NHL 14: ‘You can’t make Gretzky’s head bleed’

NHL 14 will feature a special NHL 94 Anniversary Mode, harkening back to when Jeremy Roenick was king.

Like that song that was your jam in high school, the mere mention of the iconic NHL 94 whisks video-game veterans back to a very specific place and time.

For Sean “Rammer” Ramjagsingh, producer of Electronic Arts’ NHL 14, the 20-year-old game returns him to a Simon Fraser University dorm room, going deke-for-deke and one-timer for one-timer with his roommate.

“We’d play NHL 94 to decide who would have to wash the dishes and do all the stuff nobody wanted to do,” he says. “94 was the decider.”

It was decided to include “the decider” in the latest edition — Rammer’s sixth — of the sports game giant’s NHL franchise, due on shelves Sept. 10 for Xbox 360 and PS3.

After 13 years with EA, Ramjagsingh knows his stuff. While playing the new/old NHL 14 (in 94 Anniversary Mode) a couple weeks before fans get their thirsty thumbs on it, we learned a few things about hockey’s most enduring simulation.

Here are 14 of them.

1. Jonathan Bernier is the starting goaltender for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Plunking myself down to face the master at his own game — Maple Leafs vs. Bruins (his choice) — I notice the former Los Angeles Kings goaltender is manning the pipes for my Leafs. Sorry, James Reimer fans, the gods of EA have done coach Randy Carlyle’s work for him and selected Bernier as the No. 1 in Toronto.

If anyone questions the authenticity of NHL 14, consider that the Leafs took an early lead in SN’s trial run only to blow that lead to four unanswered Bruins goals. I wish I was kidding.

2. Taylor Hall got game.
Pressed to name the best NHLer at NHL, the first name out of Rammer’s mouth belongs to an Edmonton Oiler.

“Taylor Hall is really good at the game. Ryan McDonagh from the Rangers is really good. Nathan MacKinnon and Tom Wilson are fantastic,” says Ramjagsingh, who has noticed the thumb skills of the athletes improving as the years go on. “They’ve all grown up with it. They’ve all played every single year, so there’s some really good players out there.”

This week, EA invited some of the league’s top prospects to participate in a sneak-preview tournament at the NHLPA rookie showcase in Toronto. The Avalanche’s MacKinnon lost to the Capitals’ Wilson in the finals.

Bonus fact: A player like No. 1 draft pick MacKinnon is legally barred from appearing in the game until he actually plays a shift in the NHL.

3. Reality must be defied to maintain fun.
The task of a sports video game producer is to find the proper balance between authenticity and fun.

“One thing hardcore (players) talk about when they play our game is that sticks go through sticks. In reality, sticks can’t go through sticks,” says Rammer, dropping science. “Why don’t we make it so sticks don’t through? We tried that. In real life, if there was a stick in your way, you’d go around it, but we don’t have that fidelity right now with our controls. We can’t allow the sticks to contact each other—it makes for a non-fun game-play experience. So we bend the authenticity of the real world to allow for a better experience.”

4. James van Riemsdyk is an addict, a critic and a trash-talker.
A huge fan of the franchise, Leafs forward JVR is frequently consulted for his feedback on the game.

“He talked about the skating for NHL 13. He felt it was too tough to turn, especially on offence when you’re going fast with momentum. We play all the time online, and when he’s up it’s mostly him talking smack to me about how much better he is,” Rammer says. “We have a good ongoing rivalry going.”

5. Contrary to belief, few current NHL stars are used for motion capture.
Because the upcoming edition of the series is produced in-season, it’s tough to get current NHLers to schedule in a trip to EA headquarters and participate in the process.

“We use a lot of ex-pros and college layers, some local guys that have played high-level hockey,” Rammer explains. “We leverage the feedback from the players because they’re the ones who’ve played the game at that level and know the game in a way different from the rest of us.”

6. A master of the sweet science, George Parros shared his knowledge for 14.
When you want to make your video game accurate, you call the world’s fourth-smartest athlete.

In the past, EA has tapped scrappers Zack Stortini and Darcy Hordichuk for fight techniques, but for 14’s Enforcer Engine, Parros played a big role. After seeing an early trailer for the new feature, the Montreal Canadiens tough nut came out to the Electronic Entertainment Expo in L.A. in order to play it firsthand.

“He talked to us a lot about fighting technique and styles — where he likes to clinch, how he counterpunches, how he pushes a guy’s shoulder back,” Rammer says. “There was a lot of fine-tuning the mechanics with the left stick. If a guy throws a punch, you can counter it by pushing up on the left stick and push your opponent’s right shoulder back.”

7. No NHL player is satisfied with his grade.
“From working with the players and spending a lot of time with them, I can say pretty consistently, every player wants to be rated faster, stronger, better on their skates and better at scoring goals,” Rammer says. “They all lobby for a better rating, but it’s all in good fun.”

8. The 94 Anniversary Mode features nostalgic winks but isn’t the real thing.
In light of the anniversary of NHL 94, the production team knew they didn’t just want to slap the 20-year-old game as is/was on the disc, something the company did as a bonus feature back in 2006.

“People have such great nostalgic memories of 94, but when they actually go back and play it, it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s OK, but it’s not as good as games these days,’ ” Rammer says. “We wanted to use the players we have in today’s game, the environments, the power of the consoles we have, the features of our new hitting and fighting that captures the elements on 94 in a modern way. You’re going to see the blue ice, the star indicators under the layers, you’re going to see retro art in the power ranking, retro celebrations, but most important part is the accessible button controls. It’s very easy for anybody to pick up and play.”

9. Now you have a chance to break kids’ hearts by turning down autograph requests
In 14’s new Be a Pro mode, gamers get to work their way towards NHL stardom off the ice as well as on. As a prospect you interview with NHL teams — the questions given to EA from prospects who recently endured the Q&A process. You also conduct pre-game and post-game interviews and deal with fans’ autograph requests.

“Everything you do off the ice and how you answer interview questions impacts your fan rating, your management rating, your teammate rating,” Rammer says.“If you want to be the guy who throws your teammate under the bus, you could be on the next bus out of town.”

10. Sorry, old-school heads, don’t expect to play with the 1994 rosters.
“The challenge we have with retro players is because there’s no retired players’ association, one unified body where we can get all the assorted players. We have to go to each player individually to get a contract in place, which makes the logistics tough,” says Rammer, explaining why contemporary players are used in Anniversary Mode. “We do have Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky and Jeremy Roenick in as legends, and also Cammi Granato — one of the greatest female players of all time.”

With 2013-14 being an Olympic year, the break for Sochi is reflected in the schedule — but EA did not obtain an IIHF licence to simulate official national-team sweaters and logos.

“We do have generic national-team jerseys and we can update the rosters when the (Olympic) teams are announced and get the players on the right teams,” Rammer explains.

11. Jeremy Roenick, however, is still a force to be reckoned with.
Nostalgia alert! “A lot of guys in the office bring Roenick in and plunk him on Chicago. He’s got legend status, so he’s got very good ratings,” Ramjagsingh smiles. “He can dominate the game.”

12. Some of the old 94 goal-scoring techniques still pay off – by happy accident.
Ramjagsingh says that although the team didn’t purposely set out to reinstall those reliable scoring tricks ’90s gamers know by heart, it just happened.

“With the speed of the players, a lot of those moves come back and work. So the one-timers (and) left-right-left deke work,” he says. “The speed of the players is faster than the goalie.”

13. NHL 13 didn’t hit quite right, so EA turned to… soccer?
Team EA hears constructive criticism every year from fans. Last season, gamers took issue with the body-checking.

“There wasn’t predictability in the hit. You never knew if you’d get a big hit, a small hit or a bump,” Rammer says. “We wanted consistency in our hitting, which is why we leveraged technology from FIFA’s player impact engine. And we overhauled our physics this year.”

14. All this is well and good, but can you make Wayne Gretzky’s head bleed?
“Good question. You cannot make Gretzky’s head bleed,” Rammer laments.

Which is not to say there wasn’t a Swingers-inspired discussion of whether the producers should incorporating that graphic element.

“But with our rating of E10+ (everyone 10 or older), there’s no blood at all in our games,” he says. “You can’t make his head bleed, unfortunately.”

Which is for the best. I think kids would fight each other or something if they saw little Wayne’s legs shaking.