It's June 2018. The lobby of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, the host hotel for the 2018 NHL Awards, already is busy: New Jersey Devils forward Taylor Hall is eating breakfast at the cafe beside the check-in counter while Hockey Hall of Famer Mark Messier walks by. Several NHL players and alumni are catching up, with plenty of children running around. Sarah Marcucci, one of the "Keepers of the Cup" from the Hockey Hall of Fame, is wheeling a giant unmarked crate past the concierge.
The front doors to the hotel swing open and in walk two teenagers. They are dressed in three-piece suits, with ties and matching pocket squares, and their hair is combed neatly. With confidence and poise they stride toward the check-in counter but stop to shake hands with NHL front-office executives.
They may look like budding NHL stars, but it's actually Eki and Pleemaker, two of most successful gamers in chel.
They had just made the 15-hour flight from Helsinki, Finland to Las Vegas for the NHL Gaming World Championship Grand Finals. And flew the entire way in their suits. Eki was there to compete, and eventually win, while Pleemaker, who finished third in the European regional finals, was there to cheer him on.
Almost a year later they each plan on competing in Las Vegas, this time playing EA SPORTS NHL 19. But they need to get through the European regional finals, which take place this weekend in Stockholm, Sweden.
Eki has maintained the No. 1 spot on TDI Hockey's NHL Esports Player Power Rankings (http://tdihockey.com/nhl-esports-player-power-rankings-may-2019/) for practically the whole year. He traveled to Washington D.C. twice to compete in one of the rare NHL club tournaments this season that was open to European players. With his consistent and often frustrating play, Eki is seen by many as the favorite in this tournament.
Last year Pleemaker was a 16-year-old phenom with unlimited potential. His suit travels are an "actions speak louder than words" reminder of his commitment and passion for the NHL video game. This season the potential is still there; now he has having something to prove.
But it won't be easy: This year's format is single elimination, best two out of three each round, lose and you go home. And the crop of European finalists boasts a mix of familiar faces and new challengers in the chel community.
Kristian "kriketsi17" Veijola, a GWC newcomer who is one of the more prominent competitors on the European chel scene, is the only other European player ranked in the top of the NHL Esports Player Power Rankings (http://tdihockey.com/nhl-esports-player-power-rankings-may-2019/).
Hannes "Hansulinho" Kettunen also was a part of the first NHL GWC and is looking for a better showing this season. So far so good, as he averaged the highest goals-for in qualifying and secured the top seed and No. 1 pick in the regional draft as a result.
Hansulinho's teammate at SJK Esports, Risto "Dominointi" Jarvi is another feared European competitor and one of the notable omissions from last year's tournament. Dominointi is looking to make a statement at regionals.
Joining them are Joonas "ATRIVREPUS" Virta, who qualified for the tournament off a string of four-plus goal victories, and Saku "Sagee95" Bjarn, who had mostly one-goal victories en route to Stockholm.
This season presents the first European finalist from outside Scandinavia, 31-year-old Christoph Eilenberger, from Kitzbuhel, Austria. Not much is known about Eilenberger among the top players, and the element of surprise certainly is there.
There is one guarantee: just like last year, at least one Finland-born player will be one of two players to advance to the Grand Finals, since seven of the eight competitors are from Finland. That a country with a population of about 5.5 million is able to produce top-level NHL 19 gameplay is a massive source of pride.
The European Regional Finals will stream live on twitch.tv/nhl on Saturday, May 18.
European Regional Finals Rosters
NHL teams chosen by competitors to represent:
Erik "Eki" Tammenpää - Toronto Maple Leafs
Kristian "kriketsi17" Veijola - Colorado Avalanche
Paul "Pleemaker" Arontie - Tampa Bay Lightning
Risto "Dominointi" Jarvi - Pittsburgh Penguins
Saku "Sagee95" Bjarn - Anaheim Ducks
Hannes "Hansulinho" Kettunen - San Jose Sharks
Joonas "ATRIVREPUS" Virta - Montreal Canadiens
Christoph "Eilung" Eilenberger - Los Angeles Kings
PREDICTIONS FROM THE EXPERTS:
Henrik "Eken45" Eklund (@eken45jr), NHL 19 competitor: The guys I have going to Vegas are Eki and Plee, and Eki as the winner. I have played Eki quite a lot recently and I think that there's no one on his level at the moment and he usually plays at his top level at these tournaments, so I think that he will win the whole thing again this year. But I also think Plee has a shot at it.
Aaro "xDoumi" Ruuhinen (@xDoumi), NHL 19 competitor: My two picks to Grand Finals are Kriketsi17 and Hansulinho. Both players can play defense and play attack really well, solid picks. But as I said earlier, everyone can play and this game mode is made for surprises anything can happen.
Arttu "Artuzio" Mustila (@Artuzio), 2018 NHL Gaming World Championship Grand Finalist: In my opinion there is five really high-level players at European regional finals this year. The tightest matchup at first round will be Eki vs Dominointi. I think that top four will be Kriketsi17, Eki, Pleemaker and Hansulinho. I believe that Eki and Pleemaker will make it to the Grand Finals this year.
Kenneth Lehtinen (@KenuFHR), EA Sports GameChanger, European NHL Gaming Community Pioneer: The European regional finals are really loaded with quality players and I believe each and every one has a possibility to make it to Vegas if they manage to have a good day. I have to say Eki still ranks highest on my list as he's been the most consistent player out of Europe for a longer while now and I believe has put in the most practice as well. The now almost veterans Hansulinho and Dominointi have also been stepping back up to their highest-level game and I'm excited to see if one of these guys (or both) can have a successful day in Stockholm and make it to Vegas. For Dominointi that would require him to show the reigning world champion the door in the first round.
P.J. "TDIHockey" Carino (@TDIHockey), NHL 19 Insider, EA Sports GameChanger, hockey content creator and founder, TDIHockey.com: In my mind, the two that will make it to Vegas are reigning world champion Eki, and the Finnish Brent Burns, Hansulinho. Both players have lots of tournament experience, including last year's NHL GWC, that will allow them to stay cool under pressure. I believe Eki is currently the best player in the world and he should be able to make it past the players on his side of the bracket since he's already beaten them in other tournaments earlier this year. Hansulinho is an all-around great player and he's given himself a slight edge this year by drafting what I think is the best team of the bunch at this year's European Regional Final.
Cameron "NoSleeves Gaming" Halbert, NHL 19 Insider, EA Sports GameChanger, content creator and NHL 19 play by play commentator: I believe that Pleemaker will break through this season. He's one of the most entertaining NHL 19 players to watch but he will have his hands full with Virta in Round 1. However I think he prevails. On the top side, the returning champ is impossible to bet against. The possibility of him vs. kriketsi17 in round two might be one of the best of all the regionals, but I cannot see the Season 1 champion not making it to Vegas. He's my pick.