The cover of a sports game is a place where the real greats of the game belong. Frozen in suspended animation, looking focused, about to do something cool, they tell you all about their sport in one fell swoop of eye. Posture, insignia, iconography. They are the embodiment of why anyone would want to play this sport and, by extension, this video game.
At least that’s what we thought until we saw Kyle Turris on the front of NHL Supercard 2K18. Because like the NBA, ice hockey’s various licensed titles don’t always go for the obvious athlete for their coverage. Sometimes, it seems, the marketing folks give up, write every player’s name in the league on slips of paper, and let a cat choose one of those names. And just like that: congratulations, Owen Nolan.
Before we drop the puck, let’s first mention that none of the players we’re about to name are even close to bad. They are all fantastic and would have been on the front lines of most teams in the league at the time of their coverage. They’re just… bizarre choices. Let’s explain.
Auston Matthews scored four goals on his 2016 debut, which makes this Leafs first overall pick pretty smart. Since then, he has been one of the most productive and exciting players in the league. He put it all on the line in the 2022 playoffs and while that wasn’t enough to defeat defending champions Tampa, he looks certain for a Stanley Cup at some point. Oh, and he scored a career-high 60 goals and 106 points in the 2021-22 regular season.
So he’s not here because he’s bad. And just because he looks like Rami Malek doing a Struck to restart. That’s because he was also on the cover of NHL 20. It was two games ago.
It’s not like EA is giving Ovi two covers to celebrate its longevity, NHL 07 and then NHL 21. It’s a lot more like EA saying, “NHL 20 did pretty well with this Matthews cover. We should do something like this again. Ideas?”
“Done. It’s lunch, people.
Of all the right wingers you didn’t want to attack with a head full of steam on the ice in 2000, Owen Nolan was the least desirable figure. 215 pounds of Northern Irish guts ready to flatten anyone on the blue line and blast his way into the slot, Nolan had just finished a career year in 1999-2000 with 84 points when EA decided that would be the face of his hockey franchise that year. .
There are a few issues with this. One: If I handed you a pen and paper and asked you to name the big stars of ice hockey in the year 2000, you’d probably run out of notepads before you got to Owen Nolan. Two: his Sharks are not part of the emblematic teams of the period, rarely going beyond the first round of the playoffs. Three: Generally, we think of soft, flexible players as cover athletes. Nolan was a 28-year-old striker with high penalty minutes. As the Red Wings, Avalanche and Devils battled for the Stanley Cups with their iconic rosters and Kariya, Selanne et al graced the posters of the day, Nolan just buckled up and carried on.
Why doesn’t Zach Parise feel like an exciting and inspiring player? He’s certainly had some longevity in his career after being drafted 23rd overall by the Devils in 2006. And he’s had success, too, recording multiple 50-plus-point seasons over the years. He was just never The Guy in the league, the player everyone is looking for in free agency; the key piece that all budding cup contenders try to bring to make up their minds over the bump.
It probably doesn’t help that Parise was one of New Jersey’s most visible figures during the team’s gradual decline from dynasty to divisional basement dweller. It was the era of the Devils’ disastrous contracts like Kovalchuck’s infamous 15-year contract, and Elias’ rather generous one in retrospect as well. It wasn’t really Parise’s fault that they were no longer permanent finalists. He was just wearing the jersey back then, doing his best.
Yet you see it on the cover of a game, and you say to yourself: Zach Parise?
As we mentioned before, EA doesn’t have a habit of giving multiple covers to the same athlete lightly. Ovechkin got both of those coverages by posting numbers close to Gretzky’s for over a decade. Matthews… well, we’ve got Matthews covered. But there’s no denying that he’s one of the league’s most recognizable and exciting superstars.
That brings us to the only other NHL athlete to feature on more than one cover, including an international version (Mark Streit is a multi-cover star in the Swiss version, mind you). Ladies and gentlemen… Markus Naslund.
He’s a three-time All-Star, posted more than 50 point seasons with incredible consistency, and won the Lester B. Pearson Award in 2003. And even after achieving all of that, the natural and quite logical reaction to seeing him on two separate EAs NHL covers is: what.
That’s likely due to the Canucks’ patchy playoff history at the time. Like Owen Nolan’s Sharks in the early 2000s, they’re not one of the first teams you think of when you think of that era. Certainly not as easily as one might think of Ovechkin or Matthews in the modern age. And yet there he is, proud star of two games from EA Sports’ best hockey game era.
This one is not strictly Phaneuf’s fault. In the late 2000s, he had the kind of buzz that’s very hard for a defenseman to get in the league, and he was part of a Flames team that was great to watch. If anyone on the blue line deserved a cover appearance back then, it was Phaneuf.
That is, until Sean Avery performed. Avery will go down in history as one of the sport’s most detestable figures, conducting himself on and off the ice like a pantomime villain who only grows stronger under the boos and shouts of his opponents. Even a loose association with this man during his time in the league was bad news.
So when Avery told the press he was amused by other NHL players after his “sloppy seconds” after it was revealed Phaneuf was dating his ex Elisha Cuthbert, that coverage instantly took a hit. different context. NHL 09 was now the Hollywood couple’s media spitting game. Avery was suspended for six games following his remarks and the Stars immediately cut ties with him, but he had already done wrong: you saw Dion Phaneuf and you thought of Sean Avery.
Oh, NHL Supercard. Back with another totally evocative athlete in 2K18, and this time it’s Kyle Turris gracing the cover. You’d probably want him in your organization, if he was happy with third-line minutes and a cap-friendly contract. But never since being drafted into the league in 2007 has a young kid watched their first hockey game and asked, “Mom, Dad…who is that?” that? When I grow up, I want to be like him!
He’s just not that guy. He’s a player with a career-high 26 goals in a season. When he was on this cover, Connor McDavid was scoring 108 points at the age of what, three? Laine, Mackninnon and Point all made headlines with their performance as youngsters. The Golden Knights were on a fairy tale journey to the cup final in their first year. But no: the season is immortalized on this cover with an image of Kyle Turris passing the puck with all the intensity of a nature show voiceover.
You see the formula now, don’t you? Great player + season or team with several other memorable great players not featured = odd cover star. Chris Drury was indeed a great gamer, and at the height of his powers when he made this cover. Unfortunately for him, he is not Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg or Patrick Roy. History first remembers this triumvirate of players when it comes to the great Avalanche dynasty of the 90s and early 2000s, an element as important as Drury.
Maybe 2K approached these three first and they all declined. Maybe someone on the team was a huge Drury fan. Who knows.
The season after his cover appearance, Drury moved to the Flames, a team you instantly become “Jarome Iginla” when you think of. Poor Chris.
Finally, after a long list of dodgy players who made it on the cover, here is one unquestionably iconic who never made it. Sidney Crosby, generational talent, one of the league’s deadliest players from his rookie year to the present day. Yet to adorn a game cover.
Realistically, one has to imagine that it’s Sid the Kid’s choice, and not an incredible series of rebuffs from EA and 2K. Yes, he’s a divisive figure, perhaps in part because he sank most of the Eastern Conference at one point or another in his playoff career, but he didn’t. also not that laid-back, “isn’t it fun to play hockey” vibe that Ovechkin has. Maybe the executives thought he would be bad news on a cover?
It would be madness, of course. More likely, Crosby just wanted to focus on hockey and, as a famously superstitious athlete, didn’t want to tempt fate by giving in to vanity for a second and letting a game worship him. See also: Evgeni Malkin.
Written by Phil Iwaniuk on behalf of GLHF.