(Ed Note: Writer Michael Traeger lives in Pittsburgh and is a staff writer for the Pittsburgh media website Benstonium.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @PolemicLicense. Anyone interested in contributing an article or column to the blog can pitch yo stuff here. Now, here's Michael...)
by Michael Traeger
The 2012-2013 NHL season marks the twentieth anniversary of the release of EA Sports’ NHL 93, a title considered by many to be amongst the greatest hockey video games ever made.
In honor of NHL 93 and of all of the hockey greats that have come since, here are the top 10 greatest hockey video game players of all time.
10 | Jaromir Jagr – NHL Hockey 2001 (2000, EA Sports)
Everything about Jaromir Jagr in NHL 2001 was destined for greatness. From his unstoppable dekes to his pinpoint shot accuracy, the ageless Jagr dominates every facet of the game.
Trying to check Jagr results in defenders hovering in midair like Wile E. Coyote, and his slapshots flatten even the game’s best goaltenders, leading to easy rebound goals.
CPU-controlled Jagr is particularly devastating. When playing against the Penguins, it’s not unusual for Jagr to dance through all of your defenders and then whistle a wrist shot past your net minder from sixty feet out.
His ridiculous ability aside, the real reason Jaromir Jagr rises to the top of the 2001 player universe is his Mullet.
If Jagr’s player rating was a 93, then his Mullet is an easy 207. It’s completely conceivable (if not downright likely) that 1980’s Bon Jovi stepped inside the EA Sports studio to serve as Jagr’s hair model, only to have the game’s graphic budget run dry, which in turn forced the designers to render Jagr’s amazing mullet into a mortal two dimensions.
Then, in what has to be one of the all-time great decisions by upper-management, EA Sports decided that the mullet had to stay, regardless of how terrible his painted-on hair looked.
9 | Tie Domi – NHL Hitz 2003 (2002, Midway Games)
Objectively speaking, the only way that Tie Domi could dominate a hockey video game enough to make this list would be for the game to reward violence, and for raw skill to take a backseat to cheap shot shenanigans.
Cue “NHL Hitz,” the video game series that celebrates the Darius Kasparaitises of the world, and brings the pain in the form of violent collisions and gratuitous fisticuffs. Domi is great in NHL Hitz because, as a noted hockey pugilist, he wins a majority of his bouts against opponents who then have to sit out the remainder of the contest.
Another one of the game’s superstars is Scott Stevens, which allows fans of the New Jersey Devils the opportunity to seek revenge against one of the NHL’s all-time villains.
8 | Skinny Guy – Nintendo Ice Hockey (1988, Nintendo)
He skates like Pavel Bure. He falls down as often as Scotty Hartnell. He has the forehead of Olli Jokinen.
The player popularly known as the “Skinny Guy” from Nintendo’s “Ice Hockey” is one of the genre’s most recognizable body types, and his skill in winning face-offs, along with a penchant for knocking his much bigger adversaries to the ice, makes him an easy addition to this list.
Skinny Guy’s speed is unrivaled in the game, and while he does possess a weak shot, the slim centerman can still snap off a heavy slapper…if given several seconds worth of windup time, that is.
It’s not all Konstantin Koltsov for this slender skater, though: the rapid transition of Skinny Guy racing across the screen and then firing a slow-moving changeup has fooled many goaltenders.
7 | The Hartford Whalers – NHL 94 (1993, EA Sports)
Sometimes, winning isn’t everything. In the case of the maligned Hartford Whalers, the greatest part of their team’s entry in the video game hockey annals is EA Sports’ decision to include their bombastic theme song, "Brass Bonanza", in NHL 94.
While “When the Saints Go Marching In” (a nod to the St. Louis Blues) and the Buffalo Sabres’ “Sabre Dance” are nice touches and add a personalized feel to the game’s organ music, the Brass Bonanza’s greatness steals the show, and lands the Whalers a spot in the Top 10.
6 | Lepuke – Mutant Hockey League (1994, EA Sports)
Any Top 10 list of the greatest pixelated hockey players would be remiss to not include at least one character from this criminally underrated EA Sports title.
From fans throwing Molotov cocktails onto the playing surface to your center falling through a hole in the ice and vanishing from play for long stretches of time (we’re looking at you, Scott Gomez), Mutant Hockey League delivers hilarity in monstrous proportions.
“Lepuke,” one of many monster pseudonyms of then-current NHL stars (in this particular case, Mario Lemieux), is the game’s best skeleton, with perfect player ratings in skating, speed, shot power, offense, defense, and passing.
Lepuke is as handy with a flail as he is with his hockey stick, and being teamed with the murderous defenseman “Oof” (Ulf Samuleson) certainly helps.
As a special bonus, the legendarily temperamental goalie of the “Pucksucker Pukes” (Tom Barrasso), is “Imma Spazzo.”
5 | Demonstrative Goaltenders – Blades of Steel (1998, Konami)
The goalies in Nintendo’s “Blades of Steel” didn’t get much in the way of instruction when it came to goaltending technique, but they are instrumental to winning Konami’s side-scrolling hockey tilt.
Butterfly technique? Hybrid style? Pfft, please! These backstoppers can turn left, these backstoppers can turn right, and if they give up a goal, these backstoppers can wail their arms up and down like Alexander Semin playing the bongos.
Note: while urban legends persist, shooting down the alien space craft during the second intermission’s in-game Konami commercial will NOT improve your team’s play in the third period.
4 | Cliff Ronning – NHL Hockey 1993 (1992, EA Sports)
Puck Daddy has previously covered Cliff Ronning's mysterious rise to dominance in NHL 93, and while Ronning’s 100 speed and 100 agility may have come via underhanded means, his video game dominance remains undeniable.
When you remember that Ronning was centering a Vancouver Canuck line featuring Pavel Bure in his prime, the significance of his artificially enhanced player stats become all the more pronounced.
To that end, Ronning’s inflated overall player rating of 80 was a mere two points below that of Jaromir Jagr, and above perennial superstars Ron Francis (75), Joe Sakic (73) and Wayne Gretzky (77).
Ronning certainly takes #1 overall for his video game connections, but he only makes #4 on this list.
3 | Fat Guy – Nintendo Ice Hockey (1988, Nintendo)
If “Skinny Guy” is Michael Grabner, then “Fat Guy” is Dustin Byfuglien: a big body with a bazooka for a release.
What the Fat Guy lacks in speed, he makes up for in body checks and a cannon of a shot. His skillset brings so much to the hockey buffet table that it’s not at all unusual to see a team line up with nothing but Fat Guys.
The Big Man particularly earns his keep in the overtime shootouts with his ability to pepper an off-screen goalie with a lightning fast shot that, if on net, almost always leaves the keeper grasping air.
The Fat Guy’s slapper is fantastic -- almost the best in the history of hockey games -- but he still ranks behind the next video game legend.
2 | Jeremy Roenick – NHL Hockey 94 (1993, EA Sports)
As Vince Vaughn’s character will tell you in this extremely NSFW scene from the movie "Swingers", Jeremy Roenick has one heck of a shot.
“Swingers” is hockey video game canon, and the film’s featured matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings takes on epic proportions, including Vaughn’s famous complaint that the removal of fighting in NHL 94 cost him the opportunity to slap Wayne Gretzky.
Jeremy Roenick’s goal from the right circle (shot power 92, shot accuracy 95) leaves Roenick’s most indelible mark on video game hockey lore, as the tally is replayed over and over again by a gloating Vaughn.
Roenick has a player rating of 89 in NHL 94, which is actually down from the rating of 95 that he enjoyed in NHL 93. Before leaving the game with a bloody head injury, Wayne Gretzky had a player rating of 87, up a full ten points from his previous season’s rank of 77.
Roenick has a rumored (but unsubstantiated) Talking rating of 99, and his pixelated performance and legacy are second only to the king of all video game players.
1 | Invincible Goaltenders – NHL Stanley Cup (1993, Sculpted Software)
Simply put, the goalies in SNES’s NHL Stanley Cup are based on the life and crimes of Jason Vorhees, and are played by the evil step-twins of former netminders Ron Hextall and Billy Smith.
The game’s presentation is hockey as seen through the eyes of a Tilt-A-Whirl, with action rotating around as the puck and players move up and down the ice surface. Players can pass, shoot, and even lay out opponents with body checks, but if a team makes the mistake of trying to crash the opponent’s net, they face certain doom.
The makers of NHL Stanley Cup should be paying royalties to Jean-Claude Van Damme and anyone affiliated with the movie “Sudden Death” because buried beneath all of the goalie masks and pads lies a trained assassin.
Hyperbole barely does justice to the Rambo-esque carnage these goalies inflict. It’s not unusual for a goalie to charge out of his crease, obliterate three opposing players, and then send his own teammates screaming and teetering down the ice on a sudden five-on-two power-play.
How deadly are NHL Stanley Cup’s goalies? If you have ever seen the Arnold Schwarzenegger film “The Running Man” and know of the trained killer Subzero (not to be confused with the “Mortal Kombat” character of the same name, but then again, it’s a perfectly appropriate comparison, so yes, him too), then you’re finally on the right track to understanding the chaos sewn by these keepers of the twine.
When you add in the fact that it’s almost impossible to slip a puck past them for a goal, the goalies of NHL Stanley Cup make the undeniable case to be the greatest hockey players of all time.