It’s the dead of night during the spring of 1993 in the rural town of Brooklin, Maine. No cars populate the few streets that wind through the town, and almost no one in their right mind is still awake. Adjacent to the town’s second-oldest house is a two-story white barn, whose rustic exterior belies its contents. Above the hay-strewn floors in the loft is a state-of-the-art office, where computer programmer Mark Lesser is busy at work coding NHL ’94 for the Sega Genesis.
Lesser, a transplant from New York City, knows little about hockey and has no formal training as a computer programmer. Yet he’s about to develop the greatest feature in the most beloved hockey video game of all-time. On that night in 1993, after many hours of changing variables, debugging code, and testing, testing, testing, Lesser has a breakthrough. “Suddenly, I pulled a one-timer, and it was perfect,” he said. “I got a shiver. It was a really joyful moment.”
That might have been the turning point in the creation of NHL ’94, but so much happened before and after in creating hockey’s best classic video game. Oddly enough, it all started with football.
Electronic Arts, a company specializing in computer games, attempts to break into the booming market for home video consoles like Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo (SNES). The San Mateo, Calif., software company releases John Madden Football for both systems. Featuring two-dimensional scrolling and arcade-style play, Madden is immensely successful, so EA decides to try making a hockey game.
MICHAEL BROOK, [Producer, NHL Hockey, NHLPA Hockey ’93 and NHL’94; Designer: NHL ’95]: The idea was we were going to convert the Madden model to the NHL to play a hockey game. We’d get as much as we could in the first version of NHL, and if it was successful, we’d take it further. Unlike with Madden Football, I really wanted to get the league license and player license for our hockey game. Back then, Time Warner handled the licensing for the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association. You couldn’t go to the NHL or the NHLPA directly. Time Warner only gave us the NHL license.
Despite the lack of a license from the NHLPA, EA develops its debut hockey game, simply titled NHL Hockey. Jim Simmons, who programmed John Madden Football for SNES and Genesis, also programs EA’s first hockey game. As producer, Brook imparts his vision of what a hockey video game should be like: fast and hard-hitting, with players willing to drop the gloves.
BROOK: I grew up in Philadelphia in the 1970s, so, as you can imagine, I was a fan of the Broad Street Bullies. That actually had quite an influence on the game. If there was a brand of hockey I was trying to build into the game, it was more like the Flyers than the Soviet Olympic team.
Although NHL Hockey does not have player names, the players in the video game are clearly based on their real-life counterparts. For example, in NHL Hockey, No. 99 on the Los Angeles Kings is great at scoring goals but not at fighting.
BROOK: We brought the game to the 1991 Stanley Cup final. It was set up in the media room. Some of the reporters figured out pretty quickly how to make fights happen. We didn’t have the players’ license, but it’s obvious who No. 99 on the Kings was supposed to be. So, they were getting Wayne Gretzky into fights. Unfortunately, this was all about 10 feet away from the table that NHL president John Ziegler was sitting at with the NHL’s top brass. By the time I arrived home from Pittsburgh after Game 2, the NHL contacted me and wanted us to remove fighting in the game. But it was too late, because the game was already approved, and we had like $10 million worth of cartridges ready to go.
NHL Hockey is released for Sega Genesis in August 1991 and becomes an immediate success. Right away, EA decides to make a sequel for the 1992-93 season. However, it will be without the NHL’s blessing.
BROOK: The NHL said that we’d have to remove fighting from future versions of our game or they would cut their license. So, I had a choice to make. I could get rid of fighting and keep the NHL logos. Or I could keep fighting and take the NHL logos out, which wasn’t as big of a deal as you might think, because we had John Madden Football, and it did not have an NFL license, but people were just fine with the city names and the team colors. I felt pretty strongly that video gamers would be a lot more interested in having fighting in the game than the team nicknames and logos.
BOB BORGEN [L.A. Kings Television Producer / Special Thanks: NHLPA Hockey ’93 and NHL ’94]: I played every hockey video game from Atari all the way up. When NHL Hockey for Genesis came out, it was groundbreaking in so many ways. I was really knocked out by the way the artificial intelligence worked. I just thought it was brilliant.
BROOK: I decided to give it one more shot with the NHLPA and appeal to them directly, because I knew the situation between the NHL and the NHLPA was very acrimonious. I explained what happened with Time Warner to Ted Saskin, their head licensing guy, and director Bob Goodenow. It was news to them that Time Warner had rejected our request for the NHLPA license, but it wasn’t news to them that Time Warner was actually doing this sort of thing. The PA said they’d be more than happy to license the use of the players’ names as long as fighting was kept realistic.
No NHL license? No problem. EA gets to work on its follow-up to NHL Hockey and calls the game NHLPA Hockey ’93, taking the team logos out but leaving the fighting in. Meanwhile, Borgen reaches out to EA to interview Brook for an intermission feature. This encounter has a long-lasting, positive effect on EA’s early hockey video games.
BORGEN: I produced an intermission feature for a Kings game about hockey video games during the 1991-92 season and arranged to visit EA Sports. I interviewed Michael and shot footage of them working on the next game. I did another feature, where Larry Robinson, Rob Blake, Dave Taylor and John McIntyre played the upcoming game, against each other and the computer. They got into it and had fun.
JOHN McINTYRE [L.A. Kings center / Special Thanks: NHLPA Hockey ’93]:They brought the game into the dressing room, had some of us play it and wanted our input on it, whether we noticed some things that weren’t very accurate. This was the first video game that I played that wasn’t in an arcade. I seem to remember giving feedback on icing or delayed offside. I know we did chirp a couple of things that weren’t true to life. The hardest part for us was just figuring out how to play it. It took us a while even to do that, let alone for us to figure out what was wrong or abnormal.
BROOK: When we were making NHLPA Hockey ’93, we had to bring it to the NHLPA licensing committee for approval. We weren’t allowed in the room, so I’m sitting in the foyer, waiting for the meeting to end. Saskin comes out and he’s shaking his head. Apparently, the players on the committee noticed that they had individual player ratings in the game. Ken Baumgartner was on the committee. He came over to me and said, “I’m Ken Baumgartner, the guy you gave a zero rating for intelligence.” It never really dawned on me that I’d actually meet the players. I tried to do my best on these ratings. There was some statistical basis. Intelligence, it was really Offensive Awareness. Baumgartner had one point and 225 penalty minutes in 55 games. So, it isn’t like he was going to make much of an impact in scoring. That led to some changes. We had to take the ratings more seriously.
Borgen gets Brook in touch with Igor Kuperman, a former sportswriter from Moscow who now works in hockey operations for the Winnipeg Jets, to rate the players.
IGOR KUPERMAN [Winnipeg Jets’ Director of Hockey Information / Player Ratings: NHLPA Hockey ’93 & NHL ’94]: I had to rate players in 12 categories, such as accuracy, shot power, checking, passing ability and fighting, on a scale of zero to six. I also had to figure out who was on the first power play, second power play, first penalty-killing unit and second penalty-killing unit.
BROOK: It’s a lot safer to tell a player that a hockey-operations guy rated you this way rather than a video-game guy who has never seen you play.
KUPERMAN: I got in a little trouble with Tie Domi. He always grilled me why his NHL ’94 ratings were lower than Bob Probert’s.
BROOK: I took Igor’s ratings as a guideline and converted them from a 0-to-6 rating to a rating out of 100, using additional information and stats, and included a random factor.
KUPERMAN: It was all handwritten on these forms that EA would send me, because personal computers were just at their beginning. I’m a perfectionist, and I wanted this to be perfect, too. It was hard without computers for sorting. I had to visually cross-reference these pages to make sure the ratings were more or less fair. It would be a lot easier with Excel now, but back then it was hard.
EA decides to brand all its sports games as ‘EASN’ – Electronic Arts Sports Network. Ron Barr, the host of the national talk-radio show Sports Byline USA, is already involved with some of EA’s other sports titles and is brought on to be the face of NHLPA Hockey ’93, giving pre-game scouting reports.
BROOK: We had these diverse sports games out there, which weren’t really connected in any way. But the EA Sports Network, the idea of branding all our games together, made sense as our sports games were starting to take off. We wanted an announcer to tie in with EASN, and Ron Barr had a radio show, so he seemed like he’d be appropriate.
RON BARR [Radio Host / In-Game Anchor: NHLPA Hockey ’93 & NHL ’94]: People would call my show and say, “By the way, I saw your game.” I don’t know why they thought I made the games, but I’d ask what they liked about it. It was a consumer endorsement that EA could not have gotten any other way. That really amplified consumer involvement and how much they liked the games.
BROOK: We were going to do some television advertising on ESPN, and they really took offense to us using EASN, which was kind of a knock-off of ESPN. They kicked up a stink, so we just shortened it to EA Sports.
ESPN files a trademark infringement over EA using EASN branding on its games. The dispute is settled out of court. Earlier versions of NHLPA Hockey ’93 bear the ‘EASN’ logo on the box, instructions and game label, while later versions use the ‘EA Sports’ logo. The game is released for SNES and Genesis and is a hit, so EA starts planning its next sequel: NHLPA Hockey ’94. The initial plan is to keep fighting in and not involve the NHL.
BROOK: NHLPA Hockey ’93 was super-successful and met all of our expectations. So, now we were going to do NHLPA Hockey ’94, and the players were really excited about it. The only people not excited about the product was the NHL. They basically felt that they were one-upped by the NHLPA.
Simmons gets moved to another project at EA, so Brook tasks Mark Lesser with programming NHLPA Hockey ’94 for Genesis. Lesser is the programmer of Mattel’s Auto Race, the first-ever hand-held video game, and of John Madden Football ’93. Also, he knows nothing about hockey.
MARK LESSER [Programmer: NHL ’94 & NHL ’95 for Genesis, plus numerous other hockey titles for EA]: My introduction to hockey came through doing that game. I had never watched hockey on television. I had gone to a college game here and there, but I didn’t know anything about the sport. I was intrigued by it, because it lent itself to being a video game really nicely. In football, you have this problem with “skating.” It’s a technical term when you try to make the player run on the screen, but it is very hard to synch the motions of their legs with the scrolling of the screen on older game systems, so it appears like they are skating. In hockey, obviously, we don’t have that problem because they do skate. That, and the speed of it, and the fact that it’s a smaller playing area than football made me think that this would be a really cool game to do.
BROOK: It was meant to be a really fun representation of hockey. There were so many times where we chose fun over what would truly be realistic. So, there are no referees skating around, and you could turn off offside. We wanted some semblance of good goalkeeping and, obviously, if you can push around the goalkeeper, that’s going to destroy the game, so we made our goalies invincible. Any time there was a decision between what would really be fun and what you would put in a simulation, we went with what was fun. We almost always went to the root of how we could stay semi-realistic but still make it an amazing video game.
LESSER: We couldn’t do a lot of sophisticated things, so we didn’t have to worry about that. You don’t want the realism of watching a game. You want to make it feel good, not look good. Camera angle, scrolling, puck control and speed. Those are the things you want, and you want to distort those. You don’t want them real.
For the organ music in the game, Borgen puts Brook in touch with an old acquaintance: organist Dieter Ruehle, who had worked for the Kings in the past, then moved on to ply his trade with the San Jose Sharks, and has since returned to the Kings. If you ever find yourself humming Here Come the Hawks after playing NHL ’94, you have Ruehle to thank.
BROOK: Dieter said that he knew all the music that every team played, and I thought that would be so cool to build into the game.
DIETER RUEHLE [Los Angeles Kings Organist / Organist: NHL ’94 & NHL ’95]: When I was a kid, I’d watch a lot of baseball and hockey games on TV and pay special attention to the music I’d hear. That would help me learn how to play those arena-specific songs. As a kid, I didn’t think I could just go out and buy the sheet music to Brass Bonanza. Maybe it existed, I didn’t know, so I just learned it and other songs by ear.
BROOK: We were recording the organ music that the Washington Capitals play on the power play, and Dieter mentions that the Caps’ organist has arthritis and can’t hit a particular note right, and asks if he should play it how she plays it or the way it is supposed to be played. Immediately, I say, “Oh, no, you have to play it the way she plays it.” I didn’t know if people were going to catch that, but if they did, it was going to be really cool.
RUEHLE: I remember the little nuances, how organists would play. Like Vince Lascheid, the organist in Pittsburgh, would play, Let’s Go Team in a 1-4-1 pattern, instead of the 1-5-1 pattern that the Caps’ organist would do.
Canadian Michael J. Sokyrka, a piano teacher turned video-game music guy, composes the title and menu theme music.
MICHAEL J. SOKYRKA [Music: NHL ’94]: I grew up watching Hockey Night in Canada. That music had some inspiration for the instrumentation and orchestral approach to the themes on NHL ’94. Part of my instrumentation was an electric guitar, cowbell and drums. I tried to use some horns, but the sample sounded pretty horrible.
To help make NHLPA Hockey ’94 more realistic, Borgen has Brook bring a demo of the game to his house and invites Kings coach Barry Melrose and assistant coach Cap Raeder to give some insight.
BARRY MELROSE [L.A. Kings Head Coach / Special Thanks: NHL ’94]: I was always about the physical play, the hitting and such. I suggested making the hitting and the fighting more realistic. And I think the kids love two guys squaring off, having a scrap. I was impressed with what EA showed me. I remember Pong and Atari and Commodore 64, and it was amazing how far video games had come by 1993.
BROOK: Bob Borgen was really instrumental in helping us make the early games more realistic by getting us those inroads with people who could really help. That’s really invaluable, to sit with someone like Barry Melrose and show him the game and get feedback.
EA tasks its Canadian branch to develop NHLPA Hockey ’94 for the Super Nintendo and for personal computers. One programmer takes Lesser’s code and ports it to the SNES, while other programmers work on the PC version of the game.
AMORY WONG [Programmer: NHL ’94 for SNES]:I played hockey since I was a kid. Ice hockey, road hockey, floor hockey, any hockey you could play. I was passionate about getting to program a hockey video game. This was my first Super Nintendo project, so I was getting all the hardware specs for the first time. I had to read these development manuals that were poorly translated from Japanese. Sometimes, we had to contact Nintendo to hear what the translations meant.
NHLPA Hockey ’94 comes very close to being released without an NHL license and with fighting still in the game, but then Brook reaches a crossroads. CD-ROM-based game systems are growing in popularity, and EA wants to include full-motion video in its hockey game for Sega CD.
BROOK: The NHL owned the rights to its game footage. We basically cut a last-minute deal with the NHL, because we had a lot of leverage in the sense that we were going to start producing the cartridges next month, so we could build them into the game as part of a longer-term deal. And of course, they wanted to get in on that product. We agreed to rip fighting out of the game because we didn’t have time to negotiate anything more than that. We felt like we needed to give them that win. We actually had a really cool version of fighting, but that feature got ripped out of the game, and the NHL logos and team names were put in instead. And of course, the name of the game was changed to NHL ’94.
LESSER: The fighting (in NHLPA Hockey ’94) was improved. It was much better than the fighting in the earlier games. I spent time tuning it. We had different graphics. The animations were better. There were some new moves, pulling jerseys over an opponent’s head, or a guy is about to almost fall down and then he snaps back up. Players responded to punches in a more realistic way. There was blood, too. But this was all pulled. It was a total waste of time.
BROOK: Eventually, we were able to negotiate having fighting back (for NHL ’96). We said that we would keep it to a realistic level, and the guys who don’t fight won’t fight at all, so you’ll never see Wayne Gretzky fight in our game.
NHL ’94 comes out in September 1993 for Sega Genesis, October 1993 for Super Nintendo and January 1994 for Sega CD. That version has narration by Ron Barr and improved music and sound, as well as video. The now-iconic photograph on the cover of NHL ’94 shows a Kings-Bruins matchup at the Boston Garden from March 15, 1992. Tomas Sandstrom of the Kings swoops in on Bruins goalie Andy Moog, with Clark Donatelli in pursuit and Ray Bourque attempting a diving pokecheck. For the record, the Bruins won the game 5-1, and Moog stopped Sandstrom on his attempt.
STEVE BABINEAU [Boston Bruins Photographer / Package Photos: NHLPA Hockey ’93 & NHL ’94]: EA needed a generic action photo with three or four players. Then there are no rights or revenues that need to be paid to those (pictured) players. When you use an isolated photo of a player on a box cover, you had to pay that player money, because it was considered an endorsement.
ANDY MOOG [Boston Bruins Goalie / Pictured on the box of NHL ’94 for SNES, Genesis and Sega CD]: I had a little lead knowledge that I would be on the box cover of NHL ’94. I was on the NHL Players’ Association licensing committee, and I was told that I was going to be on the game package that year. I equated it to being on a box of hockey cards, which always came with a little bit of bragging rights around the league.
NHL ’94 also comes out in the fall of 1993 for IBM PCs but is called NHL Hockey. Like the Sega CD version, the PC version includes full-motion video and Barr’s voice. This game uses a different photo, of a Bruins-Whalers game, with Steve Konroyd front and center.
STEVE KONROYD [Hartford Whalers Defenseman, Pictured on box cover of NHL ’94 for DOS & CD-ROM]: I didn’t know I was on the cover right away. It was a couple of years later when I found out, when someone asked me to sign the box cover. Didn’t get any royalties, but I’m smack-dab in the middle. I just got lucky. I was in the right place at the right time. It gave me a little bit of street cred with my kids.
BABINEAU: That box-cover photo is incorrectly credited to me. It was taken by my son Brian. It was the first photo he ever sold.
NHL ’94 receives overwhelmingly positive reviews from video-game magazines at the time. It also makes Jeremy Roenick hockey’s biggest video-game star, putting him in the same league as Pac-Man and Super Mario as far as video-game characters go. Roenick’s in-game ratings are high where it counts, but a flaw in the Sega Genesis version of the game – known as the “weight bug” – makes lighter players hit harder, turning Roenick into an absolute wrecking ball in the Genesis version.
JEREMY ROENICK [Chicago Blackhawks Center]: If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me about NHL ’94, I would never have to do a damn thing again in my life.
LESSER: Yeah…oh, boy. The weight bug. I don’t know if it was an inherited bug. I don’t mean to blame anybody. It could very well have been my code. It was easy enough to do, just inverting two numbers.
Adding to Roenick’s video-game legacy was a scene in the 1996 film Swingers, where the characters are playing NHLPA Hockey ’93 on a Sega Genesis. Vince Vaughn’s character Trent utters the now-famous line, “It’s not even so much me as it’s Roenick. He’s good,” then dishes out a check to “make Wayne Gretzky’s head bleed.”
ROENICK: I remember seeing Vince a couple years later, in a bar in L.A., and that’s when we became friends. I thanked him for putting me in the movie. He told me that he grew up in Chicago and put me in the movie out of respect for how much he loved watching me play.
BROOK: One of Gretzky’s major talents was his extraordinary level of awareness. If you took control of him, then it was your awareness, not his. A guy like that was a star when you played against him, but you were much better off being somebody who had more physical skills combined with speed, like Roenick. It definitely created its own aura of who was a star in our video games.
Naturally, EA goes to work on its next hockey game, NHL ’95, which features trading between teams, the ability to create players and the much-anticipated full-season mode. NHL ’95 seems poised to become the next great hockey video game. But it doesn’t.
LESSER: The reason I went into engineering to begin with was to escape the real world. I like machines. I’m not really a people person. And I really hated politics. With that, a whole lot went on at EA that I was not aware of and didn’t want to be aware of. I’m trying to absorb myself into this game, and I hear all this stuff. Michael left EA altogether. It was kind of on a business level, and it confused me, and really diverted my attention on NHL ’95. I don’t blame Michael, but on those games, I really needed to just focus on the game and nothing else.
BROOK: If you worked for EA, you just got your salary and maybe a bonus if you did a good job. But if you worked as a contractor for EA, you got royalties, which were running into millions of dollars. It wasn’t that I wasn’t well compensated. I was. I wanted a more direct relationship with the profits of the product. So, I left EA after NHL ’94 and was the developer of NHL ’95. Every producer gets to set the creative direction. I relinquished my influence and control as the producer, to be on the royalty side of the equation. The creative direction really changed with NHL ’95.
LESSER: There’s an underlying truth in what happened with NHL ’95, but it had to do with disruption. It left the game in a dangling state. The worst part of the game, in my mind, was the speed. A lot of people gave their input, but the game came out before we got it just right. They wanted a faster game. They decided that a faster game was going to be better. And it wasn’t, for a lot of reasons. The physics weren’t able to keep up with the speed of the puck. The thing looked choppy. There was something specifically delicious about the slowness of the puck in NHL ’94, and that was taken away in NHL ’95. We tried to change the size of the arena, and it didn’t work out.
BROOK: The NHL series took a real shift. The people who came in after me had a different vision for the game. Development of the game eventually went to EA Canada. It made sense for a hockey video game to be developed in Canada. So, I took over the Sega side of our business and continued to develop games for royalties, like the NFL series.
LESSER: Before working on NHL ’96, I went to EA to talk to the producers. I was talking about the design spec for the new game. Scott Probin, one of the producers, walks me down to an auditorium, filled with customer-service people from EA, the people who have to interface with the public, and they’re talking to me about the seriousness of one of the bugs in NHL ’95. I thought they were going to fire me. They never did.
BROOK: There was a bug in NHL ’95, and it was pretty bad. If you played out an entire season, and hit 128 points in the standings, you would be wrapped back to 0 points. That kind of sucked. Imagine having a dominant team, and, oops, you were just a bit too good, and now you’re not making the playoffs. That’s a pretty bad bug for a game that advertises that its newest feature is full-season play.
LESSER: I took responsibility. I thought they were going to kill me in that auditorium. “Programmer stoned to death!” I could almost feel it. I felt really bad. This stuff happens. Once again, it’s a single programmer, one guy, doing everything. Programming, tuning, fixing bugs. There’s a lot of pressure.
Meanwhile, Wong is not involved in NHL ’95 for the SNES.
WONG: After NHL ’94, EA moved me over to the NBA Live series. EA’s NBA game wasn’t very good anymore, so they wanted a new engine. So basically, I took the good parts of NHL ’94 and put that into NBA Live. I worked on that game series for six years. I wasn’t a basketball fan, but I became one, so I thought it was a lot of fun. It was good timing to have the (Vancouver) Grizzlies and do the game at the same time.
EA continued to release its hockey games for the Genesis and Nintendo, with the Genesis and SNES versions of NHL ’98 being its last 2-D hockey games. NHL ’97 and NHL ’98 were also made with a 3-D engine for new systems like the PlayStation and Sega Saturn. But it was NHL ’94 that endured, with a generation of fans continuing to play the game through college. Today, there are online leagues that play NHL ’94, annual tournaments and even a documentary coming out in October.
LESSER: How many games can you list, maybe 10, maybe 20, that have that kind of longevity, 25-year longevity? NHL ’94 was groundbreaking. It was the first full-featured hockey game.
MOOG: We (players) all probably thought that electronic gaming was just a phase or a little trend that was going on and didn’t think it would amount to much, to be honest (laughs). We were all very naive about what this could turn into.
WONG: The power of the gaming machines at the time were very limited, so the graphics for NHL ’94 were not as nice as later games. But that gave us more time to concentrate on making the game play well.
BARR: My wife and I were on a flight from Atlanta to San Francisco, and the flight attendant came up and said that two kids recognized me and asked if it was all right if they could meet me. I said of course. So, they come over, they were brothers about 11 and 13, and one brother asks me, “Are you the dude in the hockey game?” And I said, “Yeah, I’m the dude in the hockey game,” and he turns to his brother and says, “I told you so!” I always wanted to be known in my career as the dude in the hockey game (laughs).
ROENICK: It’s one of my favorite things in the world, to be synonymous with a video game, and an icon in a video game. It’s a really cool stature to have. I just wish that I played the game in real life as well as I did the gaming world.
LESSER: One of the things I noticed in my life is a lot of things that I thought would happen over and over again were one-time things. I always thought that working on NHL ’94 was a lot of fun, and that there would be lots of other games like that. But really, it didn’t pan out that way. There was something special about doing NHL ’94 that didn’t repeat itself. One doesn’t really know what’s important when it happens.
BORGEN: To quote Ken Dryden, “The ‘golden age of sports,’ the golden age of anything, is the age of everyone’s childhood.” When the right thing hits you at the right time of your life, it will stay with you always. NHL ’94 hit a lot of people at the right age at the right time.
This story appears in the November 5, 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.