It’s easy to miss the tiny, iterative changes made to each new installments of EA’s NHL franchise. Oftentimes, the alterations are minuscule, tweaks so minor they’re hardly worthy of comment. This is largely true of “NHL 23,″ which released Oct. 14. However, there is one addition to this year’s game worthy of specific commendation — the addition of female hockey players to the game’s Ultimate Team mode.
Change is not something for which EA’s sports franchises are known, but the addition of women to the popular fantasy team-building mode is worth celebrating for what it means to women’s hockey. For those who don’t follow the sport, women have long struggled to earn a fair share of the spotlight occupied by their male counterparts. Female pro players have largely continued to grind through games purely for the love of hockey, absent the endorsements, televised games (outside of the Olympics) and even the paychecks that have been staples of men’s leagues around the globe for decades. Despite the thrilling, tension-drenched clashes between the women’s teams for Canada and the U.S. over the past several Olympics, the stars of those teams have struggled to build a sustainable pro league.
It’s a devastating cycle. The rationale against investing in women’s hockey is that there’s a lack of interest. But without the money to grow the sport’s visibility and popularity, there will always remain relatively few fans.
That’s why the additional integration of female players into “NHL 23” — and the inclusion of Canadian star Sarah Nurse on the cover — is one of the most important additions the game has made over its 30-plus year history. Now, Nurse and other women like her will be more visible than ever to players of the beloved franchise. Players will see and remember their names. Hilary Knight, Kendall Coyne Schofield, Marie-Philip Poulin and other greats now have a chance to be recognized outside for the four-year Olympic cycle.
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This is not going to change anything for the sport overnight. This is a small step with limited substantive impact on the lack of money around women’s hockey. But awareness of women’s hockey is the first step in growing its pro scene. Visibility matters, and this game franchise is a particularly good place to be visible.
Video games are the most popular form of entertainment on the planet, and the NHL, with its work around esports and other gaming initiatives, has leaned into them, helping bring a young audience to hockey. NHL, the video game, has served as an introduction for many to a sport that had been usually reserved for those living in Canada and the Northern U.S. In this way, it has been an educational tool, and an enjoyable one.
Now, with “NHL 23,” it can instruct its users about how good the world’s best female players are as they play alongside men in the Ultimate Team mode. We’ve already seen women players competing with men in real life. Manon Rhéaume played a pair of preseason games with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992 (and is now hired to the Los Angeles Kings’ hockey ops department as a prospect adviser). The aforementioned Kendall Coyne Schofield competed in the 2019 NHL All-Star Skills’ fastest skater competition, beating Clayton Keller of the Arizona Coyotes, and finishing about a second behind winner Connor McDavid. “NHL 23” pushes the women and men even closer together with skill ratings equating for both genders. So if a female player rates 88 overall, she’s just as skilled in “NHL 23” as a male player with the same rating.
“It’s all a level playing field … any top rated women’s player, on the ice in terms of their attributes, will be the same as a men’s hockey player,” Clem Kwong, a producer for “NHL 23” said during a recent interview with The Post. “It’s important not only to represent the landscape of the sport, and the growing popularity and presence of women’s hockey, which we continue to support, but also [to represent the landscape] in terms of the in-game experience.”
Before anyone wishes to question whether this is a realistic approach, please save it. It’s a video game. If you don’t want to use female players on your Ultimate Team, you don’t have to (though you’ll be missing out on some top talent). And while the ratings may be equal, EA’s developers said that size will still matter in terms of the game’s physics.
“A 6-foot-6, 230-pound defender is going to be able to lean on a smaller player, regardless if that player is a man or a woman,” Kwong said.
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For as welcome of an addition the women player are to the Ultimate Team mode, the impact could be even greater. The game will not let a women’s team play against a men’s team. If you want to take on the Team USA women, you can’t do it with the Colorado Avalanche, nor any other men’s roster. I wish it were different. Again, it’s a video game. This is not real. Injuries are not a concern in digital worlds. Why limit it to games against the same gender?
From giving players the chance to set concession prices and upgrade parking garages (needless and a waste of time) to its all-new “last-chance” puck movement mechanic (which lets players get off a desperate pass or shot while falling to the ice and was totally unnoticeable in the games I played), EA has shoehorned a lot of distractions into the NHL franchise over the years. For once, an addition feels substantive. The additional shine given to women players feels resonant. The NHL as a whole has seen women breaking through in more visible ways throughout the game in recent years. It’s good to see them doing the same in the world’s most popular hockey game as well.
Noah Smith contributed to this review.