It’s Video Game Week at SB Nation and, like Marvel Week before it, the idea lets me combine the Islanders with another ostensibly fun but also often frustrating or disappointing pastime of mine.
Like most hockey fans, I’ve spent a lot of time playing EA Sports’ NHL series dating back to the 16-Bit era. Even the one that started it all, NHL Hockey for the Sega Genesis, was light years beyond the games of the previous generation. It had real NHL teams (but not NHL players yet) playing in a fast style that more closely mimicked the sport than Atari’s Ice Hockey or NES games like Ice Hockey or even the legendary Blades of Steel did.
While NHL 94 is often considered the pinnacle of the series, even today, my personal favorite was and continues to be its successor. And that’s because of the most Islanders reason of all.
NHL ‘95 boasted a few upgrades to the 1994 version. The graphics were smoothed out, but still retained their original, classic charm (NHL 96 would be the more radical departure). Instead of just single games or playoff tournaments, for the first time ever, players could simulate an entire 84-game NHL season, complete with compiled stats and end of season awards. Yeah, EA removed the fighting from the game, but to be honest, I didn’t miss it. They did add drop passes and pump fakes, which are super cool if you can make them work.
The face of EA Sports through the first three games - Ron Barr - was also gone. His replacement, John Schrader handled the intro duties very ably, though.
But NHL ‘95 had one thing that really blew my mind. I’m talking about this guy:
The Genesis version of NHL ‘95 was the first console hockey game (or, at least, the first I played) to allow you to create, sign, release or trade players between teams. This was - literally - a game changer. Finally, you could actually attempt those dream scenario trades you and your friends always kicked around and stack one team with some of the best players from around the NHL. Or, better still, keep bad trades your team actually made from ever happening.
Of course, the rub was that you had to get past that unwavering, unemotional rival GM seen above. He could be a tough nut to crack, but if the players’ overall ratings were in the same ballpark you could pull off some deals that, in the real world, never would have happened in a million years:
For an Islanders fan, this made NHL ‘95 the best possible iteration of the best sports video game series. The Islanders roster in that game was pretty good already, led by a top line of Pierre Turgeon, Steve Thomas and Benoit Hogue. They had Vladimir Malakhov and Darius Kasparaitis as their top defensive pairing and had a serviceable if unspectacular complement of depth players. While slightly inferior to the NHL ‘94 line-up, ratings-wise, this would be one of the best Islanders teams of the 16-Bit era. You’d have to wait until NHL 2000 on the PlayStation or N64 to find a roster that good for this franchise. Not that we knew it at the time...
With a few careful trades, that already okay 1994-95 roster could become much better. Want to upgrade the defense? Trade some guys for Al Iafrate or Calle Johansson. Need a depth center? Trade for Mike Ricci or Dave Gagner. Confused as to who David Maley was? (seriously, who is David Maley?) Then, uh, trade him to Los Angeles for Doug Houda (Doug Houda played for the Kings?).
The first place people would look to upgrade would be in goal, where the Islanders had Ron Hextall and Jaime McLennan. Apparently, developers thought about as highly of Hextall as Islanders fans did, because he’s only rated 53 overall (back-up McLennan was 45). There were a lot of other goalie options out there, so long as you could get the computer GM to bite.
Hey, I said he was a tough nut.
My favorite trade target was also my favorite player, Pat LaFontaine. Having both LaFontaine and Turgeon, who were traded for each other in real life, gave the Islanders a 1-2 center combo to rival the Penguins, Red Wings or any other team in the NHL (Fun Fact: The highest rated player in NHL ‘95 was Detroit’s Sergei Fedorov with a 99). I wish I could remember who I traded to get LaFontaine. I think it may have also involved creating myself as a player to fill a roster hole. I have no idea.
Some more fun facts from the game’s credits. NHL ‘95 was released on September 21, 1994 for the Genesis and two months later for the SNES. If that AI GM looks a little familiar, it might because he bears a striking resemblance to then-Rangers GM (and future very short time Islanders GM) Neil Smith. Smith was one of the two people responsible for the player ratings in the game, along with longtime Rangers PR man and current VP John Rosasco (whose name is misspelled in the instruction manual). Lead programmer Mark Lesser, an electrical engineer and creator of Mattel Football and Auto Race toys, had also crafted NHL 94, joining Electronic Arts to design a video game for a sport he had never seen and knew nothing about. And the organ music was provided by current Kings and Dodgers organist Dieter Ruehle.
The Genesis version of NHL ‘95 was far superior to its SNES counterpart, which didn’t have the transactions, playoff mode, drop passes and a few other things. Remember, this was the era of “Genesis Does What Nintendon’t,” when console wars and exclusivity were very real and you had to make a choice. Or else you’d end up with sweat instead of blood in your Mortal Kombat.
I own a complete copy of NHL ‘95 for the Genesis right now (I play it on a Mega SG console from a company called Analogue. If you’re a lover of the Genesis, Mega Drive, Master System or all things Sega from the 90’s, it’s a must have). Included is the manual, an EA Sports 1995 lineup poster, and an order card for the EA 4-Way, a peripheral that allowed up to four players to play games like NHL ‘95, NBA Live ‘95, Madden ‘95 and FIFA Soccer ‘95 simultaneously.
The player ratings for NHL ‘95 were printed on a second poster, with the Western Conference on one side and the Eastern on the other. Looking at these names and numbers is like a trip back in time, and it makes you wonder how the addition of any of them could have affected the Islanders, either the real team or the video game one.
The 1994-95 season became just the 1995 season thanks to a lockout that wiped out its first half. By the end of that half season, the Islanders had traded their star center for a malcontent, fired their ineffective legacy coach in favor of a lunatic and changed their uniforms into something that was almost universally loathed. But in the world of NHL ‘95, none of that had to happen.
Making trades is now a staple inclusion in all sports video games. We’re so used to it, we barely notice it’s there. But back in 1994, having the power to (virtually) correct or prevent some of the Islanders’ mistakes of that era brought about a sense of relief and excitement that I can still remember.
The simplicity of putting the puzzle pieces together is almost a game in and of itself. And over time, it’s taken on extra layers of satisfaction. There’s no salary cap to worry about. No lost prospects or first round draft picks. No players refusing to report. No free agents not giving you the time of day. No crumbling building or cheapskate owners getting in the way of making the Islanders a true contender.
There’s just one, stone-faced, pixelated general manager that’s always waiting by the phone ready to at least listen to your crazy, hair-brained trade scenario.