Replaying NHL 2004 — The Greatest Hockey Video Game Ever (Part 1)

Move over, NHL ‘94 — the real king of virtual hockey is here.

If you ask people what the greatest NHL video game of all time is, the most common response will probably be NHL ‘94. It’s not an absolute truth (for instance, Down Goes Brown prefers NHLPA ‘93), but the old Sega Genesis classic is still regarded fondly in many hockey fans’ hearts.

Personally, however, I’m not a big fan of the game, mostly because I’ve never played it before. This is due to a variety of reasons, but the main reason why is because I wasn’t even born yet when it came out. My sincerest apologies to anyone who now feels incredibly old.

In fact, the first hockey video game I ever played was NHL Hitz 2003, which my brother and I rented from Blockbuster (you’re welcome for making you feel younger again). I fondly remember the 3-on-3, arcade-style gameplay, especially since it encouraged hitting and Derian Hatcher was an unstoppable checking machine.

What NHL Hitz lacked (by design), however, was a way to play and simulate authentic NHL hockey. My brother and I wanted to do stuff like win the Stanley Cup, or make the Dallas Stars a team full of superstars. Simply playing a game of hockey wasn’t enough — we wanted to play “NHL.”

So when it was time to buy our first hockey game, we ended up going with the mainstream, EA Sports NHL series. And that led us to the greatest hockey video game of all time: NHL 2004.

Now, much like the countless people who love NHL ‘94 the most, this opinion of mine is 99% due to nostalgia. But NHL 2004 actually introduced a lot to the NHL series, such as Stanley Cup victory celebrations and a completely revamped Dynasty Mode, not to mention it had an amazing soundtrack. It might not be No. 1 on most lists, but it still ranks pretty highly on many.

Of course, it’s one thing to simply tell you how great this game was — it’s another to show you. And while I may not have fancy video-capture software and a Twitch channel, I do have the next best thing — unedited pictures of a TV screen taken on my phone. Truly the most prestigious form of digital media.

So as we wait for the NHL season to resume amidst the COVID-19 crisis, let’s spend some time revisiting this classic. This will be a multi-part series (unless of course you guys don’t like it, in which case too bad), and we’ll start today with the aforementioned Dynasty Mode.

My favorite part of Dynasty Mode in 2004 was how committed the game was to making the game mode as realistic as possible. Exhibit A:

That’s right — you actually get to pick what your GM looks like, with a total of 15 or so options. I always picked GM Model No. 3, because he’s the only one that looks relatively young, and as every seven-year-old knows, old = bad.

These aren’t all of the settings we can set, but this does contain some of the more notable ones. I left most things alone, although I turned off 2 Line Pass (because it’s awful), offsides (the future is now), and the Loser Point (again, because it’s awful).

You might also notice Jason Arnott skating around in the background. I’m pretty sure it’s because he’s the first player listed alphabetically by last name for Dallas (who is set as my favorite team, obviously), but there could be some other weird reason.

Side note: Arnott was actually my favorite player growing up, and my very first sports jersey. Oddly enough, I can’t remember why he was my favorite, but I’m starting to wonder if this was the game’s way of hypnotizing me into liking him...

Now it’s time to select our team, which will send us down memory lane. This was back when the Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings were in the Western Conference, the Atlanta Thrashers were alive and kicking (Dany Heatley was the cover star), and the Anaheim Ducks were still the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. The pre-lockout NHL ruled.

This being a Dallas Stars blog, I’m naturally going with Dallas as my team of choice. I must admit, however, that I typically don’t pick Dallas when playing NHL games, at least when it comes to the franchise modes. I like to bounce around and play different teams, so it’s only on a rare occasion that I actually pick the Stars.

Here’s our home screen, with the calendar displayed on the right side. While you can only play the games themselves, Dynasty Mode actually lets you schedule practices during your off days. Each day modifies your players’ attributes, morale, and endurance depending on what you do that day, so it’s important to keep a healthy balance.

As we’ll soon see, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to stat modification.

This is the GM’s Office, which is where we’ll make most of our magic happen. We aren’t going to explore every option in the interest of time, but we’ll knock out the important ones.

Here’s the top of our starting roster (goaltenders not included), which is yet another blast from the past. Remember, this is the 2003-04 season, which means Joe Thornton was still a rising star with the Boston Bruins, Mario Lemeiux was nearing the end of his NHL career, and various current GMs and head coaches such as Bill Guerin, Don Sweeney, and Rod Brind’Amour were still active players. As you can see, Guerin is on our roster, and in fact so is Sweeney:

These aren’t the worst players on our team, but they’re very close. Some of them, like Sweeney and Stephane Robidas, won’t be getting better any time soon, but the younger players have nowhere to go but up. In fact, one in particular stands out:

Yes, this is that Steve Ott. And no, that isn’t photoshopped — this game really gave him a potential rating of 98 out of 99.

Like I said: greatest hockey video game of all time.

Here’s the free agency screen, which includes some notable names such as Joe Nieuwendyk and Mark Messier among others. We have free reign to sign whomever we want (and no salary cap to comply with), so I went ahead and picked up Nieuwendyk (my second favorite player growing up), Oleg Tverdovsky, and Boris Mironov.

Next, I went to the phones and started making trade calls. The first move I made was trading Guerin (86 overall) and a third-round pick to the Minnesota Wild for Marian Gaborik (82 overall). Guerin was 33 years old whereas Gaborik was 21 with a 96 potential, so this was a no-brainer (for me, anyways).

Now, if you look closely enough, you can probably see that now that he’s in Minnesota, Guerin is only an 83 overall. And while it’s hidden by the notification, Gaborik has now risen to an 85. These changes are the result of probably my favorite feature from this game: upgrades.

In today’s EA Sports games, you can do stuff like change your ticket prices or upgrade your concessions stand. For the most part, these features are simply fluff, but not in NHL 2004. In this game, how good your team/franchise is is based largely on what upgrades you have.

The left side, staff, is mostly management-based. For instance, a better Legal score means players will sign for less money, with a Level 1 “Law Student” being the worst. The right side, facilities, directly impacts your player’s attributes. Improving your Team Travel score improves their stats in road games, and it’s hilarious to imagine your team traveling across the country in a couple days with a “New Bus” (nevertheless an upgrade over Level 1, an “Old Bus”).

You start with three upgrades and gain more as you receive experience points from making trades, signing players, and winning games. I spent my first upgrades on Coaching (players reach their potential faster) and Equipment Room (increases skating and shooting stats). If we compare our stats with Minnesota’s, we see that we have a better Equipment Room. Hence players are better if they play for Dallas compared to Minnesota.

Of course, we’re not exactly the cream of the crop either — Guerin’s base overall is 92, while Gaborik’s is 91. Still, for the time being, we can take solace in the fact that Texas is a better “state of hockey” than Minnesota.

One more trade for y’all, in which I get Rick Nash (77 base overall) from the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Pierre Turgeron (base 82 overall). Nash is coming off of his rookie year, and I actually think he might be the youngest player in the game. For some reason, I don’t think any of the 2003 NHL Draft picks are on the roster, which is a shame because it’s widely regraded as arguably the best of all time.

Here’s a glimpse of what the Edit Lines feature looks like. My favorite part about this screen is that you can hover over a player and it will display each line that player is a part of. The last one, “Hero,” is essentially your best possible lineup. Basically, it’s for when you absolutely need to score a goal.

Now unfortunately, this game does have some faults. The worst offender, in my opinion, is that there’s no way to turn off the game’s auto-management of your depth chart. Which means either you manually check and update it after every game, or you just let the computer/coach do their thing. The latter results in some good players (like Nash) being played less than objectively worse ones, but given that this is the NHL, this might actually be the most realistic part of the game.

Finally, here’s another one of my favorite features: Office Rewards. Basically, as you gain more experience, you gain different ways to decorate your office. I’m 90% certain the rewards your receive are at random, and as with upgrades, you have a couple to start out with.

For instance, see our Jim Halpert-esque GM sitting there in his white shirt and tie?

Boom, now he’s wearing a hoodie like a Bill Belichick wannabee. We even replaced his old white computer with a matching black one, because he’s edgy like that.

Seriously, this feature is so cool. Completely pointless, but cool.

My original goal was to make actual progress into our Dynasty today, but this is, erhm, long enough already (sorry, Logan). So we’ll stop right here for the day.

Next time: we sim the 2003-04 season, and what might have been different for the Dallas Stars (Spoilers: not much). See y’all then.