The time has come to discuss my gaming focus for far too many consistent years, the NHL series by EA. Not since Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory has a game captured my attention and focus like the world of online hockey. I refuse to waste my time with the offline modes. Any and all effort is put forth on the virtual ice of online competition, which is probably the driving force that keeps me interested. The thrill of competition. The need to be better than your opponent. Every September I buy in for the newest version of the series with NHL ’14 being the last for my beloved Xbox 360.
I loved watching hockey as a child. I remember watching the Wings win the cup in ’96-’97. Who doesn’t remember Fox’s coverage with the puck tracker? NHL ’94 was a blast to play on my Sega Genesis with my best friend at the time. Right there was my first exposure to a video game version of the sport. I loved hockey, but suddenly, I stopped watching. I stopped playing. The lack of prime national coverage definitely played a part in its departure. It wasn’t until I met the woman who later became my wife that my love and interest in the sport was restored. She had always been a fan and was always honest with proclaiming that Darren McCarty would easily steal her away from me. Then suddenly, a gift from my friend Lucas changed everything.
It was NHL ’09. I suddenly jumped into something new. No longer was I running and gunning through the trenches of first-person shooters nor grinding quest rewards and grabbing epic loot. I was playing virtual NHL hockey. It was awesome. We played just basic team games then, paired up with other random online players. We were constantly complaining about the incompetence of our team members. You see, there are certain types of players you run into in these games no matter what version you play. There is the defenseman who thinks he’s a fourth forward, the player that goes away from his controller, motionless for the entire game, and the goalie that just wants to screw everyone over and let in EVERY shot. We stuck it out though and kept playing, kept getting better. We continued to buy a new iteration each September (including a battle my wife had with Best Buy wanting NHL, not Madden) and with NHL ’11 a legacy was born. Goal Ninjas Hockey!
We had a blast playing EASHL (one of EA’s online competitive modes) in which there are six players on a team, each playing a position: Center, Right Wing, Left Wing, Right D, Left D, and Goalie. We took things a little too seriously, browse through our site and you’ll see what I mean. The downfall of the Goal Ninjas came with our exploration of the Superstar Hockey League – SSHL. This was a player run league which, like other leagues, models itself after the NHL. There is a draft, playoff system, and each team has a roster of players to manage. I was hesitant to join due to my own individual skill level. I was a borderline average defenseman, but dreamed of playing goalie. I just didn’t believe enough in myself yet to jump in. How would I be able to compete with other players? Finally after enough hesitation, I signed up for the third season of the league at the tail end of the season. I was picked up by the Boston Bruins and the only way I can describe my feelings would be “pumped.”
I was a rookie defenseman, nervous and anxious to prove himself to his owner and fellow teammates. A quick shout out to parise/kovalsnipe/dennis for taking the risk on me. My first few games resulted in many turnovers, mistakes, and less playing time. I slowly improved, learning from my teammates, and managed to make drastic differences in my play style. Then an opportunity came that I did not see coming at all, our backup goaltender was unavailable and the team needed someone to start a few games in his place. It was my chance to answer “the call.” This was definitely another learning curve to overcome. My favorite memory came in the playoffs. We were down 3-0 in our first round series and in moment of “what else do we have to lose”, I was put in net. We won the next 3 games to even the series but ultimately ended up losing in heartbreaking fashion in game 7. A score of 3-2 if I remember correctly. The SSHL shortly folded after it’s 4th season and I moved along into other leagues meeting more and more friends and eventually getting involved with the GRHL – Gaming Rendo Hockey League. The result of the dynamic husband/wife duo of GamingRendo and NellDBI. After playing in several other places, they set out to make their own league. Forged from past experience and the desire to create an environment they simply wanted to play in.
The league grew each season and the competition level increased. Over this past summer, I finally tasted ultimate victory and was able to lift the virtual GRHL Cup as a member of the Nashville Predators. To an outsider, does this achievement mean much of anything? Probably not. To me though, after so many different versions of NHL, so many first round playoff exits in years past, I was finally on a team that pulled it off. We were the best team. That competitive itch of mine had been beaten.
Here’s a damn lucky save I pulled off during those finals.
I’ve come full circle with my fake, online hockey career. I started off as merely a player and even put my skills to use as a GM, assisting in running a team for a season. I still play goalie and now find myself in a league executive position. Sure there are ups and downs, but having the ability to provide input and to directly help shape a playing experience that betters our community is an opportunity that I love. I’m still playing virtual hockey, but the entire experience has become so much more than that. It’s not just a game. It’s a hobby that I hope to continue to enjoy for years to come.