My mother was a huge Detroit hockey fan, often screaming her deep-southern obscenities at a win-less Jacques Demers as if he could hear her rants through the television screen. She also did this for Wrestling (or as she called it: wrastlin’) as my sister and I would sit back and laugh at her antics; she honestly believing how she reacted could change the outcome of the match. Since her passing in 1992, the Red Wings would go on to win four Stanley Cups – the first Cup arriving back in Detroit after a 42 year absence. I like to think in some strange and bizarre way her opinions screamed through her glowing television screen ended up making a difference in the long run for the Wings.
I first learned many of the rules of hockey from my Ma. She tried to explain the icing rule, why some people wore helmets and others didn’t, and most importantly, in a hockey fight, “make sure you pull their sweater over their head first so you can blind side them with haymakers before throwing them down on the ice like that druggie Bob Probert always does.” She’d still be on her feet yelling “Hit him! Hit him!” as much as she didn’t like Probert.
Whenever I would play sports, specifically basketball (being a foot taller than everyone else pretty much guarantees you a “Center” spot on any basketball team,) I would always hear my Ma screaming from the bleachers “Don’t let that punk push you around, hit him!” Which ended up being my downside – fouling out of every game. She never cared about me getting in foul trouble, she was proud I had stood up to the other team. Personally, I think she liked the fact she could scream at a sporting event and have me do whatever it was she was screaming. It was her way of “interfering with the outcome,” similar to how she would tell the people on the television how to play ‘her’ way.
The first hockey video game I played was NHL 92 on the Sega Genesis. At the time, the graphics were amazing and game-play was fast and always moving. Similar to the other sports games EA released at the same time such as Madden Football, NHL 92 was more an arcade-style sports game rather than a sport simulator most of them are today. “Arcade-style” simply means most of the action you played was highly unrealistic compared to a real sporting event. For example, the game Double Dribble is as far away from a real basketball game as you can possibly get – but still highly entertaining to play.
Fast-forward to current times: consoles are as powerful as many desktop computers with graphics that rival arcade machines, games are fast-paced with war simulations simulating real wars in history. Add movie-quality CGI effects, integration into the internet to play games against random players and current hardware infrastructure and the consoles of older times seem nothing less than ancient abacuses you had to blow into to load properly.
I picked up a copy of NHL 10 by EA Sports for $20 at a local GameStop after a hefty absence from the franchise. The last NHL game I owned was NHL 2000 for PC, given to me on Christmas by my first wife – a fellow “Wing Nut.” 2000 didn’t offer much new in the terms of game-play, mostly updated graphics and a better AI where you couldn’t “top-shelf” every breakaway shot for a guaranteed goal.
My first impression of NHL 10 was not positive. Granted, it was my own fault, but upon starting the game under my gamertag, NHL 10 proceeded to tell me how to use an XBox controller to play. I looked around to see if I was still in America, still grasping the inane idea EA Sports wanted me to go through a five-minute training session on how to hold a controller. I’m under the firm belief instructions are merely the manufactures opinion on how something is designed to work. I promptly exited the training session and started a quick game to get a feel for the game.
I should have taken the damn training.
I lost, badly, even before the first period was up. I (obviously) picked the Red Wings and selected a poorer team (Avalanche) to play against, naturally assuming I would walk on the ice with a new game and find my way around. After SEVEN unanswered goals in twelve minutes, I cursed EA Sports for making a ridiculous game and put the game on the shelf, thinking to myself “well, $20 isn’t bad for a game I’ll never play. It could be worse.”
About three months after the incident, I walked downstairs to see my daughter Gabi playing it – and doing quite well. She was up 4-2 against the Islanders, playing as the Mighty Ducks “because they won in the movie.” I watched her hands, how she played and she didn’t use any of the buttons on the controller, only the two analog sticks and back triggers. I didn’t understand how she moved, shot and switched players. EA apparently simplified the controls from the old-school-style of button mashing to the more graceful stick movements. When I asked how she learned to play, she said “from the training at the beginning.”
Leave it to an 8-year-old to make an adult who makes a point to play every game feel like a complete ass.
When the kids went to bed that night, I went downstairs and did the training. I now understood the purpose of the tutorial placed at the beginning of the game and giving the option to play the tutorial (and more advanced ones) repeatedly: EA has made an NHL game more realistic on how movement, puck control, shooting, passing, hitting, and almost about every aspect of the game itself is played. Gone are the days of holding a button down to get a stronger slap-shot; now you simply move the right analog stick toward the area of the net and flick the stick faster. Movement of your player is smooth and fluid with the left analog stick instead of the diagonal pad movements of up, down, left and right.
I played a quick game again, to see if the tutorials helped. They had. Immensely.
After a 9-1 win against the Avalanche, I was brought back to the main menu where something in “Game Modes” grabbed my attention: “Be A Pro.”
“Be A Pro” is an element of NHL 10 which makes the game stand out in more ways than I could have ever imagined for a video game. I selected the game mode, where I was told to create myself. Not a hockey player; my own being. I created a 6’6″, 250 pound left-winger – similar to the position I played as a kid (height and weight are current) – and was told to pick a team to play in. No question there: Detroit Red Wings. What happened next still blows my mind to this day: I was sent to Grand Rapids to play for the AHL. The Red Wings sent me to the minor leagues to learn how to play before coming up their ranks. I started on the 4th line “because of my size,” according to the coach, and to see what skills I possessed.
Here’s the brilliance with “Be A Pro” mode: you only play yourself. When you start the game, you’re sitting on the bench, watching the first line face off against the other team. Only when your line is called do you get to jump off the bench and start playing. When you get in a fight, you sit in the penalty box for five minutes watching the rest of your team play. There’s no option to choose other players to play.
As the games played out, I ended up moving up each line, each time because of specific milestones I passed: 25 assists, 50 points, 25 goals and so on. Each milestone proceeded to up your rank of play from “rookie” to higher ranks as you play. During the game, as you get items such as penalty minutes, plus/minus and goals, you also gain experience points which you can use to make your player better. I tried to keep mine fairly even except for the few places where I tended to play heavier such as deflections and wrist shots. During each game and after each shift, a screen pops up with notes from the coach on how you did. “You can’t be taking bad penalties” is the one I saw more often than not, however you’ll also get “Nice Assist” or “You were out there during a goal, that’s a plus.” A useful feature is when you are graded on how you play your role on the team. Position play, teamwork, and team stats all get a “letter” style grade as your play improves and you learn how to play your player and position.
After around 45 games, I was playing on the first line of the Grand Rapids Griffins and recently finished a 6-0 blowout of the St.Louis team, when I got a message from the coach after the game that the Red Wings have been watching me rise to the top of the scoring and points charts and wanted me to try out on their third line to help out with an injured Johan Franzen. I was ecstatic.
I ran up the stairs and told my wife who looked at me like I had Peanut M&M’s coming out of my ears. “That’s great!”
I know sarcasm when I hear it.
I went back down to play as an actual Red Wing. The screen went dark as the camera brightened up from the hallway outside of the dressing room behind my player with “Tallant” and “10″ in the Red Wings’ home white and red embroidered jersey. I almost peed myself.
My first game as a Red Wing was against the Nashville Predators – a good hockey club – and I did little the first period other than get called for offsides twice. The start of the second period I deked the Nashville goalie to the left and as soon as he started moving I flicked the puck in the lower right corner of the net, mere inches away from his outstretched stick. With my NHL goal cherry popped, I lit up the goal light three more times and gained two assists in a 9-4 spanking of the Predators.
Since that time, I have played another 30+ games as a Red Wing, slowly moving up the ladder until I play where I am currently: First Line with Pavel Datsyuk and Hank Zetterberg. Little do they know I’m usually playing with a sleeping baby in my arm.
Never before has a sports game drug me into the role of a player so deeply and made me want to play more.
Sometimes, late at night while I’m in the middle of a game, I can hear my Ma still screaming at the screen at a missed call and I have to smile.
Best $20 ever spent.