Design by James Cheung
These are harsh times for NHL fans. The sport has been ailing for a while now as it has hemorrhaged money at an alarming rate (while teams file for bankruptcy protection), and it's suffered through minuscule playoff television ratings and a new television deal that has few, if any, NHL officials jumping for joy. At the same time, player salaries have continued to skyrocket, resulting in some of the highest ticket prices of any sport in the US.
Worst of all is the looming possibility of a work stoppage this year. Team owners and the NHL Players Association (NHLPA) have been at the negotiating table since the Tampa Bay Lightning raised the Stanley Cup in June, but the two parties still don't seem to be any closer to a labor agreement than they were three months ago. With little time left before the players' Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) expires, the chances of a lockout increase by the day.
Regardless of this real-life doom and gloom, as gamers, we've got better things to think about--namely hockey video games. The NHL season may be taking the final 10 laps to the bottom of the toilet bowl, but fans of the coolest sport on ice can enjoy the long (and potentially very long) offseason with some truly great gaming. ESPN NHL 2K5 was just released recently, and it's astounding gamers with its incredible graphics, detailed franchise mode, and nailed-to-the-wall gameplay. Its main rival, NHL 2005, the next installment of EA Sports' longstanding series, will ship next week and promises to have a few tricks up its oversized sweater as well.
To sooth the pains of the ailing hockey fan, we've compiled a list of gaming tips you can use to take the edge off your achy, breaky puck-shaped heart. Grab a controller, and chin up, young mullet-bearer! All is not lost!
NHL Lockout Gaming Tips
- The Real Dream Team--It's time to finally realize your dreams of a Keith Tkachuk/Jeremy Roenick reunion! This year, feel free to throw realistic rosters out the window so you can mix up your lineups any way you like. After all, the real NHL will probably preclude Sega or EA from releasing any roster updates throughout what would have been the 2004/2005 season. NHL 2K5 also gives you the option of playing a number of NHL player-created dream teams as well. Ever wondered what combination of talent Chris Drury would use to comprise his dream team? Me neither!
- Find the Balance--As we said in our recent video review, ESPN NHL 2K5 requires the least amount of slider tweaking ever seen in the series. Previous versions of the game had players snapping their fingers out of joint while editing goalie ratings and making slider adjustments simply to get a realistic game of puck going. No more, because the balance between game speed, artificial-intelligence skill, and control means that NHL 2K5 is the best-playing out-of-the-box hockey game in the series.
- Party on, Garth (Snow) --While drowning your sorrows in whiskey and beer, try the abundance of party games in NHL 2K5. That's right. I said party games. 2K5 features some of the coolest on-ice minigames ever to be featured in a sports simulation, and I'm not talking about the quaint inclusion of air hockey and shuffleboard. Rather, NHL 2K5 is packed to the rafters with on-ice minigames that are at once addictive and present a nice diversion when the normal game grows a bit humdrum. The "Freeze Tag" game alone is worth the minuscule $20 price.
- Go Cup Crazy--Not Lord Stanley's Cup, sadly, but rather the World Cup of Hockey 2004, which will conclude tomorrow with the Finnish national team taking on the Canadian national team in a battle for global hockey bragging rights. EA Sports' NHL 2005 will be the only puck game on the market that allows you to play with the real-life World Cup 2004 teams--the USA, Canada, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Finland, and Germany. The fact that the game hits the streets nearly a full week after the World Cup championship game is over should have absolutely zero effect on your decision to do this. While you're at it, you should also fire up your copy of Athens 2004 to enjoy some very timely Olympic competition.
- Behind the Numbers--NHL 2K5 has the deepest and most riveting franchise system seen in a hockey game since the old text-based simulation Eastside Hockey Manager. At the same time, this mode can be a bit complex, especially when dealing with contracts and scouting new players. Take a good, long while to figure out the ins and outs of player contracts and franchise ownership, and you'll probably be as qualified or more qualified to help iron out the details of the next Collective Bargaining Agreement.
- Old-School Rules--Take a trip down memory lane to rediscover some of the great hockey titles of old. If you can find it, EA's NHL 98 for the Playstation is a great place to start. What it lacked in realism it made up for with speed, precise control, and all-out fun. Reach further back in your catalog, if need be, by throwing down with some Fox NHL Championship 2000 or NHL 94 for the Genesis. If you still can't get enough, flip on ESPN Classic and pray that you see a broadcast of some legendary playoff performances from the past.
- Move the Puck--The big gameplay innovation in EA's upcoming NHL 2005 seems to be creating open ice for players. EA is hyping the offensive smarts of your AI-controlled teammates, which will cause them to correctly read passing lanes and allow for some effective behind-the-net play on offense. In preparation for this, it's time to bust out your copy of Hockey for Dummies to finally figure out that triangle offense once and for all.
- Keep It Real--Finally, if you're tired of the on-the-ice action and are looking to truly simulate the only potential action hockey fans will see this year, feel free to sit across a bargaining table from the person you most depend on for survival and proceed to scream at him or her for nine to 10 hours a day. That's the NHL, 2004-style!
In all seriousness, we're hoping for the best during these tense negotiations between the NHL and the NHL Players Association. As of this writing, there are fewer than two days before the players' CBA expires. Even so, we're guardedly optimistic that both sides can find some way--any way--to make up and play nice. The idea of a locked-out hockey season just plain sucks. Until a final decision is made, however, at least we've got the games to focus on. And they may be the closest thing we get to the real deal.