To close out video game week across the network for this site, I want to take you back to the Fall of 2004. This was not a good time to be a fan of the New Jersey Devils or any of other NHL teams. The league and player’s union were at odds over the Contract Bargaining Agreement as the league pushed for a hard salary cap and the union argued against one. This would not be resolved. In September 2004, the NHL locked out the players. Unlike the previous lockout, this one lasted for the whole season. There was no 2004-05 season. What was a hockey fan like myself to do? Get out of the real world, call up your friend to come over, and play hours and hours and hours of ESPN NHL 2K5 for the PlayStation 2 (PS2).
As I am a Devils fan, my friend was a Penguins fan. Whereas his youth was delighted by Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr with a mullet, and two Stanley Cups in the early 1990s, the teenage and young adult years were rough from a fan perspective. The team went from great to good to average to not good at all to so bad - on top of potentially moving to Kansas City. A worse fate befell both of us that year: no hockey.
We liked to get together to play hockey games and due to the 2004-05 season being locked out and later cancelled entirely, we played a lot of ESPN NHL 2K5 for the PS2. Years earlier, we both got tired of the NHL series by EA. It was not so much they were bad games. If you have not played earlier games in the series, then you may have wondered why hockey fans and gamers were tired of the series. It was in a rut such that the year-to-year changes were not that interesting and it was largely the same game. The game still sold well enough to justify not fixing what was not broken. There was no lack of competition but no one really emerged with a hockey game to really challenge EA’s dominance. Until NHL 2K3.
The 2K series really began on the Sega Dreamcast in 2000 with NHL 2K. Developed by Black Box Games and published by Sega of America - who would later develop NHL 2004 and NHL 2005 - it was a familiar yet different take on hockey. It was a fine entry on the Dreamcast, but the series really took off a few years later with NHL 2K3. Developed by Treyarch, it was a critical success of a game. Whereas EA’s series straddled the line between arcade-style and simulation-style hockey, Treyarch’s NHL game was more realistic in how hockey was played. Pucks did not magnetically go to sticks. Bounces would go awry. Players had little bars to show how frustrated they would be - and that could lead to being more likely to take a penalty or throw down the gloves. The game looked and felt more like an actual hockey game while playing it. While ESPN in real life was (is) not always preferable for hockey, Treyarch used the license to up presentation value of the game. Gary Thorne and Bill Clement were the broadcasters, the graphics accurately represented the TV broadcast, and the camera work was excellent. And if you had the XBox version, then you could play games online through their XBox Live service. The game was more than a breath of fresh air in the world of hockey games. It was a game that forced EA to step up their game; which they would do.
Needless to say, my friend, myself, and many, many, many other hockey fans turned to NHL 2K3 and the game did well enough to make it a series. The following year, ESPN NHL Hockey came out and it was bigger and better. The franchise mode was reworked. The gameplay was tweaked. There was a Skybox area where you could show off the trophies, achievements, and unlockable content like historical jerseys you earned in the game. Skills competitions and mini-games were added as additional content. If you had the PS2 Network service, then you could play games online as well. Kush Games developed this one and they just added a lot of value to what was already a great title in NHL 2K3. This was a fantastic hockey game. And my friend and I and many, many, many other hockey fans enjoyed this one. Whether it was building a team to play through a season or just hours of head-to-head games, there was a lot of content in this title.
ESPN NHL 2K5 was the follow up and there were more tweaks than anything else. Kush Games added coaches to the franchise mode for additional depth among other changes like using virtual money instead of points for negotiating with players. Online leagues were an option and they also added a “Party Mode” with wackier minigames, all on the ice. Unlockables such as historic teams (e.g. the 1995 New Jersey Devils) and historic jerseys (e.g. the 1929-30 Pittsburgh Pirates) required points earned by achievements in-game such as scoring a goal to winning a faceoff to scoring five goals in a period to winning the Stanley Cup in franchise mode. There were even minigames within the Skybox; yes, minigames off the ice as well as on the ice. The actual game of hockey was tuned up but was largely the same. The biggest feature of this game was not in the game but on the store shelves. Sega put a manufactur suggested retail price of $19.99 when it was released in August 2004. EA did started to make a better hockey game but they could not beat the price. Even if ESPN NHL 2K5 did not represent a big leap forward like the previous two games, you cannot beat a price like $20. Especially since it had more content than the previous entries that released at $59.99. And with the lockout looming and eventually happening, it was $20 well spent.
My friend and I spent countless hours playing each other in this one. It got to a point where both of us would play the game on our own not just for own enjoyment but to try and get better. I hate to admit this now, but my friend really was better at the game than I was. To a point where at least once a visit, he would select Switzerland and make a point of it to try and score with Patrice Delle Russe. The winger was a mainstay of the Swiss national team roster in the 2K games back then. His real name is Patric Della Rossa, who was a regular for the Swiss national team and is in the headline photo checking Jaromir Jagr. And, yes, I would try to beat Switzerland with a superior team - NHL or international - and sometimes I did and more times I care to admit, Mr. Dille Russe or Mr. Mark Streit (actual NHL player) would hand me a ‘L.’ Even if I had someone on the level of Jagr on my team. It was what it was. We would play all kinds of match-ups with the random mode (we would just hit it again if we drew Philly or Our Hated Rivals).
It was a blast to play. It was also necessary for us since there was no NHL hockey to watch, hear, or think about. Back in 2004 and 2005, it was harder to follow other leagues and other games. Streaming video was not that common or viable. There were not many hockey sites or communities online. Even then, my friend and I could only go to HFBoards so many times during a non-season. As both of us among many other fans could not understand why a salary cap was such a non-starter, games like ESPN NHL 2K5 reminded us what makes hockey great in the first place. It is fast, it is filled with action and physical play, there is skill in both attacking and defending, and no matter how good your play is, the opposition can still stop you - unless they cannot. This game filled a void for us and thousands of hockey fans in North America. While I can recognize that NHL 2K3 and ESPN NHL Hockey (a.k.a. NHL 2K4) were the bigger hits, that alone makes ESPN NHL 2K5 special to me.
We played quite a bit of Kush’s sequel, NHL 2K6. The ESPN license was gone and Kush was doing more tweaks than massive changes to the game. There as a pro-control feature where they had an interesting idea in changing how people would play goaltender in the game. I did not catch on to that; I still left that the computer. The Party Modes were expanded a bit. There were many times playing the 2-on-2 mini-rink mode. There was more of Dille Russe styling on me - and I absolutely heard it even if I won like 4-2 if Dille Russe had one of those two goals. Yet, with the return of actual NHL hockey and the game being still similar on the ice to the previous games, the interest started waning. Like EA’s games, the 2K series of hockey games were never bad games on their own but as time went on, those who were familiar with earlier titles had less and less reason to keep getting the new release in the following year.
More than that, my friend and I grew apart. Nothing bad or dramatic happened. It was just the reality of life. He was going one way and I had my own and that was that. I wish him well. Knowing him, he is likely rolling his eyes at Pens fans online worrying about Carey Price. But he was the main reason why many of my memories of NHL 2K series were so fond, particularly NHL 2K5 which filled in a massive NHL-less gap in those times. After writing about four games I played and recalled, this one has the most nostalgia for me. So thank you, my friend. I hope your team does not get skunked by Price in about a month or two from now.
Now I turn to you. Do you have any fond memories of ESPN NHL 2K5? Or any of the other 2K series games whether it was by Black Box, Treyarch, Kush, or Visual Concepts (they did the last few games in the series)? More importantly, what hockey games did you and your friends play a lot of? Especially during that lost 2004-05 season? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game and other hockey games in the comments. Thank you for reading this additional content throughout the week. Thank you for reading.