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Inside the decision to revive NHL ’94



Retro gaming fans, rejoice: It’s 2020, and NHL ’94 is back.

Electronic Arts announced in early October that the beloved game that often finds itself in the “Mount Rushmore of sports video games” conversation is officially getting the remaster treatment. Entitled NHL ’94 Rewind, the game will feature updated teams and rosters to reflect the current season, with the same gameplay and graphics you remember and love from the original NHL ’94. The standalone game was available for free to people who preordered NHL ’21, and will release on Oct. 30 (NHL ’21 had its full release on Friday).

NHL ’94 Rewind is not just an homage to the original game — it is the original game. EA enlisted the services of a third-party studio to literally port NHL ’94 over to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. There are a couple minor changes; for example, players can exit out of a game in progress, which wasn’t an option in the original. But otherwise, it’s the same experience, completely intact; if you were great at NHL ’94, you will be steamrolling opponents in NHL ’94 Rewind. Though EA has paid homage to NHL ’94 in the past (such as the “anniversary edition” as part of NHL ’14), this is the first time we have seen a completely true-to-form rerelease offered by the company.

But why now? Why is 2020, 26 years after the game’s initial release, the right year to make a recreation of NHL ’94?

“NHL ’94 is always the one that starts off the conversation of which were the best years,” said Andy Agostini, senior producer at EA and the lead on the NHL ’94 Rewind project. “We wanted to bring it back and bring a different experience to people who maybe never have had that. I work with a bunch of guys on the team that are much younger than me, and when you mentioned something like NHL ’94, they never played with the Genesis or Super Nintendo.”

Since NHL ’94 Rewind is exactly as you found it from the 1990s, that also means that there is no online multiplayer function. EA said it discussed the notion at length, but it was decided to make the game a “true couch experience,” just like the original. But the door isn’t closed if fans truly clamor for it. “If people want to play for longer durations of time and start to ask for more features to be added, such as online multiplayer, then I think we can have those conversations as well,” said Sean Ramjagsingh, EA NHL producer.

That true couch experience also means no live roster updates. For example, Joe Thornton, who joined the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday, will appear in a San Jose Sharks uniform (his team in 2019-20) in NHL ’94 Rewind.

But while online play and roster updates would be nice things to have when looking at it from a 2020 perspective — when the latest game is constantly updating — it doesn’t take away from the magnitude of the release. And to truly understand why this is such a big deal, we have to explain why the original game is so significant in hockey and video game history.

NHL ’94 is far from the first hockey video game to have been created, but it is certainly the most influential in terms of what went into it; it was the first to feature the one-timer, still the best way to score in any NHL video game. It was the first time the NHL and National Hockey League Players’ Association came together for a video game, meaning that both the players and teams were actually in the release. NHLPA ’93, the previous year’s version, in which the NHL wasn’t involved, had teams such as “Toronto” and “Long Island.” The smooth gameplay and graphics (for the time), along with realistic organ music — played by Dieter Ruehle, current organist for the Los Angeles Kings — resulted in the game standing the test of time.

NHL ’94 was ranked the second-greatest sports video game of all time in 2013 by ESPN, and in 2017, the Hockey Hall of Fame officially inducted NHL ’94 … well, not officially inducted, per se, but there is a cartridge on display indefinitely, recognizing the game’s significant contribution in hockey and video games.

It was also referenced in a famous scene in the movie “Swingers” (though the actors are actually playing NHLPA ’93 in the movie).

A sizable chunk of the NHL’s current players weren’t alive when NHL ’94 was released in September 1993. Players in the original game have long since retired (except Jaromir Jagr, who will seemingly never hang ’em up after heading to Europe to continue his career). Some current NHL coaches — Blues coach Craig Berube, Coyotes bench boss Rick Tocchet and Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour — as well as broadcasters (such as Ken Daneyko, a Devils analyst for MSG Network) are in the original NHL ’94. Daneyko is a good example of the wide discrepancy that used to exist in player ratings in the game, as “Mr. Devil” once found out while playing NHL ’94 against world champion Raphael Frydman on the big screen at Prudential Center for an MSG Network feature in 2017. When looking through his attributes (he’s a 46 overall in the game) Daneyko turned, smiled to the camera and said, “The only number that matters is three, as in how many Stanley Cups I’ve won.”

Gone are the days when NHL players have any ratings that would be failing grades in EA video games. That is due to the fact that EA now employs a pyramid system to weight ratings across the multiple leagues available in the newest games. Because NHL ’94 Rewind features players and teams from only the NHL, the ratings will feature a wider gap, even though that doesn’t mean they are worse in ’94 Rewind than they are in NHL ’21. Dallas Stars defenseman Miro Heiskanen, for example, is an 85 overall in NHL ’21, but is a 72 overall in NHL ’94 Rewind because of the sliding scale. Vancouver Canucks forward Elias Pettersson is an 89 overall in NHL ’21 and an 84 overall in NHL ’94 Rewind.

“This is just the way things are scaled. they are still relatively in the same place in the pyramid of NHL hockey players just different overall formulas based on having many less ratings in NHL ’94 versus NHL ’21,” Agostini said. As for players rated in the 30s, don’t expect to see much of that in Rewind. “As the years have gone by, the talent level in the NHL is higher, so you’re not going to see the type of players that were in ’94 that were the 30s anymore in the league, because they just don’t exist,” Agostini said. “I hate to point him out, but guys like Stu Grimson, who was an enforcer, a fighter, those guys don’t exist in the NHL nowadays. So the bottom end has gone up a few overall because of that.”

One former NHL player whose rating might not have been flattering had he been in the league in 1994 is Colton Orr, who played 477 games with the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs. But Orr can easily be classified as the best NHL player past or present at playing NHL ’94; he has competed in local tournaments in New York and gave the world champion a run for his money in an exhibition match.

“My brother James and I played every day after school,” Orr said. “That was the first game where battles erupted in the house. You know the forehand-backhand move where you score every time? Or the wraparound trick? We’d have to agree to ban using them in the game because if not it would be an all-out brawl calling each other cheaters. It was brotherly love, super competitive. I loved playing as the Jets. It was one of those games perfect for hockey.”

The NHL ’94 online community has been building for years, and holds regular world championship tournaments. In June, the community partnered with the Mario Lemieux Foundation to put on a fully online charity NHL ’94 tournament that raised thousands.

“You can say that the ‘NHL ’94’ community officially started when Evan Eldredge started NHL94.com in March 2005,” Frydman said. “The forums created a platform for fans to share their passion for the game, to discuss and document all things related to NHL ’94. Over the years the forums have become an encyclopedia of information related to NHL ’94, and the EA hockey series of the ’90s in general. And there are new things being discovered all the time. Just last week there was a post that described how to fix the ‘severed leg’ in the stands in the menu screen.”

Wait, what?

Turns out, there was a random leg in the stands all along and nobody caught it until now, courtesy of the game’s most passionate fan base. I cannot confirm if it also made it into NHL ’94 Rewind, but chances are it did.

These are the kind of incredibly detailed tidbits you would expect from a passionate group of people who love the game so much that they keep discovering things about it decades later, and worked to build a world championship tournament into existence.

“[The world championship] is still a community-driven event,” Frydman said. “It’s driven on the backs of organizers who dedicate their free time and energy to make these happen. There is no money being made. In fact, it usually costs money to run these events. Traveling to a city, renting/sharing a hotel, food and transportation will also cost everyone money that they won’t recoup … even for the champions. I know, I won the last one in 2019 and came in second twice. It’s about the community.”

Though they are fiercely passionate, members of the NHL ’94 community represent but a small fraction of fans who loved the game. Some of them might have moved on from video games, hockey or both. Will NHL ’94 Rewind cater more to those lapsed nostalgic video-game hockey fans who want to relive their youth — and perhaps check out the new EA NHL series, too? — or is it more for current fans to have a fun look into the best game of yesterday they never got to experience?

“I think it’s both,” Ramjagsingh said. “I’ve got to play it through development, which has been fantastic. For the older generation I think it’s a little bit of reminiscing, getting to pick it up and play it, but with today’s NHL represented, which is a pretty cool little twist to the experience. I think there’s also intrigue for the younger generation that didn’t play it back in ’94, to go in there and try it and get a little blast from the past.”


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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home



On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”



Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.


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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment



The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.


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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls



With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

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