The Only Puck in Town
News Flash: The 2004-2005 National Hockey League season is in jeopardy of cancellation (and may be cancelled by the time this sees publication). Amid an owner-induced lockout that hopes to lower player salaries and save the league, little has been made in the media of the absence of hockey. A recent USA Today poll found that fifty percent of Americans did not care about the lockout, and the other fifty percent were unaware of the situation. In fact, the absence of a season thus far has prompted little media coverage and even less concern/outrage for this difficult-to-follow, star-depleted, Canadian game.
For those five people who have noticed the season’s absence, which have missed the game and need a puck fix, there is always virtual hockey. While similar to past years and other versions, Gretzky NHL 2005 offers the hockey fan (or those merely seeking a reminder of why they are not hockey fans) a cheap substitute of what would have been the 2004-2005 season.
Gretzky NHL 2005 provides the usual offerings within both hockey and all virtual sports games. It has the standard options—practice, single game and franchise mode. The franchise mode, as always, is especially powerful, offering hard-hitting competition, free agency, an amateur draft and a holistic hockey experience. It even allows players to manage a team’s finances—if all else fails in the real world, league officials, owners and the player’s association can use Gretzky NHL 2005 to figure out its own mess. Otherwise, we will be forced to play in virtual reality rather than root for the Kings or Ducks, since in Wayne Gretkey’s simulated world there are no lockouts or strikes.
Beyond these traditional options, Gretzky NHL 2005 additionally offers a rivalry mode that allows you to create fierce battles, a World Cup Tournament and Gretzky challenges. As the most unique element of the game, Gretzky challenges allow players to earn points toward unlocking special game features such as using “The Great One” in the game, donning vintage jerseys and having access to additional items and modes.
What strikes me most while playing Gretzky NHL 2005 is how revealing the game is about the shaky state of contemporary hockey. Playing amid a season under siege, I am left to wonder whether virtual reality will be the only space to secure a hockey fix; yet, I also find myself thinking about how the game illustrates the problems of the NHL. Without a star, the league lacks the needed, marketable players to attract fans. Developers Page 44 Studios and 989 Sports recognized this sad reality and opted to sell virtual hockey through the long-retired Wayne Gretzky. You do not see Wilt Chamberlain NBA 2K5 or Jim Brown NFL ‘05 on the market. The game, which is a 2005 invention, does not begin with a video exposé of Jerome Ignalia or Paul Kariya, but a series of classic Wayne Gretzky moments. The current state of the NHL has not overcome his retirement, nor has virtual reality which opts to capitalize on the popularity of the game and Gretzky of ten years ago.
While the absence of stars in the NHL is certainly a defining characteristic of the league and its struggles, it is equally present in Gretzky NHL 2005. While I am no hockey junkie, I do follow the game enough to consider myself a knowledgeable fan. However, as I played I found myself at a loss as to the players in the game, not knowing which player was fast and which could check my competitors through the boards. Not connecting to these virtual players and unsure of the current players in the NHL, I might as well have been playing European football. Part of the excitement of virtual sports is having opportunities to become your favorite player, to take your favorite team deep into the playoffs to an eventual dynasty, but without stars, confused by the lockout—without those recognizable names and faces—Gretzky NHL 2005 does not offer the same enjoyment—no stars, no attachment, no virtual opportunities to dunk like Shaq or scramble like Michael Vick because the number of unknown players outweigh those few stars whom I can’t even remember, since their last hockey game was more than twelve months ago.
The biggest complaint against hockey is that it is hard to follow—complicated rules, a quick moving tiny puck, and a lack of scoring. Gretzky NHL 2005 certainly replicates reality, fulfilling all the qualities that Americans hate about hockey.
Let me be honest—I am a star when it comes to virtual sports. I am a baller in the virtual NBA, and unstoppable on the gridiron. I can jack homeruns and dunk with ferocity. However, I cannot get that damn puck into the net despite numerous hours spent in front of the television. The only thing worse than my shooting and checking skills is my inability to protect my own net. Sure, the game is a challenge, which is always good, but the difficulty of making a pass, converting a goal or merely knocking the snot out of your opponent limits the excitement.
Despite its realism, there seems to be a de-emphasis on fighting. Whereas past hockey games allowed you to start fights and even make the heads of other players bleed, this seems to be a less prominent feature of the game, where skating and passing take precedent over fighting and violence.
Each time I put in Gretzky NHL 2005, I hope to find a new level of pleasure with virtual hockey. I want to like it. In recent years I have made a concerted effort to watch hockey on ESPN, to develop a greater taste for this beautiful game—it’s like acquiring a taste for Scotch or opera. With both the NHL and virtual hockey, I have gradually developed a like for the game, respecting the artistry and the difficulty of its virtual counterpart. I have gained an ever-increasing enjoyment of this challenging sport and a better sense of which players can shoot, pass and check. Given the state of hockey, it seems that video games will be my only space to further this relationship, as today’s hockey is limited to virtual reality and Russia.