How Nurse and Zegras' EA Sports NHL 23 cover represents bright future of hockey

Canada's Sarah Nurse (20) celebrates a goal during the women's gold medal hockey game United States at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, in Beijing. (Petr David Josek/AP)

Midway through the second period of what was a rather innocuous early December game between the Anaheim Ducks and Sabres in Buffalo, Trevor Zegras was in behind the Buffalo net with the puck as he was looking to make a play.

His teammate, Sonny Milano, was parked right in front of the net, just a little off to right, when a flash of inspiration hit Zegras. He flexed his stick onto the ice, picking up the puck and softly lobbed it over to Milano, who understood what he was attempting, batting it home over the unknowing left shoulder of Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.

A perfectly executed alley-oop, but in hockey.

Flash forward a few months later on the ice at Wukesong Sports Centre and the Canadian women’s national team were taking on the United States for the Olympic gold medal on Feb. 17.

Canada, of course, won that game for its fifth gold in seven Olympic contests and did so thanks to the heroics of Hamilton, Ont.’s Sarah Nurse, who opened scoring in that gold-medal game after she managed to fight and squeeze between two American defenders off the draw to quickly and tenaciously hammer home a goal.

Two great moments from two great hockey players. And two major reasons they were selected as the new cover stars for EA Sports NHL 23.

Here’s a closer look at why Zegras and Nurse were chosen as cover stars for the game and its new features.

A historic moment

Nurse’s inclusion as one of the cover stars is instantly recognizable given how exceedingly rare it is to see a female athlete on the cover of a video game.

In fact, Nurse is not only the first woman to ever grace the cover of the EA Sports NHL franchise, she’s the first woman since Christine Sinclair, Alex Morgan and Steph Catley were featured on FIFA 16 to appear on the cover of a mainstream EA Sports video game. In that trio’s case, they were for special Canadian, American and Australian editions, while Nurse will be featured front and centre, regardless of the edition of the game.

The historical significance of this isn’t lost on Nurse.

“I think it's funny, because this was never in the realm of possibilities for me,” Nurse told Sportsnet. “I never ever saw myself in the game. Up until last year, there weren't really women in the game at all, and so this is something that I never even dreamed up for myself. And it's such a cool thing.

“I can't wait for all the young kids, everybody who plays the game to be in this all-encompassing, team atmosphere. So, I'm super excited, super honoured as well.”

In particular, Nurse understands that gracing the cover of a major video game isn’t just an important step forward for women’s sports, but men’s sports as well.

“I'm a huge advocate of women and girls in sport, but when I get asked this question, it's just as important for little boys to see women in positions of power, women in sports, as it is for little girls,” Nurse said. “We want women in sports to be a normality and not a novelty, not one-offs.

“And, so, what I think this will do for young kids is it's really going to change the culture of the game. It's going to really turn everything around in the sense that women are going to be respected in the game like never before. And with a huge platform like EA, like NHL 23, I think that it's gonna be really game-changing for all the little boys and little girls who are able to see it.”

It won’t just be newer players to the franchise who will be able to reap the benefits of including Nurse and other female stars in the game.

Veterans of the series who enjoy the Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT) mode will be able to collect and include IIHF Women’s National Teams players on their HUT teams. Better yet, player ratings won’t change because of any players’ specific rating.

“We’ve treated them as equals. So, a 93 is a 93,” said Mike Inglehart, senior design director for NHL 23. “But depending on how big you are, if speed’s an asset, if size is an asset — obviously, there are some variations here between men and women just based in terms of size and body structure — but when we brought [the women] in it was about creating opportunity and treating players as equals.”

So, essentially, if you’ve always dreamed of having a line made up of Jaromir Jagr and Alex Ovechkin centred by Marie-Philip Poulin, you can, as long as you have the cards.

It’s probably a fantasy line like this that Nurse had in mind while playing the older games with her equally athletic cousins Darnell Nurse of the Edmonton Oilers and Kia Nurse, who plays for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and is a fixture of Canada’s women’s national basketball team.

And given her family’s strong athletic roots, Sarah will certainly be lording this video game honour over her cousins. Although, she isn’t the first in the family to make the cover as her uncle Donovan McNabb, former quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles, was the cover star of Madden 06.

Regardless that she was second to become a cover star for a video game in her family, Nurse is grateful for the opportunity, and is hopeful for what this may spark in the future.

“I remember growing up playing the game and there’s that create-a-player mode that they have, and I always wanted to create somebody who looked like me and that proved to be difficult because you couldn’t create a woman,” said Nurse. “I think now just being able to have women in the game you can actually see yourself in something. So, I think that’s what’s going to be so game-changing about this and for women’s hockey and for hockey, in general. I think it’s gonna be huge.”

A hockey star for a new generation

When Zegras made his now famous alley-oop pass to Milano, the play lit up social media and found itself on just about every mainstream sports television show, newspaper, website and blog.

It was a never-before-seen move that even had NHL 22 players attempting the play themselves.

This is why a 21-year-old who only just completed his first full year in the NHL last season managed to land on the cover of NHL 23. According to EA Sports, he represents a bright new future for the league and direction of game franchise itself.

“If you look at where we’re trying to take the product with younger superstars, faster, action-packed-but-fun-first gameplay, I definitely think Trevor embodies that,” said Clement Kwong, senior development director for NHL 23.

Zegras will best illustrate what the development team is touting to be a whole new series of Last Chance Puck Movement gameplay animations — over 500 new animations were added to better simulate what happens when players might be off balance and how they might stay upright and keep moving.

Additionally, Zegras will come with his own new Superstar X-Factor that will focus on Michigan, or lacrosse-style, moves in and around the net, including his signature “Zegras” pass.

“As someone who has played EA Sports NHL since I was kid, it is a dream come true to be on the cover this year with Sarah,” said Zegras in a statement. “I can’t wait to play this year’s version with my friends and teammates, and I am equally excited to see fans unleash my Michigan flip pass, which the team at EA Sports has managed to get into the game.”

Other notable information

To round things out, here are some quick bullet points about the game:

• It’s slated to release on Oct. 14 on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

• There will be cross play between consoles, but only between consoles of the same era. This means PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S players will be able to play with each other, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One players will be able to play with each other but a PlayStation 5 and Xbox One player won’t be able to connect, and the same goes with an Xbox Series X|S and a PlayStation 4 player.

• EA Sports is promising that this cross-platform matchmaking, in both HUT and World of Chel modes, will “shorten queue times and create fewer player pools to ensure players will have more options to face off.”

• Atmosphere within games is getting a presentational upgrade as arena atmosphere promises to feel bigger and more alive.

• The Arizona Coyotes won’t specifically be playing in Mullett Arena in the game, but will be playing in a smaller-capacity rink to reflect their current situation at Arizona State University.

• The franchise mode has been overhauled with more customization than ever, including the ability to adjust the number of teams in the league, the number of games played, divisions, conferences, playoff rounds and the league salary cap.

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