If you’ve picked up one of EA Sports’ NHL games at any time throughout the series' 27-year history, you’ll likely have noticed one constant — no UK teams. That's not a huge surprise, given that the publisher’s North American sports titles have never traditionally featured UK clubs, and even the GB national team has remained unlicensed across the NHL series. But now, with the introduction of the Champions Hockey League, NHL 18 has finally brought UK ice hockey to the rink-loving masses.
The two teams featured as representatives of our domestic scene are the Cardiff Devils and Nottingham Panthers, and not just because their names are amazing. Both are members of the 12-team Elite Ice Hockey League, which is a bit like football’s Premier League but with a lot less money. The EIHL itself has yet to be featured in-game but it has played into NHL 18’s development, granting Cardiff a place by virtue of the team's title-winning 16/17 season. Nottingham, on the other hand, were included for lifting the IIHF Continental Cup — a separate, smaller European tournament.
The Champions Hockey League itself has been in operation since 2014, and functions similarly to the Champions League of football. 32 European teams compete across a group stage and knockout format, with the tournament featuring clubs from hockey-mad nations like Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic. And as NHL 18 associate producer Andy Agostini told Kotaku UK, this provided the perfect opportunity for EA Sports to capitalise on the European hockey scene.
“When we heard of the creation of the Champions Hockey League, we understood the concept right away and went — ‘oh, that’s pretty cool’,” says Agostini. “There’s hockey being played in other places that people don’t know the names of these teams — they don’t know that there’s high-quality hockey — whether it’s in the UK or Poland or Belarus, Denmark or Norway.”
So the CHL seemed like an obvious opportunity for a series that is, understandably, much more popular in North America than Europe. “We could bring the champions from around Europe and put them in the game, so that our fans who do play in those countries had that interest.”
In addition to featuring in a virtual representation of the tournament, both teams can be utilised in various ways: from being substituted for NHL teams in Season Mode, to having their players available for collection in Ultimate Team. For the most part the correct jerseys and player photos are in place for each side, as are the current rosters — but given the tournament’s scope, EA Sports stopped short of scanning any players or visiting the arenas themselves.
“We actually worked directly with the Champions League itself. They provided and helped us with all the information,” says Agostini. “For rosters, that’s something that we can get quite easily through the beauty of having the internet.” Nottingham Panthers' media manager Calum Chalmers isn't so fussed about the lack of direct involvement, so much as the fact the team is now being included at all. “We were just happy it was happening. Obviously, it was an awesome thing to be a part of.”
For a sport that is often discovered through unorthodox means around these parts, the inclusion of both teams is a significant milestone for UK ice hockey. My love of the sport has extended across playing it at youth level, travelling the globe to support Team GB, regularly attending local league games — and of course, playing NHL video games. It’s only because of parental influence that I learned of ice hockey’s existence in the UK and, if it weren’t for the NHL series, I may never have become so enraptured by the sport in the first place. Many UK ice hockey fans have similar stories.
“We’ve had a lot of people tell us that literally, they learned how to play hockey through the videogame,” laughs Agostini. “I know a lot of people have learned the names of all the Swedish teams and Swiss teams just through our game — they’d never heard of them before. For the countries [whose leagues] are not already in the game, [being in the CHL] is a big deal. They’re going to be in a videogame and get their branding and team out to the public worldwide.”
The inspiration of seeing UK teams in the game may even benefit our national team, in the long run. We're not on what you'd call a run of success. Team GB hasn’t qualified for a Winter Olympics since 1948, and few homegrown players have made the leap to North America’s National Hockey League over the years. It’s an issue that can be attributed to many factors, including a lack of visibility and cultural awareness.
But things are looking up. Ice hockey’s visibility is growing in the UK — last season, attendances for the Elite League rose by almost 100,000, with just under a million people attending games, including an average of just under 6000 fans per match in Nottingham. This is leading to increasing media attention and online coverage which, alongside the prominence of the NHL series, will hopefully entice more fans and young players to the sport.
“The UK is actually quite a big market for us,” says Agostini. “There’s a very rabid fanbase. I’m actually on the Facebook group for the Elite Ice Hockey League just to kind of know about what’s going on, and they are very passionate about their teams — about their players — it’s incredible what they’re talking about.”
And naturally, everyone was thrilled about the game. “Panthers fans are ecstatic,” enthuses Chalmers. “They were all over the game because of it. People who wouldn’t have necessarily bought it before bought it to see us in the game, and to have a go with playing with an EIHL team. We loved being part of it, and I think fans across the Elite League thought it was an awesome achievement.”
Things are set to change in NHL 19, however. The CHL will be sticking around — Agostini says that “last year was the first year” of the tournament’s inclusion — but only the Cardiff Devils are set to return, having clinched the 17/18 Elite League title earlier this month. The Nottingham Panthers will subsequently miss out, and the Sheffield Steelers — the UK’s representative in the 17/18 IIHF Continental Cup — are also unlikely to feature after only clinching the bronze in said tournament.
The CHL has a big role to play in UK ice hockey’s virtual future. I ask Agostini the obvious question, about the inclusion of the Elite League itself: "it’s an opportunity that we’ll continue to investigate.” In other words, it may be some time away. NHL 18 is a big moment regardless, and not just for fans in Cardiff and Nottingham but UK ice hockey as a whole. It gives the scene a bit of excitement, it gets fans interested, and it shows people these great teams exist in a town near you. There is an unmistakeable frisson to picking up the latest big-budget sports title, and realising that UK ice hockey, finally — it's in the game.