of words over alleged Joe Thornton trade talks. The biggest winners? Us.

Consider it a very short three act play or … boxing match, maybe more appropriately?

Round 1: Burke recalls trying to bring Thornton to the Ducks, “babysitting” O’Connell

Burke provided refreshingly candid answers to fan questions during an April 2 Twitter Q&A. The thread is worth your time, as Burke discusses the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Phil Kessel, Roberto Luongo, and Gary Bettman.

But it was a two-part bit about Burke trying to bring Thornton to the Ducks that got the ball rolling.

Burke explained that he’s “still bitter” that the Ducks didn’t land Thornton, and believes he offered O’Connell a better deal than the Bruins ultimately received from the Sharks.

Most fascinatingly, Burke even gave specifics about what he was willing to offer. Now, one can speculate about who would have been in the Ducks top five in 2005. Would Ryan Getzlaf or Corey Perry possibly been available for Thornton?

But either way … wow.

As a reminder, the Bruins ended up receiving Marco Sturm, Wayne Primeau, and Brad Stuart for Thornton. As Bruins fans would like to forget, Thornton continued to be a star for the Sharks, including winning the 2005-06 Hart Trophy.

[PHT Time Machine: The Eric Lindros trade that didn’t happen.]

Round 2: O’Connell says Burke’s Thornton claims were a “fabrication”

Things got juicier between O’Connell and Burke on Tuesday.

O’Connell told The Athletic’s Joe McDonald (sub required) that Burke’s hypothetical offer didn’t happen, and that the details were a “fabrication.”

“The details surrounding this story are fabricated and I can confirm that no such offer was made to me as I never informed Anaheim of my intentions to trade Joe Thornton,” O’Connell said. “Unfortunately, certain personalities never let the truth get in the way of their ultimate goal, self-promotion.”

Whew! (Shakes hand to indicate serious heat emanating from this rivalry.)

Round 3: Feud sizzles to a new level as Burke counters

Not to be outdone, Burke responded to O’Connell’s claims in a fiery appearance on ESPN on Ice with Emily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski. Burke made a key point by noting that current Ducks GM Bob Murray was in Burke’s office when he made the offer(s).

Burke also revived memories of wanting to battle Kevin Lowe in a fabled barn over the Dustin Penner offer sheet, saying “I wish we were in the same room, if you’re calling me a liar.” You really need to hear the entire clip, which Wyshynski posted:

*Ponders putting on oven mitts, this is all too hot to handle*

So obviously, this is a he-said, Burkie-said situation. We can only take each hockey executive’s word for it, and one could even argue that Murray might feel loyal to Burke.

But, considering the specifics of Burke’s claims, it seems feasible that the Ducks made some sort of offer for Thornton.

Theories

Perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle.

It’s also crucial to realize how much a person’s memory can be altered by time. This happened in 2005, and sometimes the seeds of trades are planted far before a deal is consummated. It’s possible that O’Connell flat-out doesn’t remember Burke’s offer(s).

Not only has time passed, but O’Connell also took a ton of heat for the trade. McDonald notes this anonymous reaction from a Bruins player at the time of the trade:

“Are you kidding me? We traded Joe Thornton for three guys who can’t tie their skates.”

The Bruins fired O’Connell in March of 2006, and the Thornton trade undoubtedly served as a catalyst. Such events can leave you a bit scarred, and maybe even prompt you to forget certain details. Maybe phrasing like “babysitting” bothered O’Connell, even if I took it to mean that Burke was checking up on the situation quite often.

Or maybe O’Connell is right in claiming that Burke is making those Thornton trade claims with the “ultimate goal” of “self-promotion?”

One thing’s clear: this is fun

We can only really guess, and perhaps spend this coronavirus quarantine time imagining “What if?” scenarios. Could Thornton have pushed the Ducks into mini-dynasty status, as this was during their Chris Pronger – Scott Niedermayer era? Would the Bruins have landed blue chips rather than “guys who can’t tie their skates?”

(That’s totally unfair to Primeau, Sturm, and Stuart, as they all had lengthy NHL careers. Though I admit I have not received definitive proof of how adept they are with laces.)

The one thing we do know is that Thornton landed with the Sharks and had a great run. And that O’Connell (currently director of pro development for the Los Angeles Kings) and Burke (Sportsnet personality) probably aren’t best buds.

Hey, it’s a lot more fun than talking about escrow though, right?

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.

PHT remembers video games: EA Sports’ NHL ’98 and its unmatched intro video

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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 at NHL ’98, one of the most interesting entries in EA Sports’ series.

NHL ’98 won’t dominate “best sports games ever” tournaments like early entries in the series. NHL ’98 doesn’t corner the market on hockey video game nostalgia. It’s a bit niche for widespread warm-and-fuzzies.

Even so, NHL ’98 stands as one of the most noteworthy entries in the series. And it’s certainly one of the quirkiest.

(Note: this post discusses the Playstation version of NHL ’98. The entry is also noteworthy for being the last released on Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis.)

EA finally found its Playstation-era footing with NHL ’98

Asking a video game company to pump out an annual sports title is already asking a lot. Asking them to make a jump from console generations borders on audacious, especially around this time, when developers were still trying to figure out the whole “polygon” thing.

The NHL series’ stumbles backed up that notion. Most dramatically, EA Sports decided not to release NHL ’96 on Playstation for quality reasons. (See page 16 of this PDF of GamePro magazine. Heh.)

The company managed to pump out NHL ’97 for Sony’s world-beating console. Not only did the game capitalize on the Panthers’ stunning run, but they even incorporated John Vanbiesbrouck’s mask design into the disc art:

NHL '98 big step up from 97 except for disc art
Still pretty rad. Via EA Sports/Moby Games

Unfortunately, playing NHL ’97 was only slightly more enjoyable than taking refuge from a barrage of plastic rats. OK, that’s unfair, but critics backed up my teenage memories of being a little disappointed.

(That said, I’m bummed that a cursory video search didn’t turn up any of John Davidson’s pre-game analysis videos. Those were mind-blowing in 1996/97, let me tell you.)

Really, it wasn’t until NHL ’98 that EA Sports really got things right on the PS1. Not only was it well-received at the time, but Gamespot’s Brian Ekberg thought enough of the title to revisit it in 2005. That isn’t a small feat considering the churn of yearly sports releases (especially back when you might *gasp* see more than one major title per sport).

Quirks that made it memorable

As much as fun gameplay made NHL ’98 sing, the game really took advantage of CD technology to up the presentation.

(Some of the menu music will still trickle into my head.)

The biggest impression comes from the rocking and deeply silly intro video. Do yourself a favor and watch that embedded clip above this post’s headline.

To my delight, Game Informer’s Matthew Kato looked back at that ridiculous(ly great) intro in a 2018 article, catching up with composer Jeff van Dyck. Van Dyck provided a fun peek behind the curtain on making that video and the game’s music in general.

“[Producer Ken Sayler] said something like, ‘There should be a voice in here, an announcer, saying some stuff. Can you write some stuff?” Van Dyck said of composing music for the intro. “And I said, ‘I’m not really sure what he should say,’ and basically [Sayler] just rattled off what you hear in that intro. It was very flippant, the way he issued it. I think he was expecting me to re-write it, but at the time I just went, ‘Well, it sounds good enough to me.'”

And that’s how we got gems like “Are you afraid of the masked man?” in NHL ’98.

It’s all silly, yet the footage is remarkable enough that it just works. Even the font is pretty funny.

NHL ’98 featured avid gamer Marc Crawford

While Van Dyck went on to other EA projects, the NHL series and other sports games leaned on licensed tracks, making his compositions fairly unique for the series.

Also unusual: getting an active head coach involved in development. As you can see from issue 102 of GamePro (page 90), Marc Crawford consulted for the game. The article also describes Crawford as an “avid gamer,” which is just priceless. Seeing Peter Forsberg as a game’s cover star was a rare treat, too.

While the SNES and Genesis versions of NHL ’98 represented the end of the 16-bit era for the EA hockey games, the PS1 version might be considered an evolutionary leap. It wasn’t the first 3D-ish or PS1 game (again, that goes to NHL ’97), but it took the series a long way.

It even took the NHL games to places they’d never go again.

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.

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.

PHT remembers video games: NHL Slapshot, a Wii oddity starring Wayne Gretzky

NHL Slapshot Nintendo Wii Wayne Gretzky
via EA Sports/Amazon

Every Tuesday, PHT will remember a hockey video game, preferably one less obvious than the “Swingers”-immortalized “NHL 94.” Due to technological limitations many reviews will lean closer to recollections. Either way, hopefully these are fun — and maybe inspire people to scour a flea market or two when it becomes safe to do so.

When EA Sports announced NHL Slapshot for the then-red-hot Nintendo Wii, some groaned as if they blocked an actual slapper. It ended up working out better than expected, just not enough to be a smash hit.

Plenty of game companies tried to emulate the “even kids and grandparents can play it” genius of Wii Sports, but most failed. Mix that copycat mentality with all of the “shovelware” being released and expectations were low for NHL Slapshot. A game where you morph a video game controller into a virtual hockey stick? Yeah, good luck with that.

(Oh yeah, this was also around the time when EA was repeatedly being voted “the worst company in America,” which is almost too absurd to type. Avid gamers are not always the most reasonable people.)

Yet, instead of being a shameless, half-baked cash grab, NHL Slapshot ended up being … quite good. It simply didn’t put enough elements together to draw attention from enough of those kids and grandparents.

NHL Slapshot was better than expected, but maybe didn’t hit the sweet spot

This “controller trailer” captures many of the basics for NHL Slapshot. Basically, players would insert the Wii’s strange “nunchuk” controller setup into a plastic mini-stick included in the game’s box. Then they’d use it to play an arcade-style game.

EA Sports deserves a lot of credit — it was a pretty ingenious setup.

But, frankly, my overriding memory of owning NHL Slapshot was that dealing with the controller was kind of a pain. While it wasn’t that difficult to put together, it was just frustrating enough. Being that it was a MacGyver-style setup to turn that controller into a hockey stick, you’d have to take the controller out if you wanted to play another game. Unless you decided to have a controller devoted solely to NHL Slapshot. It could be a little uncomfortable at times, too.

That stick controller stands as a microcosm for the game overall. It was clever, but didn’t quite find that sweet spot. NHL Slapshot didn’t quite appease hardcore sports fans, and was a bit clunky for casual audiences.

Not quite there

Sometimes “better than it has any right to be” translates merely to a nice novelty that fades.

Matt Bertz captured the mixed-bag feel of NHL Slapshot in a Game Informer review back in 2010:

Performing the real-world gestures for crosschecks, slap shots, wrist shots, and poke checks triggers the corresponding moves in the game. The game tracks your checking and slap shot motions admirably, but the rest of the moves don’t have much accuracy. Backhands are particularly unresponsive, as are wrist shots in those moments where you pick up a loose puck around the net and must get off a shot in nanoseconds before getting checked or losing possession. The deking moves are very rigid in comparison to the analog stick movements in NHL 11, and given the slight controller lag, the poke check and stick sweep options aren’t effective strategies on defense.

Don’t take this as totally dragging EA, though. The game did quite a lot right, and that was reflected in some pretty solid reviews, as you can see at Metacritic. An aggregate score of 76 really isn’t half-bad for an experimental, family-friendly game like NHL Slapshot.

NHL Slapshot brought out Gretzky’s inner gamer

Even if the game was a total failure — which, again, it was not — this charmingly awkward footage of Gretzky playing the game would justify its existence.

This footage, unearthed from the game’s Amazon listing, includes:

  • Gretzky making the “I’m playing a game” face, especially in the beginning.
  • “The Great One” attempts to get his kid interested in playing a game, and largely being ignored.
  • Gretzky sounding like a kid when he says that he wants to play as Alex Ovechkin.

Tremendous, right?

Pondering slight potential for a spiritual successor

As I mentioned before, NHL Slapshot seemed a touch before its time. It was a noble effort, but the lack of a sequel cements the notion that it didn’t quite come together.

It does make me wonder, though. What if EA or another company put real effort into a hockey video game that takes advantage of virtual reality?

Now, that hypothetical game would absolutely count as a niche within a niche. Even so, virtual reality games sometimes go that far, and a company like EA could conceivably bundle a hockey game with golf, football, and other sports. Sure, that sounds like a long shot, but NHL Slapshot was unlikely (and pretty solid) too, so who knows?

MORE: Remembering NHL Championship 2000, starring Mike Modano.

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.

Can Ovechkin catch Gretzky? NHL’s new Mr. 700 has a chance

Alex Ovechkin is making the seemingly impossible appear to be not so far-fetched after all.

Wayne Gretzky’s 894 career goals has, for decades, loomed as one of hockey’s most untouchable records. The ”Great One” set the bar so high it appeared out of reach for even the NHL’s best scorers.

Ovechkin, on Saturday, became the second-fastest and second-youngest player to reach 700 goals behind only Gretzky. Because he’s only 34 and shows no signs of slowing down, belief is growing that Ovechkin can challenge Gretzky’s mark.

”Alex is going to score another probably 150 goals, maybe more, before he retires,” Hall of Famer and fellow 700 goal-scorer Phil Esposito said. ”He’s got a chance to catch Wayne. There’s no doubt about that.”

Gretzky scored his 894 goals in 1,487 games over a 20-year career with the Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers. A vast majority of his goals came during the sport’s highest-scoring era, and Gretzky reached 40 in a season for the last time at age 30.

Ovechkin is in the midst of his fifth 40-goal season since turning 30. Last season, he became the oldest to win the goal-scoring title since Esposito in 1974-75, and he’s on pace for 57 this year.

”I think he’ll score 50 until he’s 50 years old it seems like,” Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon said. ”I never thought (catching Gretzky) would happen. I hope he can get close.”

Ovechkin is under contract through next season and would likely need to play four more seasons to take a legitimate shot at the mileston. Longtime running mate Nicklas Backstrom just signed on for five more years, so it’s not impossible to think Ovechkin stays around long term.

Asked what Ovechkin needs to do to approach Gretzky’s record, Esposito said: ”Stay with the Washington Capitals. Stay with a good team.” They’d sure like that.

”He loves to score and continues to bring that to rink every day,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. ”I think he’s energized by seeing where he can finish in the top 10, and it’s kind of fun to watch an older guy keep it going like he has.”

Gretzky recently told NHL.com he’s rooting for Ovechkin to break his record, with staying healthy and playing on a good team the two necessary ingredients. Ovechkin has been one of the most durable players in hockey during his career, and the Capitals could extend their run of contending for several more years.

”The guy’s missed 17 games in 15 years due to injury – that’s freaking incredible,” former player and executive-turned NHL Network analyst Brian Lawton said. ”They have a quality team that has staying power. He’s going to get three or four more years of being on an elite team.”

Backstrom, center Evgeny Kuznetsov and defenseman John Carlson are all signed long term after winning the Stanley Cup with Ovechkin in 2018. Wrapping up his playing days back home in Russia could be alluring to Ovechkin, so it’s unclear how many more years he wants to remain in the NHL.

”It just depends on how long he wants to play,” said Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, who allowed Ovechkin’s 600th goal. ”You know he’s going to put up anywhere from 40 to 50 goals a year, and he’s going to be dangerous no matter what his age is or what his team’s like. You know he’s got a phenomenal team around him, and you know he’s just going to continue to beat goalies.”

Ovechkin wasn’t always scoring at this pace. At the low point of his career, he scored 32 goals in 2010-11 and 38 in 2011-12 before Washington bowed out in the second round of the playoffs.

An elite NHL goal-scorer’s prime usually ends in his mid-20s, and doubt crept in that the same would happen to Ovechkin. Not so fast.

”I think everyone halfway through his career would’ve said, no, he’s going to tail off at some point,” Calgary Flames captain Mark Giordano said. ”But he hasn’t stopped, so he has a chance.”

Two-time NHL leading scorer Connor McDavid grew up watching Ovechkin play plenty against his idol, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, and has been impressed with the consistency of the goals piling up.

”He just seems ageless and just keeps on scoring goals,” McDavid said. ”I don’t see any reason he can’t keep doing that.”

The desire is still there. Veteran coach Todd McLellan enjoys watching Ovechkin’s excitement for scoring goals – except against his own team – and because of that is hoping he cracks 894.

”It’s great for our game to see him,” McLellan said. ”As long as that excitement stays there, he’s still going to have the skill and the shot. He’s going to have a great team around him. I think he can do it.”

Lawton has run the numbers and can’t imagine Ovechkin not breaking Gretzky’s record. He’s conservatively predicting a 55-goal season, which would mean Ovechkin at his career rate needs to play roughly 300 more games to get close.

”Alex is in a completely different position (than Gretzky),” Lawton said. ”Back then, players, we didn’t know and understand as much about nutrition and training as we do today. … Overall, looking in the future, I just don’t see there’s any way how he doesn’t break it.”

Boston’s David Pastrnak, who is currently neck-and-neck with Ovechkin and Toronto’s Auston Matthews in the goal-scoring race and might one day be the NHL’s next 700-goal scorer, ”can’t really see” Gretzky’s record being broken. Pastrnak thinks Ovechkin will join Gretzky and Gordie Howe by surpassing 800, though Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy wonders about the goals beyond that.

”I think health-wise will determine that,” Cassidy said. ”If he can stay healthy to at least 38, 39, 40, I don’t see why he won’t at least push up against it.”

Ovechkin is already in elite company in the 700 club with Gretzky, Howe, Jaromir Jagr, Brett Hull, Marcel Dionne, Esposito and Mike Gartner. He recently climbed past Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman and Mark Messier on the all-time list.

Yzerman closed a video message for passing him to Ovechkin by saying, ”If you ever do break Wayne Gretzky’s all time record for the most goals in the league, after watching your Stanley Cup celebrations, I want to be invited to your party.”

Perhaps Ovechkin would party like it’s 2018, and it would possibly be an accomplishment that’s never matched again.

NHL stars praise Alex Ovechkin as he hits 700 career goals

There’s a new member of the 700-goal club and his name is Alex Ovechkin. At 4:50 of the third period against the Devils on Saturday, the Capitals captain fired one by Mackenzie Blackwood to reach the historic mark.

Ovechkin scored goal No. 699 in an OT loss to the Canadiens after five straight games without a point. No. 8 controlled a rolling puck after Nicklas Backstrom won a faceoff cleanly in the offensive zone, then fired a wrist shot past Carey Price.

The Washington Capitals captain is now the eighth member of the exclusive NHL club. He joins Mike Gartner (708), Phil Esposito (717), Marcel Dionne (731), Brett Hull (741), Jaromir Jagr (766), Gordie Howe (801), and Wayne Gretzky (894).

NBC

Ovechkin has been doing this since he broke in the league in 2005 and his peers continue to marvel at his goal-scoring exploits.

NBC Sports recently sat down with T.J. Oshie, Patrick Kane, Eric Staal, Sidney Crosby, David Pastrnak, Max Pacioretty, Nathan MacKinnon, and John Carlson to talk about Ovechkin’s career and his pursuit of Gretzky’s all-time record.

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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.