NHL video games have typically steered towards more realistic experiences in recent years, but there are many games outside of the main core series that have presented fun times for all.
Here's a look at some of the best games outside of the EA Sports NHL game series:
NHL Hitz 20-03 (Midway)
To say that the NHL Hitz series is iconic would be a tremendous understatement. The outrageous arcade hockey game made by Midway is full of over-the-top fast-paced gameplay with incredible fantasy elements like rinks build on pirate ships, disco dance floors, and teams made up of zombies, medieval knights, and snowmen. Yeah, you're not on drugs.
The fantasy element of the series has lasted the longest as you'll probably come across on YouTube a game between a real NHL team squaring off against the zombies at a rink in the middle of a graveyard. Hitz was also one of the first arcade sports games to have in-depth season and franchise modes. Finding a copy of the game today could cost you a bit, but the experience still holds up well today.
Blades of Steel (Konami)
You can't talk about games that help build hockey gaming without referencing Blades of Steel. Released in 1988, it's still a fan favorite for older hockey fans and gamers.
The game had some of the best graphics among its peers at the time and was light on the rules. Fighting? Only a penalty if you lost the fight. Offsides? Non-existent.
The game also had a tournament mode that saw you battle the rest of the teams in the game's fictional league for the championship. It was unlicensed, but, man, it was a good time.
NHL Rock The Rink (Electronic Arts)
Yes, this list is about non-mainline EA NHL games, but the publisher has ventured into more arcade-like experiences. NHL Rock the Rink was a one-off game for the original Playstation that has to be considered as one of the more unique NHL licensed games of all time.
Rock the Rink leaned hard into the arcade space, but included fictional teams that you played to help unlock the then 28 NHL franchises in different tournaments. Plus, the focus was on scoring a certain number of goals instead of playing to a set time, so the grudge matches with a friend could last a while.
WWE-inspired takedowns of opponents mid-play happened as often as a slapshot and Don Taylor's play-by-play was so absurd, yet funny, that you had to do a double-take at some of the things he would say after a goal or a fight.
Mutant League Hockey (Electronic Arts)
If the modern ESRB existed back when Mutant League Hockey came out, it would absolutely be getting a "Mature" rating.
In the early 90s, Electronic Arts created a gaming series known as Mutant League where zombies, aliens, cyborgs, and other beings from science fiction films got involved in various sports. The first game was Mutant League Football and its sequel went into hockey.
Violence never before seen was the name of the game, as the various rinks would be littered with objects such as chainsaws, axes, and open pits that players could fall through to their doom. Mutant League's style of play also meant that if you incapacitated enough opposing players, you could force a forfeit. Mutant League Hockey was easily one of the more original hockey games of the 90s.
Bush League Hockey (V7 Entertainment)
Hockey games in the era of the Xbox One and Playstation 4 not made by EA Sports are hard to come by, but V7 Entertainment did just that with a game that turned back the clock. Bush League Hockey is a very funny homage to minor pro hockey in the 1970s – think Slapshot.
The game does its best to emulate the vibes of hockey during that era with stand-up goalies donning fiberglass masks, coaches in plaid suits, and helmetless skaters.
It has to also be said that Bush League Hockey is the first hockey game to receive an ESRB "Mature" rating. A rating that's understandable with the fact that bench-clearing brawls, stick fights, and blood as a frequent feature in the game.
Wayne Gretzky's 3D Hockey (Midway)
Midway's first hockey game of the 32-bit era of video gaming was a wild success – and to this day, we still see references to the game on social media. Have you ever seen a meme of a literal brick wall in the net being used when a goalie is having a great game? That came from Wayne Gretzky's 3D Hockey.
Most know the game for being very arcade-like, but that could be changed as you had the ability to play from three on three all the way to full five on five with more simulation-style gameplay.
Stat tracking was also a massive part of the game as your goals, saves, wins would be kept on file by the game in your user profile.
Even with the stat tracking and ability to play a more simulation game, the appeal for many came in the comedic elements such as checking a player high into the air or a shot that would set the net on fire or knock over the goalie along with the net.
NHL Open Ice 2 on 2 Challenge (Midway)
Never played this one? Think NBA Jam. The formula translated well in the first fully licensed hockey game from Midway. Following the success of the Jam series, the game was released in arcades in 1995 promised high-scoring affairs almost every time you fired up a game.
The duo-player format meant smaller rosters, but it helped make for fun matchups. Gretzky and Kurri on the Kings or Yzerman and Federov on the Red Wings? Star-studded matchups aplenty.
3 on 3 NHL Arcade (EA Sports)
NHL Threes inside the current NHL games have been incredibly popular, but it wasn't a new concept from EA. Released in 2009, this title may have been one of the last stand-alone arcade genre games with the NHL license, but it had a soul that reminded players when games like these were commonplace.
The game had two teams – but over 20 NHL players to chose from – and features powerups that could make players shoot harder, skate faster, hit harder, or even freeze opponents in place. For a quick casual game that could be played locally and online, it was a fun deviation from realistic hockey in the PS3/XBOX 360 console generation.
NHL Breakaway 98 (Acclaim)
Acclaim and the NHL Breakaway series are names that are both long gone, but Breakaway 98 was definitely innovative.
Breakaway had a momentum-based system when it came to checking, and bigger players would be able to hit harder than a smaller player – something that wasn't common at the time.
The game was praised for its graphics in the era and its speed – even if at times the controls for players could be a little frustrating.
Breakaway 98 also included full all-star teams as well as full international play with national teams before the Nagano Olympics.