/NHL 2001, the PS2, and my Christmas tradition

NHL 2001, the PS2, and my Christmas tradition

The picture is black.

Then, crowd noise and the image of players standing in the tunnel fades in.

There’s an audible “let’s go,” they start moving, and the crowd gets louder, as the players leave the tunnel and skate out on to the ice.

Music blasts out of the speakers, and projections spin around at each end of the rink while the public address announcer yells “Ladies and gentleman, your Philadelphia Flyers!”

This wasn’t a real hockey game, but at that point, it might as well have been the closest thing to it.

It was Dec. 25, 2000 and, by some miracle, my parents managed to get a PlayStation 2 for Christmas.

I was seeing NHL 2001 in action for the first time, a game that left my five-year-old self in awe that morning, and ultimately showed me that video games have a power to immerse you unlike any other entertainment medium.

 

Leaps and Bounds

There’s a long list of games that define the PlayStation 2.

From the Metal Gears to the Kingdom Hearts to the Sly Coopers, the Grand Theft Autos, and so on.

Those games (and the many others not mentioned) are all fantastic. But for me, my fondest memory of Sony’s black box from the future will always be tied to that first NHL game on the system.

The PS2 had just launched in the U.S. a couple months prior, and there was a special kind of euphoria around it. The console was easily the biggest holiday item. People were camping out for the thing, and the idea of walking into a store and picking one up on a whim was a near impossibility.

 

The late 90s-early 00s did not age well.

Electronic Arts (back when the publisher had some semblance of a soul) was the PS2’s biggest supporter out of the gate, with six games ready to go at launch, including Madden NFL 2001 (its flagship football franchise), SSX (the first title in what went on to become a beloved – but long since dormant – snowboarding series), and, of course, NHL (which reportedly made the cut last minute).

Sports game don’t usually get their due, often being dismissed by the larger gaming community as $60 roster updates, and facing the extreme likelihood of being shelved forever by their core userbase as soon as the next year’s edition comes out.

NHL, and Madden too, faced those problems, just like every game in their respective series that came before and after. When looking back at the PS2’s launch lineup, most will point to SSX as one of the few games of any major substance, while memory will serve the sports games more as technical showcases for what the new system could do. Basically, Madden and NHL were those games you showed off to impress your friends.

Still, with NHL, there was a lot to appreciate about the franchise’s next-gen (at the time) debut.

 

Obviously, there was the visual improvement. NHL 2001 on the PS2 was leaps and bounds ahead of NHL 2001 on the original PlayStation, both on the performance and graphical front.

The players were far more detailed. Their animations were much more fluid than the previous generation, the arena lights reflected off their helmets, and many, though not all, were modeled as close as they could’ve been to their real-life counterparts. Coming from a Flyers fan, Eric Lindros in the game looked like Eric Lindros in real life, John LeClair looked like John LeClair, Eric Desjardins looked like Eric Desjardins, Mark Recchi looked like Mark Recchi, and Keith Jones (especially Keith Jones) looked like Keith Jones.

Not only that, but for the first time, players had expressions and specific routines. They smiled and cheered when you scored, they got angry when the ref called them for a penalty, and they chirped at one another throughout the game. Meanwhile, goalies would carve up the ice in their crease, feel for the posts, and re-focus between whistles.

The benches were an active part of games for the first time, as well. Players conversed, and there was a coach (not the actual, real-life one, though) standing behind them, giving out strategic adjustments. The next line hopped over the boards while the rest of the team shifted over to make room for the one coming off, instead of the players just vanishing into a still model like they did in the previous PS1 games.

Granted, all of these were cutscenes programmed to general scenarios (with the exception of in-game line changes), and you could see them all after playing two or three games. But, at the time, those went a long way in adding to the game’s presentation, making it all look and feel like what fans watched in person or on TV.

Arenas, like the players, got an upgrade as well. The ice had a reflection to it, and the fans in the seats – which were just one big, flat texture on the PS1 – were now individual people that chanted, clapped, and stood up and cheered when the home team scored. Sure, they were just 2D Mortal Kombat-style sprites that pale in comparison to the fully-modeled, dynamic crowds seen in today’s sports games. At the time, however, it was an upgrade that made each game feel much more alive, since you could see a packed arena actually reacting to the hockey being played.

It wasn’t just a visual improvement on the presentation end either – sound got a boost, too. The goal horns, the crowd noise, the organ and music between whistles, Jim Hughson and Bill Clement’s commentary, and the sound effects of shots, the posts, and players grunting after checks all carried over at a higher quality. There was also a fairly minor detail added after goals, where you not only saw players celebrate, but heard them too.

Like the cutscenes during stoppages, these were just a few pre-recorded “yeahs!” and “woos!,” but it was a charming little touch that added a bit of life to the players.

 

The NHL franchise already had an established gameplay foundation that began with NHL ’94 and was refined and carried over into 3D in the years that followed. For the most part, that foundation carried over into NHL 2001, and was pushed forward a bit, thanks to the extra power under the PS2’s hood.

The game ran at a higher framerate compared to the previous entries on the PS1; it was usually at 60 frames per second, but there were points where it would take a slight dip. The boost in framerate, along with the aformentioned player animation improvements, made for a better sense of control. Players felt more responsive, especially when you had the puck on your stick, and each game felt fluid and faster as a result.

That isn’t to say EA Sports’ first shot at NHL on the PS2 was perfect – it wasn’t. There were bugs. When CPU goalies went to play the puck behind the net, there was a chance they would get stuck trying to get back to the crease; they couldn’t register that the net was an obstacle in front of them, nor make the adjustment to simply skate around it and back into position. So, with no way to pry the puck loose, you had to wait for the goalie to finally freeze it.

There were also times were the game moved too fast for the player animations to keep up. For example, on a one-timer, the shooter could be winding up for the shot, then jump to the follow through in a millisecond so the play could register properly. It’s an aspect that can rarely be caught in the moment, but can be jarring when the instant replay that follows slows it all down.

Then there were the instances where those animation issues carried over into cutscene scenarios, like whatever happened here…

 

He just kind of floats for a second, then snaps to where he should be…

But there is a bug in NHL 2001 that trumps any other it has, and I’d be remiss not to mention it. It’s game-breaking, but in the best possible way (to me), and stands as my favorite video game glitch of all-time.

The Floater Shot

NHL 2001 had “beginner” as the preset difficulty, with rules turned off and manual shot aim turned on by default.

Turning the rules on or off didn’t factor into this (unless you missed with them on for an icing call), but the extremely low difficulty and user-controlled aim did. Basically, taking a slapshot, or even a lazy wrister, from as far back as between your own faceoff circles in the defensive zone would result in the puck sailing across the rink, over the opposing goalie’s head, and into the net.

 

Was it a huge exploit that removed all challenge from what was already a generously easy game at that difficulty? Definitely. But, on a personal note, when I found out about it on accident after a couple days of playing nonstop, the challenge shifted from trying to win games to seeing how much I could win by before time ran out.

Plus, even to this day, I still find it funny to see Hall of Famers like Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur be completely unable to stop these shots, and get pulled after about 30 seconds.

The Start of a Tradition

I played NHL 2001 for countless hours over the course of that next year after finding it under the tree on Christmas morning. It never stopped being fun.

But eventually, you burn out and other games come out that catch your interest, along with that newer version of NHL every year. And, as a kid, with a store like EB Games around (now GameStop in the U.S.), trading in older games was a means of being able to get your hands on the newer ones, even though you usually got chump change on the trade-in value.

At a certain point, I traded in NHL 2001, and moved on to the newer games in the franchise with each passing year. The graphics and gameplay naturally got better as the years went on, and then another dramatic jump came along once the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 came into the picture.

Those games were all great, and I have fond memories of them all, but none of them ever managed to strike that same chord with me like NHL 2001 did on that Christmas morning 17 years ago.

While Christmas shopping a few years back, my sister and I found a retro games store and decided to take a look in. I saw NHL 2001 on the shelf. I wasn’t leaving without it.

On Christmas Eve, I booted up the game and played it into the early hours of the morning. The thought was that I’d go into Christmas with the gift that first made me feel like I was actually at a Flyers game, and made me wonder if video games could get any better.

I’ve done the same thing every year since, watching the Flyers take the ice as the crowd roars, then sending the puck sailing over the goaltender’s head with the first guy to get it.

It never stopped being fun.

 

Nick has been obsessed with hockey ever since he saw The Mighty Ducks for the first time when he was three. A graduate of Temple University, he currently works on the sports desk at The Philadelphia Inquirer while contributing to GNGHockey.