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.

PHT Morning Skate: Time to make changes to NHL Draft Lottery?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Changes for NHL Draft Lottery, CBA, return to play links

• Travis Yost goes deep on possible structural changes to the NHL Draft Lottery after the controversial placeholder results. Could there be some big changes, either weighing odds differently, or something like “The Gold Plan” for the NHL Draft Lottery in the future. I wouldn’t hate the idea of, say, a team only being able to win the top pick every X number of years, or something of that nature. Here’s one thing I’m sure of: people will always complain. Death, taxes, griping. [TSN]

• Depending upon whom you ask, the NHL Draft Lottery is part of the league’s larger “pursuit of mediocrity.” In all honesty, it’s tough to argue with that stance after seeing 24 of 31 teams involved in the potential return-to-play plan. [Faceoff Circle]

As noted recently on PHT, reports indicate that a CBA extension could be brewing. Lyle Richardson breaks down how that might end up looking. [Full Press Coverage]

Other hockey links, including something on EA Sports’ “NHL 95”

• While many players choose jersey numbers for trivial reasons, Canucks forward Zack McEwen has a legit reason to fight for number 71. [Sportsnet]

• The PHWA announced that Tony Gallagher won the 2020 Elmer Ferguson Award for excellence in hockey journalism. PHWA president Frank Seravalli said Gallagher “was never afraid to break a few eggs in writing his daily omelette” while covering the Vancouver hockey market. [PHWA]

• We often focus on how many goals a player scores, but it can be fascinating to dig deeper. It turns out that Max Pacioretty wasn’t just one of three players with 300+ SOG this season. He also topped all players with 192 wrist shots. [Sin Bin Vegas]

• Did the Lightning pay too big of a price in the Blake Coleman trade? The pandemic pause certainly heightens the chances of the answer being “Yes.” [Raw Charge]

• To be clear, it’s been a bumpy first Stars season for Joe Pavelski. In the grand scheme of things, Pavelski ultimately got what he was looking for when he signed with Dallas. [The Hockey News]

• Dan Saraceni provides some wonderful memories of “NHL 95” on Sega Genesis. Saraceni goes into the greatest detail on the game’s GM mode, a truly rare feature for the era.

EA Sports NHL 95 GM PHT Morning Skate Draft Lottery changes
via EA Sports/Lighthouse Hockey

The post is a lot of fun to read, especially if you enjoy PHT’s video game series. [Lighthouse Hockey]

• In case you missed it, Chris Thorburn retired from the NHL after winning a Stanley Cup with the Blues. What’s next? He’d like to mentor other players. [St. Louis Post-Dispatch]

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.

An NHL team should give Bruce Boudreau another shot as head coach

Bruce Boudreau another NHL coaching job COVID-19
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Many of us believe that Bruce Boudreau should get another NHL head coaching job simply because he’s very good at his job. But there’s also another factor: Boudreau is a delight.

If you needed a reminder of Boudreau’s wonderful personality — and his enduring love for hockey — then read this story by The Athletic’s Michael Russo (sub required). Honestly? It’s a fabulous read if you merely want to smile. (It made me smile and laugh … a lot.)

Boudreau wants to coach in the NHL again, clearly still loves hockey (and his wife Crystal)

Boudreau told Russo that he hopes to coach in the NHL again, even with uncertainty in the air. In the meantime, Boudreau might also do some TV studio work during a return to play. Either way, it sounds like the last few months haven’t sapped his passion for the sport.

“I’m going to be watching either way, whether it’s from my couch or a TV studio, but behind the bench is where I’d want to be in the end,” Boudreau said. “I’ve been really fortunate in my life to never go two weeks without having another job. So this running on three, four months and it’s driving my wife a little crazier than me. But, I mean, you just want to know where it’s going. When you’ve done something your whole life and still believe you’re fully capable of doing the job, you never want to stop doing it. And when you love it as much as I do, you just want to continue to do it.

That quote summarizes Russo’s great piece in a nutshell. Even so, the best part really didn’t have much to do with hockey. Russo’s right in comparing the banter between Bruce and his wife Crystal as an “Abbott and Costello routine.” One can almost imagine a sitcom episode regarding the couple engaging in an air conditioning cold water. I can practically hear the laugh track:

“I secretly get up in the middle of the night and turn off the air conditioner,” Boudreau said. “But then she’ll wake up and punch me in the head when she realizes I turned the thing off and I go somewhere else.”

Observations on potential NHL playoff matchups, coaching under unique circumstances

It’s a delight to read Boudreau break down different teams and matchups. Russo even convinced Boudreau to discuss his former team, the Minnesota Wild. (Like us at PHT, Boudreau is fascinated to see how the Wild handle their goaltending situation.)

Some of the best insight revolves around how Boudreau imagines an empty arena setting working out.

He points out that microphones are more likely to catch coaches screaming at players, or using colorful language toward refs. (Naturally, Boudreau has some funny quips, including blaming assistants for profanities if coaches wear masks.) Even amid the humor, you get an idea of how Boudreau tries to manage “tough love” with not trying to insult or embarrass players.

Which opens the door to briefly discuss a logical landing spot or two for Boudreau …

Which NHL teams should give Boudreau a shot?

Again, we’re going briefly here. But consider a few spur-of-the-moment observations and suggestions:

  • A “rebuilding” team probably wouldn’t make sense.

Boudreau is 65. While Boudreau seems like a “hockey lifer,” and might have the right demeanor to work with younger players, his age shouldn’t be ignored. You probably want your team to at least be … partially built if you’re hiring Boudreau.

  • On the other hand, the San Jose Sharks make serious sense.

From a narrative standpoint, this almost feels like a “soul mate” situation. Both the Sharks and Boudreau have been mocked for falling short in the postseason, especially when expectations were highest. (Not always fairly, mind you.)

The team and coach also share an impatience. Boudreau’s found ways to succeed with a variety of franchises and rosters. If Erik Karlsson is correct that 2019-20 was a hiccup rather than the beginning of the end, then Boudreau could be the perfect person to get the Sharks swimming again.

  • Could Boudreau put a halo on the New Jersey Devils?

OK, the Devils qualify as a “rebuilding” team from a results perspective. That said, they might be getting a little impatient. (Perhaps they fired Ray Shero as GM in part because of this antsy feeling? Maybe?)

Reports indicate that the Devils are considering Lindy Ruff. Yet, if they value experience, why not go with a coach who’s had more recent success? Even after trading Taylor Hall, the Devils have some talent on their roster. Especially if they’re underachieving after suffering through some (possible) bad coaching.

It’s not the perfect situation for Boudreau, but sometimes coaches have to make the best of things. Boudreau is no stranger to that.

  • Dare I wonder: a team like the Predators?

OK, this would mean an about-face with John Hynes. Here’s the thing, though. The Predators might believe that their window to compete is closing. If so, and you realize Hynes was the wrong hire — not a guarantee, but possible — why not pull off the Band-Aid sooner rather than later?

Such a scenario seems unlikely, but I couldn’t help but mention it. Consider it a sweeping statement for other teams sort of in limbo. Is Rick Tocchet really the best choice for a Coyotes team more aggressively pursuing contention? Would the Flames and/or Stars view Boudreau a better option that their interim choices?

It’s unclear if Boudreau will receive another coaching offer anytime soon — or ever again. I’d argue quite a few NHL teams would be wise to do so, at least once it’s safe for, you know, a 65-year-old coach to get back behind the bench.

(Now go read that Russo story, it’s a lot of fun.)

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: 26 players have tested positive for COVID-19 since Phase 2 began (June 8)

NHL announces 26 players tested positive for COVID-19 since Phase 2 began
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The NHL announced that 26 players have tested positive for COVID-19 since the Phase 2 process began on June 8.

To be more specific, the NHL split up the positive COVID-19 test results this way:

  • 15 players involved in Phase 2 (skating in small groups at team facilities) tested positive for COVID-19. The NHL notes that at least 250 players reported to team facilities during Phase 2. During that process, the league administered at least 1,450 COVID-19 tests on those players.
  • Of course, there are also players who haven’t reported to team facilities. The NHL revealed that it is aware of 11 additional players who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 since June 8, the beginning of Phase 2. Note that players outside of Phase 2 aren’t subjected to the same level of oversight as those voluntarily reporting to teams.

The NHL added that all players who tested positive have self-isolated and are following CDC/Health Canada protocols.

Here’s the full NHL release on 26 players testing positive for COVID-19:

 

On June 19, the Lightning shut down their team facilities after three players and multiple staff members tested positive for COVID-19. That only represented a brief pause, though, as the Lightning jumped back into Phase 2 on June 24. Around that time, Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun also reported that Auston Matthews tested positive for COVID-19. The Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t confirm or deny that report.

Pondering what’s next after 26 NHL players test positive for COVID-19 during Phase 2

The Athletic’s Joe Smith recently took a look at the Lightning resuming Phase 2 (sub required). That article conveys the self-quarantine process. Yet, at the same time, Smith also captures the lack of certainty amid this pandemic.

In other NHL return-to-play news, TSN’s Bob McKenzie reports that the league is unlikely to make hub city announcements on Monday:

Various reports indicate that the NHL hopes to transition from Phase 2 to Phase 3 (formal training camps) in mid-July. Earlier, it was indicated that the target date was July 10. That might change thanks to recent events, however. In the latest edition of “31 Thoughts,” Elliotte Friedman reported that the date could be moved by “three to five days, max.”

To get even more hopeful, the aim is for a full NHL return (Phase 4) in late July or early August. Obviously, that’s a work in progress. The NHL would need to clear hurdles to get there, especially if more players test positive for COVID-19.

Positive tests for COVID-19, hub city issues, and more NHL return stories:

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 announces return-to-play plans: 24-team playoff format, two hub cities

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While there are still details to work out, the NHL made key return-to-play announcements on Tuesday. The highlights include: how the 24-team playoff format works, potential choices for two “hub cities,” and information on the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery.

This post revolves around the 24-team playoff format and hub cities. Click here for more on the NHL’s return-to-play procedures for Phase 2.

One of the most important bits of new information is that NHL aims for formal training camps “no earlier than the first half of July.” We’ll get to that, and more, below.

NHL shares basic timeline to get through return-to-play phases; two hub cities details

Shortly after the pandemic pause, the NHL entered “Phase 1” of a return-to-play plan: players and staff practicing self-quarantining. The NHL shared the framework for the other return-to-play phases:

Phase 1: Pause and self-quarantineRegular season considered over. The NHL instituted the pandemic pause on March 12, with the regular season marked as ending as of March 11. The top 12 teams from each conference enter the 24-team playoff format, with positioning based on points percentage.

Phase 2: Noncontact skating for players in small groups at team facilities. The hopeful starting date for Phase 2 is early June. Again, this post covers the key points; if you want to read the 22-page NHL document, have at it.

Phase 3: Formal training camps starting “no earlier than the first half of July.”

Phase 4: 24-team playoff (including seeding games, play-in rounds) must still be determined.

The NHL also shared details on the two “hub cities” setup, including potential host cities:

• Chicago, IL
• Columbus, OH
• Dallas, TX
• Edmonton, AB
• Las Vegas, NV
• Los Angeles, CA
• Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN
• Pittsburgh, PA
• Toronto, ON
• Vancouver, BC

* Each Conference is assigned a “hub” city with secure hotels, arena, practice facilities and in-market transportation.

* Teams will be limited to 50 personnel in the “hub” city with only a small number of support staff permitted to enter the event areas.

* Timing and sites will be determined at a future date and will be dependent on COVID-19 conditions, testing ability and government regulations.

How the 24-team playoff format works

The NHL shared the “competitive format” for the 24-team playoff setup in its return-to-play announcement. As you can see, “the round robin” pertains to the seeding for the top four teams in each conference. The “qualifying round” has previously been referred to as a “play-in” round. City 1 represents Eastern Conference teams, while City 2 will include the West.

Competitive Format

In each Conference, teams seeded by points percentage.

Round Robin: The top 4 teams play for First Round seeding (regular-season overtime rules in effect)

Qualifying Round: The remaining 8 teams play best-of-5 series to advance to the First Round (playoff overtime rules in effect)

First Round and Second Round: Format (seeding vs. bracket) and series lengths to be determined

Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Final: Best-of-7 series

* The winners from the Qualifying Round play the top 4 seeds in the First Round. Individual First Round series matchups remain to be determined.

City 1 (Eastern Conference)

NHL return-to-play East top 12

City 1 – Round Robin for Seeding in First Round

  1. Boston Bruins
  2. Tampa Bay Lightning
  3. Washington Capitals
  4. Philadelphia Flyers

City 1 – Best-of-5 Qualifying Round

#5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #12 Montreal Canadiens
#6 Carolina Hurricanes vs. #11 New York Rangers
#7 New York Islanders vs. #10 Florida Panthers
#8 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. #9 Columbus Blue Jackets

City 2 (Western Conference)

NHL return-to-play West top 12

City 2 – Round Robin for Seeding in First Round

  1. St. Louis Blues
  2. Colorado Avalanche
  3. Vegas Golden Knights
  4. Dallas Stars

City 2 – Best-of-5 Qualifying Round
#5 Edmonton Oilers vs. #12 Chicago Blackhawks
#6 Nashville Predators vs. #11 Arizona Coyotes
#7 Vancouver Canucks vs. #10 Minnesota Wild
#8 Calgary Flames vs. #9 Winnipeg Jets

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.