While he laid there, brains scrambled on the ice, I couldn't help but feel sorry for Eric Lindros. I was a young, impressionable scamp with an insatiable thirst for what would now be the equivalent of "really, really old time hockey" but, in light of the situation, this mentality seemed overly excessive and left me feeling perverted for being so enamoured with this form of aggression.
My introspection was then suddenly cut off by the awestruck teenager sitting beside me, my buddy Tom.
TOM: "That was awesome!"
ME: "I feel dirty for having watched this. Look at Lindros; he's mangled. This is bad."
TOM: "Disagree. Awesome."
In the meantime, Lindros had picked his wobbly carcass off the ice as fans at the First Union Center booed vociferously over the fact the referees failed to levy a penalty against Scott Stevens.
ME: "Dude, that should have been a penalty."
TOM: "No way! That hit was less damaging than something you'd see in an EA Sports game."
ME: "You're crazy."
And with that we took off to the dreary depths of my basement in order to see whether or not we could inflict more damage than Stevens had on my PSX copy of EA Sports NHL 2000. Turns out Tom was right, our virtual players did far more damage than Stevens. We started off trying to re-inact the hit -- he as the New Jersey Devils, I as the Philadelphia Flyers -- before I started to regain the taste for bone-jarring hits. Soon after we were straying away from the Battle of the Jersey Turnpike and began using teams from difference divisions, conferences, even nationalities. Shawn Bates had unmentionable things done to his spleen on multiple occasions that night.
Four hours after Scott Stevens had wiped the mind of Eric Lindros' free of any clear cerebration, NHL 2000 had done the same to us. The health of Lindros' was but an afterthought now; sad after I had just taken to my soapbox, puffed my chest and proclaimed hockey needed a change (thankfully it finally has over he past three years).
The truth of the matter is that the EA Sports franchise desensitized our generation to the brutality that was the big hit. Unfortunate as that was, at the same time this video game brought my circle of friends closer during our adolescence while we battled through trying times. Whether it was adjusting to life in the big city, lusting over a lost love, divorce or grieving the death of a family member, NHL 2000 was there for us. In sickness and in health, for richer of for poorer, there was Chris Pronger's face, ready to pick us up. On an almost daily basis we would huddle around a 27" Sanyo TV in my aforementioned basement to see which of us could inflict the most injuries on our opponents.
It wasn't all about the wheel, snipe, celly back then. One of the most vivid memories my friends and I still share revolves around the big hit. We had a friend, Chris, who loved to stack his team with the best players. He would select the Boston Bruins and trade for all the big name players in hopes that he could actually beat us. We allowed it because he didn't play as much and we were confident in our video game hubris. Sakic, Forseberg, Selanne, Kariya; he would trade for them all until his team maxed out at a 99 overall.
This particular day, he had acquired the talents of an aging Brett Hull via the Dallas Stars. Though Brett was getting long in year's, his video game personality was in his absolute prime; a player with deceptive speed and a cannon of a shot. Chris matched up against Tom and implored him to use Team Kazakstan in hopes for an easy win. Up for the challenge, Tom obliged. The game started thusly:
CHRIS: "Let me take a slap shot with Hull."
TOM: "[Expletive] no!"
CHRIS: "Come on man, I'm going to beat you anyway.... Ok here's Hull! He's got the puck aaaaaannndddddd...."
What happened next was a thing of lore. Hull was given a concussion by a Kazakh defenseman with a 50-something overall rating. Chris was furious. He ended up losing the game 2-0 despite his bevy of talent. We all laughed. And still do to this day. I don't see Chris much anymore, but Tom and I still regale in how awesome that moment was. It was right up there with shouting the name Karl Dykhuis at the top of our lungs in the wee hours of the morning until my parents freaked out.
Yes, the big hit has given the NHL a black eye over the years. Lindros, Marc Savard, Keith Primeau, Geoff Courtnall, Adam Deadmarsh and Pat LaFontaine headline a list of players who have seen their careers cut short by concussions. Tragic, as their life expectancies are likely to be shortened as well. But in the world of video games, the big hit wasn't malicious. It wasn't perverted. It didn't have fans at each others throats -- save for a brief exchange between Chris and Tom. The big hit was full of wonder and whimsy. A perfectly timed blow that sent your buddies' defenceman barrel-rolling into the corner was enough to erupt the room into a frenzy.
The big hit was poetry in motion, majestic and oft-coveted. And it was so powerful that it united a group of teenaged friends who now together were in pursuit of a common goal. We were all just Swingers back then. We all wanted to make Gretzky's head bleed.