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Sunday Long Read

'NHL '94' video game has enduring popularity 25 years later

Hockey players, fanatics, developers discuss its lasting impact, quirky appeal

by David Satriano and Daniel O'Leary @davidsatriano / @DanOLeary25 / NHL.com Staff Writers

Jeremy Roenick scored 513 goals in 20 NHL seasons. He twice played for the United States in the Olympics and is in the United States Hockey Hall of Fame. The former center remains highly visible as an outspoken "NHL on NBC" analyst.

But when fans see him in public, they usually want to discuss his exploits on a virtual (and mysteriously blue) sheet of ice, not a real one.

They want to talk to him about "NHL '94."

"It's my claim to fame," Roenick said of the video game that was released 25 years ago. "It's the No. 1 thing that people talk to me about everywhere I go."

Roenick was the game's star, seemingly scoring every time he shot the puck. But "NHL '94" had many other memorable components.

Simple gameplay, quirky-if-distorted 16-bit graphics and music, and the inclusion of both NHL team and player names for the first time (the result of joint backing by the NHL and NHL Players' Association) helped make it a classic.

The game is even held in high regard by some who know a thing or two about NHL hockey but are too young to have played it when it came out.

"I'd always have buddies over at my place in Arizona," said 21-year-old Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews, a huge gamer who was born Sept. 17, 1997, about four years after the game's release. "There are so many different games, thousands of different games on this system I got. There are fighting games and all this other different kind of stuff, but I kind of like 'NHL '94' because it's pretty simple and I was good at it. I typically won."

Matthews said he and his friends played the game as recently as this past summer, on an arcade-style console at his parents' house. He is far from alone in championing the game and finding it to have timeless appeal.

"'NHL '94' in my opinion is the greatest retro sports video game in history," said hockey broadcaster Arda Ocal, who will announce an "NHL '94" championship tournament Sunday in Vancouver, as he did last year in Las Vegas. "It laid the foundation for every hockey game after it and influenced the genre."

Brian Jennings, NHL executive vice president of marketing and chief branding officer, said, "I don't think it would be overstating it to say that this game put NHL video games on the map."

Here is the story of how "NHL '94" came to be, its enduring popularity and impact on pop culture, and how gaming fanatics are doing their best to keep it alive a quarter century later, one flawlessly executed one-timer at a time.

 

Getting with the program

It started, appropriately, in an old barn.

Not a beloved hockey arena, but an actual old barn in Brooklin, Maine. The barn, which once housed chickens, pigs and other animals, is the birthplace of what is widely regarded as the most beloved hockey video game of all time.

Mark Lesser is the father.

"I had this old property at the time, probably there from the 1700s and it had a barn. I renovated the top of the barn and made the top floor an office," Lesser said. "It was held up by these posts and you could see the remnants of the hay from all the animals that had lived in there before. And I would climb up the stairs of this barn and do my work on 'NHL '94.'

"In Maine, it's quiet. And to program a game you need quiet."

And it's a good thing he had that quiet to best concentrate.

"I hadn't the vaguest concept of [hockey] when I took the job," Lesser said.

Mark Lesser, the programmer of "NHL '94" for Sega Genesis, with a copy of the game.

 

An MIT graduate who started in the business by creating handheld electronic games, Lesser had just finished working on the 1993 version of "John Madden Football" when he got the offer to program "NHL '94" for Sega Genesis, the first version of the game to be developed. (It also was later released for the Super Nintendo and Sega CD systems, but Lesser said he wrote the game specifically for Genesis.)

Electronic Arts, through its EA Sports division, was about to put out the first hockey game licensed by the NHL and NHLPA. This meant there would be real player and team names -- no more "Long Island," as in the game's precursor, "NHLPA Hockey '93," but the properly branded New York Islanders -- to go with official logos and souped-up crowd noise.

There was also specialized organ music specific to certain home teams. Those songs, played by Dieter Ruehle, the current organist for the Los Angeles Kings and baseball's Los Angeles Dodgers, included "Here Come the Hawks," (Chicago Blackhawks), "Brass Bonanza" (Hartford Whalers) and "When the Saints Go Marching In" (St. Louis Blues).

"I'm not sure if other kids did this, but I always paid special attention to the music in other stadiums and arenas," Ruehle said. "And because of that, I learned how to play those arena-specific songs. ... So when I played the organ music for 'NHL '94,' it was only natural for me to play some arena-specific music during the recording sessions."

The game's new details went far beyond organ music. Players were able to break the glass at times with hard slap shots, and hats appeared on the ice when a player scored three goals. These may not seem like huge improvements over "NHLPA Hockey '93," but the changes were massive.

Everything had to look and feel right, so Lesser leaned on the game's testers for the hockey-specific aspects.

"A lot of the testers were hockey fanatics and I didn't know anything about hockey, so they would test it and give me some ideas," Lesser said, "but I was the right guy to be tuning it, because I was tuning it to feel good as a game.

"The momentum of the game, when penalties are called, injuries, a sense of if it will go to overtime … tuning deals with a lot of aspects. The testers would say, 'This should be faster,' or 'This needs to happen,' and then there is a time element you are dealing with to get the game finished, so you would implement a new feature, like players skating backwards or what they do when they don't have the puck, but you would be tuning it all the way through."

Though Lesser said he can't remember how the ice ended up blue -- "You are just tweaking it until it has the best look," he said -- one detail he fondly recalled implementing had to do with where on the ice a player was checked.

"[The testers] wanted a feature that if you got checked into the other team's bench, it would take you a little longer to get out because the idea is the opposing team wouldn't rush to help you get back on the ice," Lesser said. "And that was the testers with the hockey knowledge. I would have never thought of adding that."

It all happened in Lesser's barn, except for the final few weeks of work when he and others were holed up in a hotel finishing the game, with the push on to release it in October ahead of the Christmas rush.

"We knew pretty quickly that we had a good game," Lesser said. "The sense of tension in the game was really like watching a hockey game. The sport of hockey lends itself to a video game. It's a smaller playing field than football, it's tight, you are tracking (the puck) and the action is so much faster than the other sports."

Even so, Lesser said he left the pressure-filled stint at the hotel less than satisfied because not all of the flaws, or bugs, could be eliminated before the deadline.

"There are some bugs of course, known bugs," he said. "And you always want more time to work on it and work on it, but that's not the reality. It has to be done. When it is time to put it out there, they haul you in three weeks before the final deadline and put you in a hotel room close by and lock you in a lab with no windows. You sit in a room and testers report bugs and you try to fix them. It was kind of a nightmare.

"And different people have contradictory things to say, and everyone wants to get their say. But when it's done and you've recovered, you have a really great game to play."

In this case, they apparently had a big seller, too. Lesser said "NHL '94" outsold the '93 "Madden" game, which he had worked on with two other programmers and which sold 1 million copies, "by a mile." (Developer Sean Ramjagsingh of EA Sports said the company was unable to confirm sales figures because its financial records do not go back that far.)

 

The gameplay

Thanks to the efforts of Lesser and others, "NHL '94" was fairly simple to learn and play.

Have the puck? Press one button to pass it, another to shoot it. Playing defense? Press one button to poke check, one to switch players and one for a speed burst (and/or to execute a body check if the player you are controlling is near an offensive player).

It was, and still is, that easy.

Though faster, it played similar to "NHLPA Hockey '93" (vertical camera angle, similar player sizes and looks) except for a handful of key areas. The biggest gameplay change was the addition of the one-timer. It could be executed by pushing the pass button followed by the shoot button before the player receiving the puck gained possession.

But the game was so fluid and fast, button-mashing became a common technique; a player could simply hit the pass button and press shoot as many times as possible to try to sneak a one-timer into the net.

(Ironically, for such a simple game, there was an 87-page instruction manual, for those interested.)

"The core of the game is a joystick to move, a button to pass, a button to shoot," Lesser said. "You don't need to do a one-timer to score, but it's in there.

"Modern sports games are very fast. And there is a lot of eye candy in between the action. 'NHL '94' had a hard-playing feel with hard checks and action, but it had an even pace. You didn't get lost in all those other things."

Jennings said, "When you think of the two buttons and the simplicity of that game, for a father and son to play was just easier than it is today with the intricate controllers and gameplay."

Like many others, Gregory Cundari, who grew up in Central California rooting for the San Jose Sharks, was drawn toward the game because of its simplicity. And his mastery of it allowed the 33-year-old to win the Sega Genesis title at the King of '94 tournament in Las Vegas last year.

"There is a beauty to ''94' in that, as a child who had no concept of hockey, I was able to pick it up and enjoy it," he said. "The game allows a player to perform essentially every function with just two buttons. This allows the game to be easy for anyone to pick up and play."

 

From the TV screen to the big screen

By 1996, "NHL '94" was ready for its close-up. "Swingers," a film from that year written by Jon Favreau (who played the lead role of Mike) and starring Vince Vaughn and Heather Graham, has a famous scene involving the game. Though "NHLPA Hockey '93" is the game shown in the movie, the characters are playing "NHL '94" for storyline purposes; this is made clear by the references to Roenick's prowess and a discussion about how fighting, a staple of the '93 game, had been removed from the newer version.

In the scene, Vaughn's character, Trent, and Patrick Van Horn's character, Sue, engage in quite a bit of game-related trash talk while playing at Sue's apartment. When Sue, clad in a home-white Wayne Gretzky jersey, extolls the virtues of his Los Angeles Kings, Trent dismisses Sue's run to the Stanley Cup in the game as having come "against the computer with the offsides off."

Trent had a point. "NHL '94" had customizable rules and several ways to outsmart the computer. Wraparounds were highly effective, and stopping on a dime on one side of the ice, then darting across the slot to shoot, resulted in a near automatic goal once a gamer had the move down.

Against a human opponent, these techniques could be neutralized, but Roenick was hard to slow down, no matter who was at the controls.

"It's not so much me as Roenick. He's good," says Trent, playing as the Blackhawks, uttering one of the many quotable lines from "Swingers."

Cementing Trent's status as the ultimate agitator, he scores, then shows his goal several times via instant replay, with the horn wailing each time. Later he injures Gretzky after promising Sue he would pause the game. Tempers flare, leading to Trent and Sue wrestling on the floor.

Actor Vince Vaughn, whose breakout role involved "NHL '94," at a Chicago Blackhawks game.

The small-budget film essentially launched the careers of Favreau, Vaughn and Graham. Jennings said it also boosted the NHL's profile, just as "NHL '94" did.

"I do think it had that cultural relevance, and being in 'Swingers' helped," said Jennings, who has worked for the NHL since 1989. "The NHL brand may not have been in the forefront of the conversation and all of a sudden, this game help thrust us to the forefront.

"There is no doubt in my mind that there are players that have gotten hooked on the sport of hockey, whether they were an active participant on the ice, or more of a passive participant through a video game. … But that game led to the increase in video exposure which helped many fans grow their love for the game."

Jennings said the game wouldn't have had that effect without the NHL partnering with the NHLPA.

"When we are together with our Players' Association, we make the best products," he said. "When you don't have the team logos it kind of looks like it's not the real deal, and if you don't have the players it also would not look like the real deal."

 

'So much fun' for NHL players

As "NHL '94" grew in popularity, future NHL players got caught up in it just like everyone else.

"Oh my God, I was playing that [game] with my brothers when I'd come back from school and on weekends," said Bruins center Patrice Bergeron, 33. "My mom had to basically shut it down and take it away from us.

"I'd go for the one-timer in the slot. That's the move."

New Jersey Devils center Brian Boyle recalled a popular method he used in "NHL '94" and said the game enhanced his experience as a young hockey fan.

"It had that little glitch in the game where when you cut across the middle, you could always score. Loved it," said Boyle, 33. "I think they were playing 'NHL '94' in the movie 'Swingers.' It was unreal.

"The game was just another part of growing up as a fan of the NHL and seeing the games. … I watched and paid attention to the League the best I could at a younger age and heard of these guys (in the game) that were all-stars and Hall of Famers. And the playoffs would come on and you finally see those other teams on ESPN, and having the video game was so much fun because you knew who they were. You collected the hockey cards, watched the playoffs and then played 'NHL '94'."

Dominic Moore, a 13-year NHL veteran, was well aware of the move that Boyle referenced, but he utilized others too.

"Everything about it was great. You had certain moves you kind of knew would work," the 38-year-old said. "The behind-the-net wraparound always seemed to work. There were some phenomenal players in the game. Pittsburgh was obviously a powerhouse. The music was good. I think everyone still remembers the jingle, and for me, it was that age around 14, a prime age for video games. I wasn't much of a gamer, but that game was an all-time classic.

"I always wanted to be Toronto with [Doug] Gilmour in those days, but in the game, it seemed like Pittsburgh was always the best."

Video: Chicago Blackhawks' Patrick Kane gets NHL'94ed

Florida Panthers defenseman Keith Yandle, 32, said he often played as the Pittsburgh Penguins for that reason.

"[The Penguins] were really good with Mario Lemieux, Kevin Stevens, Jaromir Jagr, Ulf Samuelsson, Larry Murphy," Yandle said. "I remember sitting at my cousin's house saying, 'Oh man, how can it get any better than this?', because the jump from 'NHLPA '93' to 'NHL '94' was so big.

"You could break the glass with the slap shot, the fan would run down to the glass, hats would come on the ice for hat tricks. There was no loading time. You could rip out like 10-15 games in a half hour."

Former NHL forward George Parros, who won the Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007, said he and his friends had one hard rule when it came to playing the game.

"No using the default move," said Parros, head of the NHL Department of Player Safety. "We used to have tournaments at my house before every one of our high school games. I continued the tradition while in college at Princeton, although we didn't play before games, usually having a tournament in our spare time."

Parros, 38, said that, in order to mix things up, he and his friends would allow participants to add a player from the bench to the opponent's lineup. He said it was frequently a player with a unique name, like Luciano Borsato, then of the Winnipeg Jets.

NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes, who played 11 seasons as a goalie in the NHL, said he played the game with his junior teammates in the Ontario Hockey League after he was selected by the Panthers in the second round (No. 41) of the 1993 NHL Draft.

"It was me, Andrew Brunette, Wayne Primeau, Scott Walker, to name a few," said Weekes, 43. "And we all made the League. It was surreal to be playing the game and hearing these names and actually skating with these guys (years later). We'd go to our billet families' houses and have tournaments. It brought us closer together."

 

The legend of Roenick

The numbers have never quite added up.

There were nine players in "NHL '94" with a rating of 90 or better. Lemieux was the only one with the maximum 100. Bruins defenseman Ray Bourque was a 99, and Blackhawks goalie Ed Belfour was a 98.

Rounding out the top five were Buffalo Sabres forward Alexander Mogilny (96) and Detroit Red Wings center Steve Yzerman (95).

One notable omission from the top 10 was Gretzky (87 rating, 13th), who was one of the NHL's top players at age 32 (the Kings center would lead the League with 130 points in 1993-94). But the bigger surprise, at least based on gameplay, is that Roenick wasn't up there either. His video game alter ego may have been unstoppable, as Moore said, but Roenick (89) was tied for 11th in the ratings with Gilmour, the Maple Leafs center.

So how did he come to be regarded as the best player in "NHL '94"?

Video: Look Back: 20th Anniversary of EA NHL '94

Mikey McBryan, director of "Pixelated Heroes," a documentary about "NHL '94" that is being released Sunday, said he discovered a key explanation during filming: a bug in the game that essentially reversed players' weights.

"If you were 250 pounds and another guy is 150 (Roenick was listed at 6-foot, 172 pounds in the game), the 250-pound guy should have the advantage," said McBryan, who said that he first learned of the glitch through an "NHL '94" message board, then had a programmer from EA Sports confirm its existence. "But when you did a check, the math was actually backwards, so the players who are smaller and faster could run over people like Eric Lindros (6-5, 236) and Mario Lemieux (6-4, 220).

"The bug was in 'NHLPA '93' and carried over to 'NHL '94.' We've all spent so much time playing that game that bugs become beautiful."

Lesser is aware of the bug but said that factors such as player ratings, angle and the positioning of players on the ice would be much more important in determining which player gets the advantage on a given play.

"The game itself is unbiased," Lesser said. "It doesn't recognize that the player is Jeremy Roenick, it only knows the ratings. So [the weight bug] wouldn't apply to one particular player in that sense of making him better than everyone else."

Still, "NHL '94" enthusiasts like Yandle learned quickly that playing the video game as Roenick and the Blackhawks could be beneficial.

"It was either [Pittsburgh] or Chicago because they had Jeremy Roenick," said Yandle, a former teammate of Roenick's with the Phoenix Coyotes. "I remember that cheap move you could do coming out of the corner to score, and it always seemed like he was the guy that could do it the best. He had a great shot and was fast.

"I remember my first couple of years (with the Coyotes), whether it was training camp or playing with them, we had Owen Nolan, Petr Nedved, Brett Hull, guys who were legends back in the day, especially in that game. It was definitely a special thing to be able to play with guys you were playing as a kid."

In an interview with NHL.com in 2013 to mark the 20th anniversary of "NHL '94," Roenick spoke of embracing his video game fame.

"I'm very proud of it," he said. "I'm down in the annals of history, whether it's being on the ice or in video games. I like that aspect. Whoever it was at EA who gave me the [great] rating in ''94', you've left me something to be proud of for eternity.

"[People] say one of three things: One, 'You couldn't beat the Chicago Blackhawks [in the game] because of Jeremy Roenick.' No. 2, 'I got through college playing Jeremy Roenick in '94 Sega.' The third is it was a rule that you couldn't be the Chicago Blackhawks in the game, because they were that unstoppable."

At least some industry experts agreed. Roenick was voted the No. 3 video game athlete of all time by PC Magazine in 2012 behind Michael Vick ("Madden NFL '04") and Bo Jackson ("Tecmo Bowl," 1987).

 

'NHL '94' today

A quarter century later, the "NHL '94" community is going strong. One big reason is NHL94.com, a website created in 2003 that is dedicated to the game. It contains photos, videos, codes, bugs, message boards and full team rosters and ratings for every player in the game. Armed with this information, the aficionados who frequent the site use an emulator, hardware that allows a computer to act like a Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo system, to play and reformat the game with current NHL players.

The message board, added in 2005, has led to the growth of the community and various live tournaments and leagues, said Evan Eldredge, who founded the site.

"['NHL '94'] has just the right amount of cool features and the unpredictable nature of the game," said Eldredge, 40. "You could play with the same teams a few times in a row and wouldn't get the same results. Different things happen every time."

Darrell Sampson, 41, who helps oversee tournaments with McBryan, said, "I just love keeping the nostalgia going. I've been part of organizing live tournaments over the last three years in many cities across North America. Toronto, Saskatoon, Halifax, Edmonton, Las Vegas and Vancouver. I'll keep running these tournaments until people don't want to show up anymore. Hopefully that day never comes."

The third King of '94 event, which determines the best "NHL '94" player in the world on Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo, will be held in Vancouver on Sunday, using original consoles, controllers and rosters. McBryan, who timed the release of "Pixelated Heroes" to coincide with the tournament, said he quickly found out during filming that there were many other people who loved the game as much as he does and were far better players.

"I thought I was the best in the world by far," he said. "And it wasn't until I started the documentary where we started doing tournaments that I realized I wasn't even close to the best. It just blew my mind, the competitiveness and people still playing it even today."

Raphael Frydman and Gregory Cundari facing off in the King of '94 Sega Genesis Final in 2017.

 

Looking back at his run to the championship last year at King of '94, Cundari said he wasn't the best player, just the best one that night.

"I might not be the best player in the world; he might still be at home not coming to the tournaments," Cundari said. "My goal is to find that best player and bring them out. That's a big reason as to why I still play this game. I'm always looking for a new challenge and will not stop looking until I find it."

To win the title, Cundari defeated Raphael Frydman, recognized by the Guinness World Records for having the largest margin of victory in "NHL '94" on Sega Genesis: 69 goals, in a 70-1 win.

Each tournament in Las Vegas (one for Sega Genesis, one for Super Nintendo) had 64 players. The prize money was $2,320 for first place, $910 for second and $300 for third.

The entry fee? Appropriately, $94.

Besides playing tournaments, Frydman stays involved with the game in the online community. He is among those who make graphics with players and teams not in the video game, such as creating the Vegas Golden Knights "NHL '94" GIF image that the expansion team used at points last season. He also helps run the NHL94.com Facebook page and Twitter account.

"I think because the players don't change, it's something special," Frydman said. "The game itself had amazing gameplay that remains fun. Graphics don't make games fun."

Ocal, the tournament announcer, considers himself a super fan of the game. When he went to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto last year and saw the toys and games section, he noticed what he considered a big omission. That prompted him to buy a copy of "NHL '94" and submit it with a handwritten note to the Hall's archives staff listing 10 reasons why it should have a presence in the Hall. The game was recently put on display there.

"I thought, 'How cool would it be to have this iconic game where it rightfully belongs?'" said the 37-year-old Ocal, a member of the King of '94 committee who hopes to help bring the event to New York in 2019.

The handwritten letter and copy of "NHL '94" that Arda Ocal submitted to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

 

The Hall of Fame is perhaps the ultimate honor, but "NHL '94" continues to be acknowledged around the hockey world in far less formal fashion.

Following a Western Hockey League win in 2010, Kamloops players celebrated on the ice by repeatedly lifting their sticks over their heads with both hands, a throwback to the victory celebration in the video game.

In May 2014, "NHL '94" was ranked second on ESPN's list of the greatest sports video games of all time, behind "Tecmo Super Bowl." (For its part, EA Sports included an "NHL '94" anniversary mode in "NHL 14.")

In 2017, then-Penguins forward Ryan Reaves scored in practice and did a spot-on impersonation of the "NHL '94" goal horn.

Last season Devils organist Pete Cannarozzi played the "NHL '94" jingle several times at the ends of periods, which may or may not have been at the request of Ocal, who invited Frydman to play former New Jersey defenseman and current TV analyst Ken Daneyko on the scoreboard at Prudential Center last season.

"That was surreal. I didn't know it was going to happen," Frydman said. "The next thing I know, Ken Daneyko is there and it's one of those surreal moments in my life that I won't forget. I showed up to the rink wearing my (New York) Rangers jersey so I had to change that -- I didn't want Ken Daneyko to pummel me."

Raphael Frydman, Ken Daneyko and Arda Ocal play "NHL '94" on the scoreboard at Prudential Center.

 

The legacy lives on

In the next 25 years, there will undoubtedly be advances in video game technology, but you can bet "NHL '94" will continue to be talked about and played.

And perhaps EA Sports will continue to draw from it. Ramjagsingh said he and his fellow programmers use ideas from "NHL '94" in modern editions of the game.

"As the game sort of evolved, the controllers and the consoles have evolved," Ramjagsingh said. "More buttons, more complexity, more things that you can do, but we still sort of go back to our 'NHL '94' control because of what it did from an accessibility perspective, allowing anybody to pick it up and play. There's a lot of dads out there who want to play with their sons or daughters, but the kids don't have the dexterity to use the newer controllers. So we give them the opportunity to still compete with a two-button control where all you have to worry about is passing and shooting."

One area that is no longer so simple is the game's player ratings.

"All of these young superstars that are coming in and taking the League by storm haven't really known a day without video games," said Andy Agostini, who is responsible for creating the ratings. "You go back to 1994 and not many of them were born yet. So they've grown up with the games. Every time we run into them and we chat with them on social media, they let us know what they dislike about their ratings. It's always in good fun."

Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid was rated a 94, the highest in "NHL 19," followed by Penguins center Sidney Crosby (93). Unlike 25 years ago, there is no player rated in the high 80s who is such an uncanny offensive force that it seems unfair.

All of this means there isn't likely to be another "Jeremy Roenick," and that seems like a good thing. His dominance is part of what made the game so special -- and makes it so beloved, all these years later.

"If you're an NHL fan, you're all in (with 'NHL '94')," Jennings said. "There's a nostalgia and vintageness that is absolutely to be celebrated."

As Ramjagsingh said, "'NHL '94' has lasted the test of time as one of the most iconic versions of video game hockey ever. With the NHL and NHLPA licenses coming together, it was first true representation of hockey where all of the players, logos and uniforms were fully authentic.

"Add that to the blue ice, one-timers, simple controls, Jeremy Roenick and a passionate community, and you have all that is great about ''94'."

NHL.com staff writers Dan Rosen and Mike G. Morreale, and correspondent Dave McCarthy contributed to this report

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