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Creating New Video Game Sports Memories, Decades Later

Split image: Valeri Kamensky on one side, in a white Nordiques jersey, on the left side that same person but in the 1993 video game NHL '94

I never really played ice hockey. I don’t know how to skate, which experts assure me is an important component in one of the sport's basic skillsets. I did putz around on foot a little in the street with a $15 stick from Modell’s when hockey got hot as the Flyers improved in the 1990s, but I was always more interested in basketball and stickball as pickup sports. My hockey career was nonexistent, as resounding a zero as the number of recent Flyers Stanley Cup victories.

But I did play a lot of video game hockey. It is primarily how I engaged with the sport as a child. A friend on my street had the original NHLPA Hockey for Sega Genesis, and then I got NHLPA ’93 for Sega Genesis. We played them all the time. These are the two I remember playing most, but over time the consensus emerged that NHL ’94 was the GOAT hockey video game.

It makes sense. The game is a more-polished version of the previous two entries, and great by any standard. There’s even an hour-long documentary, Pixelated Heroes, that covers fans’ love for this series. (The scene in Swingers when Vince Vaughn makes Wayne Gretzky’s head bleed is actually NHLPA ’93.)

Yesterday I played the SNES version of NHL ’94 on Twitch as part of my weekly retro video game stream (Tuesdays at 5!). Previously, I learned about a horny Arnold Palmer golf video game. The stream of NHL ’94 taught me the joys of learning about a player through his digital counterpart. That’s because yesterday I won the Stanley Cup with the Quebec Nordiques. Not only did I end the stream with a 16-bit championship cup, but I now also have a new favorite Nordique: Valeri Kamensky.

I attempted to advance in the playoffs a few times, with various teams, before finally securing a win with the Nordiques. I picked them mostly because they had a bunch of ex-Flyers as a result of the Eric Lindros trade before the 1992-93 season. The team eventually won (real, non-Twitch) Stanley Cups in 1996 and 2001, in part with players they acquired for Lindros. But Quebec City received none of the spoils; the team moved to Colorado before the 1995-96 season. “Tabarnak!” Nordiques fans probably said.

In real life, Valeri Kamensky was a left winger for Russian club CSKA Moscow, then the Nordiques/Avalanche, the Rangers, and a few other clubs. He played 637 NHL games and scored 200 goals. He won a Cup with Colorado in 1996 and an Olympic gold medal in 1988. He’s remembered fondly in Colorado for his time with the Avs; his line with Peter Forsberg and Claude Lemieux was apparently called “The UN Line.” In my virtual world, Kamensky was a guy who ran into the goalie a lot.

It had been a while since I’d played a 16-bit era EA Sports NHL game, but I slid right back into my old habits. I scored some goals using the old “skate across from one side to the other, then shoot” trick. I pulled my goalie way too far out of the crease when I got the puck. And I thrust my players right into the opposing team’s goalie with abandon. I was called for interference several times.

Kamensky was the player who, for whatever reason, I kept sending crashing into the goalie. I think he received four penalties for interference in my four playoff games. I began to get frustrated with him. He was “my boy,” though, and it was those two words that I shouted out when I realized it was him that scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal.

It really took me back! Becoming attached to a player simply because of his video game representation was a thing for me, especially with hockey players, in the 1990s. A friend and I used to play with the Bruins, for whatever reason. My friend knew the Bruins’ goalie’s name was “Lemelin.” We decided his first name was Bob, and even sang along to the 16-bit organ music in the game: “You’re our goalie, Bob Lemelin.” It did not matter that his name is Réjean Lemelin. He was Bob. (Maybe we thought R. Lemelin was for “Robert?” I do not remember.)

Three decades later, I got another taste of that experience as Valeri Kamensky got a bunch of penalties and won the Stanley Cup.

Kamensky once scored an incredible, famous spinning goal in an actual hockey game. In my mind his digital goal on my stupid retro video game stream will forever loom larger.

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