TORONTO (CP) - An elite player in the NHL, Eric Staal knows a good hockey player when he sees one.
And Staal reckons his likeness in EA Sports' new NHL 08 game is the real deal. "He might be even better" than real life, the Carolina Hurricanes star said of his video game persona.
Staal is the cover boy of the made-in-Canada "NHL 08" while Ottawa Senators star Jason Spezza graces the front of the rival "NHL 2K8" game. Both titles are out this week on a variety of platforms.
Just how popular are hockey video games in Canada? Hockey titles occupied four of the top 20 spots on the 2006 sales chart.
The PlayStation 2 version of EA's "NHL 07" was No. 1, while the Xbox 360 version was No. 11 and the original Xbox version was No. 14. The PS2 version of "NHL 2K7" was No. 19 - one spot ahead of "Madden NFL 07." Not bad for games that only came out in September and October, respectively.
Like Staal, Spezza has no complaints about how he looks and plays in his game.
"It's good. My player's definitely gotten better in the last little bit and I think my guy's pretty good in this one. It's always the main concern, how good your guy's going to be, because you don't want to feel shafted," he said with a laugh.
"He looks pretty good. They did a really good of making sure all the gear is as it is when we play."
Colin Hara, designer for "NHL 2K8," says his development team doesn't often hear from players complaining about their portrayal in the game.
"I think they probably have a little bit too much pride," he said.
But O'Hara said he got "some junk" from pesky forward Steve Ott when former cover athlete and fellow Dallas Star Marty Turco brought him to a meeting.
With a string of brothers, the 22-year-old Staal grew up playing plenty of hockey both on the ice and in the rec room.
"We played a lot growing up, having four boys," said Staal, a native of Thunder Bay, Ont. "It's cold in the winter and you can only be on the outdoor rink for so long."
At last Friday's media launch of "NHL 08," Eric Staal's virtual Hurricanes beat younger brother Jordan's Pittsburgh Penguins 3-0, although Eric admitted Jordan's Pens had beaten him minutes before the doors were opened.
"I don't know, we're all pretty even," Jordan said when asked to rate the brothers' gaming skills. "I'm probably up there."
"They're very good," "NHL 08" producer David Littman, a former pro goalie himself, said of the two Staals.
A lot of the Hurricanes and Penguins still play video games - taking the PlayStation Portable on the plane, according to the Staals.
So do the Sens, who took an Xbox on the road two seasons ago.
"We have a pretty good little group of gamers," said the 24-year-old Spezza, from Toronto. "Some of the older married guys don't have a chance to play at home, they like doing it on the road and we had a whole bunch of single guys."
Asked who excels, Spezza answered: "I'm pretty good. Danny Alfredsson's pretty good for a guy that doesn't play very much."
Tough guy Brian McGrattan also knows what to do with his hands in front of a video game console - as does goalie Ray Emery.
Spezza says he still plays whenever he gets the chance. He also likes golf games and first-person shooter, with "Call of Duty" a favourite.
Game developers use their cover athletes as more than a billboard. They tap into their knowledge to help make the game better.
O'Hara's California-based development team at 2K Sports used San Jose star Joe Thornton ("NHL 2K7") to help improve faceoffs in the game while Turco ("NHL 2K6") helped revamp goalie play - goalies come out and challenge more in this year's game as well as using the butterfly stance more.
"He really helped us out. He loves playing the game," O'Hara said.
O'Hara plans to pick Spezza's brain for next year's game.
"Obviously that's one of the coolest things in the whole process, helping out with the design," said Spezza.
Littman plans to quiz both Eric and Jordan Staal for ways to improve next year's game.
"It's funny, they're also interested in getting tips from me on how they can beat each other," said Littman, who played two games for the Buffalo Sabres and one for Tampa Bay.
Spezza had 34 goals, 53 assists and 46 penalty minutes in 67 games last season. He's due to make US$5 million this season.
Staal had 30 goals, 40 assists and 68 penalty minutes in 82 games. His 2007-08 salary is US$4.5 million.
Staal isn't concerned about any perceived cover jinxes.
"I'm not worried at all," said Staal. "It's all about when you're out on the ice and how you prepare for your season. This is just a neat thing for me to come here and launch this thing."
Spezza is just happy to be part of the game.
"Growing up and playing the games, getting a chance to just be in them is always neat," said Spezza. "Now getting a chance to be on the cover is something that's obviously pretty special and I was pretty excited about."
The NHL and NHL Players' Association monitor the games closely, with both games requiring a password to unlock new uniforms unveiled after the games ship.
The league doesn't mind fighting in the video games but draws the line at showing blood, O'Hara noted.
A look at cover athletes on the EA Sports and 2K Sports hockey video games:
NHL 08: Eric Staal
NHL 07: Alexander Ovechkin
NHL 06: Vincent Lecavalier
NHL 2005: Marcus Naslund
NHL 2004: Joe Sakic (replaced Dany Heatley)
NHL 2003: Jarome Iginla
NHL 2002: Mario Lemieux
NHL 2001: Owen Nolan
NHL 2000: Chris Pronger
NHL 99: Eric Lindros
NHL 98: Peter Forsberg
NHL 97: John Vanbiesbrouck
(x-NHL 97 was the first version of the franchise to feature single cover athletes)
2K8: Jason Spezza
2K7: Joe Thornton
2K6: Marty Turco
2K5: Martin St. Louis
2K4: Jeremy Roenick
2K3: Jeremy Roenick
2K2: Chris Drury
2K1: No game
2K: Brendan Shanahan
Canadian Press writer Chris Johnston contributed to this story.