VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA--Although the Carolina Hurricanes are just gearing up for the new NHL season, which kicks off at the RBC Center on October 10, hockey's already here for videogame fans. Both EA Sports and 2K Sports have shipped NHL 09 and NHL 2K9 to stores. Both games feature the new third jersey from the Canes, but they're locked out until all of the teams officially unveil their new duds in real life.
The key differentiators between the franchises this year is that 2K Sports offers Wii gamers the only hockey title on the market. They've gone with Columbus Blue Jackets star Kevin Nash for their cover athlete for NHL 2K9. Over at EA Sports, NHL 09 enters its 18th year. Calgary Flames defensemen Dion Phaneuf graces the cover of that new title. One of the key new features for that game is the introduction of full six-on-six online team gameplay called EA Sports Hockey League.
I was able to play this new mode twice before the game came out. Both times at EA Sports' Vancouver studio (which is actually located in Burnaby just outside the city). The first time was during the NBA Live 09 Summer Camp, which featured NBA All-Stars including cover athlete Tony Parker geared up in mo-cap suits to capture actions for NBA Live 10. After a day of basketball, there's no better way to unwind than with a game of online hockey against the creators of the game. The journalists won that bout 6-2, although the developers are known to go easy on journalists (something to do with wanting good review scores or something).
My second online game happened last week, again in Burnaby, but this time with six NHL pros from the Western Conference. NHL stars Josh Harding, Corey Perry, Jeremy Roenick, Patrick O'Sullivan, Dion Phaneuf, and Drew Doughty took part in the first ever NHL mo-cap for NHL 10, next year's game. They donned the pads and lycra suits adorned with reflective balls that capture the motion of players through special cameras. All of this took place on the ice at a nearby rink, which meant it was a lot colder than the NBA mo-cap that took place inside EA's mammoth mo-cap facility on its campus.
After a day of mo-cap, which included a breakaway contest judged by creativity -- something that may be instituted in the NHL All-Star Game, the players joined the journalists for some hands-on gameplay at EA. I was able to play with some NHL players like O'Sullivan and Doughty (both from the LA Kings) and against players like Roenick (San Jose Sharks) and Harding (Minnesota Wild). I sat next to Phaneuf, who played as himself in the game. And we ended up winning 4-3 in overtime -- not that I contributed much. I was trying to interview Phaneuf while playing, which is not an easy task.
I'll get more hands-on time with both games later this week, since hockey is my favorite sport. But I have to give kudos to EA Sports for introducing team-based, position play to online gaming. The ability to play any position, including the goalie, and stick with that throughout a game is amazing. Couple that with the ability to create teams and compete in leagues and tournaments, and there's no reason for the NHL season to ever end. You can even create your own likeness in the game and put your name and number on the jersey. It's a hockey fan's dream come true.