Players take charge of their favorite ice hockey teams in this sports management sim from across the Atlantic. The game features over 200 different international teams in total, including all clubs from the NHL as well as 17 other leagues. Virtual managers have influence over nearly every aspect of team management, from recruiting and trades to practice schedules and playing styles, but a competent staff of virtual coaches is available, who can run certain parts of the team program and allow the gamer to focus on others. NHL Eastside Hockey Manager was developed by Sports Interactive Limited, best known as the creator of the Championship Manager series, which has enjoyed perennial popularity among European soccer fans.
The name's a bit odd. NHL Eastside Hockey Manager sounds more like an urban survival game than a text-based hockey management simulation, but don't let the confusing moniker throw you. This wonderful little gem from UK-based Sport Interactive (based on a freeware game from Finnish developer Risto "Riz" Remes) is just what the team doctor ordered as NHL-starved hockey fans prepare for the long, cold winter lockout of 2004/2005.
Featuring eighteen playable international leagues with more than 200 club teams (including obscure Junior A and Junior B Canadian franchises) and over 20,000 players and staff, Eastside Hockey Manager is easily the deepest and most comprehensive hockey management simulation on the market. There are no flashy 3D gameplay screens here -- and cutting-edge hardware certainly isn't needed -- but, once you slide into the general manager's chair in this game, you'll be very hard-pressed to step away.
The game boasts full NHL and NHLPA licensing, and most serious hockey fans will opt to take the reigns of their favorite NHL team and chase for the Stanley Cup. And not just once. After you sign on as GM, you can attempt to build a Montreal Canadiens-style dynasty with your selected franchise through years (or decades) of savvy contract negotiations, player acquisitions, trades, and draft choices. Meddlesome Bobby Clark types can also stick their noses into the coach's office and adjust player rosters, set line combinations, bench underperforming players, and even pull the goalie in close games.
Despite its seemingly infinite gameplay options and styles, however, Eastside Hockey Manager isn't faultless, and this was driven home two seasons into my tenure as GM of the Vancouver Canucks. I decided to take things cautiously the first year so I left the coaching chores to Mark Crawford's experienced staff as I struggled to keep my core players happy and engage the fans with a fast, entertaining brand of hockey. Contract negotiations were surprisingly easy, a gaggle of scouts kept me informed on up-and-coming prospects and the game's player movement mechanics -- from farm team call-ups to minor trades -- proved quite engrossing.
Some real-time or accelerated text updates notwithstanding, you don't actually watch the games in progress, and the absence of audio -- even some barebones crowd noise and music -- makes for an austere gaming environment, but after a while you're too busy to even notice. As my learning curve ran its initial course, I rode the Canucks to a tenth place Western Conference finish, missing the playoffs by eight points.
I didn't get fired (hell, the board of directors was actually pleased with my performance) so I rolled up my sleeves and took a more hands-on approach to my sophomore season. When the free-agent market opened up, I capitalized on one of the game's more egregious faults by signing Chris Pronger, Glen Murray, Bill Guerin, and Lyle Odelein for a modest average salary of 3.8 million dollars. I already had Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi locked up, so I was now sitting on a talent-laden dream team with an unexpectedly modest payroll.
Our group lived up to expectations and took the NHL's President's Cup the following season with a dominating 56-win, 124-point regular season performance. (Although, sadly, they were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by an underrated Los Angeles team.) It was at this point that a few previously unseen anomalies cropped up, some minor and some quite significant. First, some of my players sustained practice injuries in the middle of May (when they should have been off golfing) and then, at the NHL's June Entry Draft, the game spat out some conspicuously skewed physical stats -- e.g. a 178-lb, 6'4" defenseman and a 202-lb, 5'7" winger -- for many of the available prospects. (A subsequent patch apparently addresses this bug.)
The biggest glitch, however -- and it was a big one -- was when my board of directors refused to pony up more than 1.6 million per season to re-sign Markus Naslund. Naslund was the reigning Hart Trophy winner and an "untouchable" member of the team, and yet the board -- who openly worshipped the Swede -- wouldn't budge on its numbers. The game's financial model is mostly out of your hands (you can't control vendor profits, ticket prices, or marketing deals), and when the board says no, you're hosed. I'd already been authorized to pay an unsigned Brendan Morrison 7.5 million a season (proving the money was there), so waving farewell to Naslund was as unnecessary as it was idiotic.
I put that pain behind me as I prepared my new-look team for the upcoming season, and every subsequent hour I spent with NHL Eastside Hockey Manager seemed to deliver a new play wrinkle or previously unknown feature. The minor league and European teams are a treat to manage, the encyclopedic player stats and ratings are a hockey poolie's dream, and the peer-to-peer online game delivers a welcome multiplayer alternative.
If you can survive some occasional stretches of lunacy from your board of directors (something all NHL GMs must learn to do eventually), there's a remarkably compelling hockey experience waiting to be had with NHL Eastside Hockey Manager.
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