Picture yourself in your fourth or fifth hour of playing "NHL 96" on some now-arcane video gaming system. You like your team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, but you want to add some talent. Say, like that Eric Lindros fellow and his 100 player rating; what about a trade for him?
Lindros for John Cullen and Kevin Stevens? "Trade denied; Advantage: Pittsburgh." Lindros for Ron Francis and Kevin Stevens? "Trade denied; Advantage: Pittsburgh." You try several thousand combinations before undoubtedly throwing the controller in frustration, picking it up and then forcing the virtual Philadelphia Flyers to release No. 88 so you can add him for nothing.
What hockey video games did, even over a decade ago, was evaluate trade proposals based on their fairness and logic. Today, in games like "NHL 2K9," the number of factors behind a trade being approved or denied have dramatically increased and salary cap considerations have been added for realism.
Back in the real world, the 2009 Trade Deadline is here, and with it comes a flurry of "trade rumors" that are so frequently outlandish they would have gotten the "trade denied" judgment even with 1996's limited hockey video game artificial intelligence. A simple crunching of the numbers on NHL Numbers or NHLSCAP would dispel most of these rumors as fiction; a moment of logical thought would render many of the rest completely baseless.
So why doesn't the NHL provide its own tools for such a fact-check? More to the point: Why isn't there a trade approve/deny fuction on NHL.com? Because while the NHL sleeps on what could be a revenue windfall for obsessed puckheads, hockey video game companies might be ready to move in and create one first.
"I think that would be a cool thing," said Tim Schroeder, software engineer for 2K Games.
Imagine the profit that could be generated by an advertiser-supported list of salaries for every NHL team on NHL.com. It would be a resource for fans, writers, agents ... everyone.
Imagine the incredible revenue generator that an official NHL.com "B.S. detector" would be; one modeled after the "trade approved/denied" prompt on hockey videos games, only using official NHL contract figures and status to determine if a trade is possible.
Hear a rumor, plug in the name and boom -- you find out if it's fact or fairytale. Imagine how many rumors sites would be humbled by this fast, easy reality check. It's a little hard to trade Vinny Lecavalier to half the league if the numbers don't add up at all.
Schroeder is the engineer responsible for the "franchise mode" in games like "NHL 2K9," the company's latest NHL title for different gaming platforms (including, in a first, for the Nintendo Wii). He's designed all the trade and other general manager functions in the game.
So how does a trade get approved or denied in a video game?
Each player in the game is assigned a numbered rating. "We have this scale that we work from," he said. "A lot of it comes from the stats: We have formulas that turn stats into attributes, and then attributes into an overall rating. Part of it is just subjective: We watch a lot of hockey here and have opinions about players."
Remember how difficult it was to trade for Lindros back in "NHL 96"? Well, that trade would actually go through ... if the "Penguins" offered Jaromir Jagr. Both of those players were among the most highly rated in the game, and those gold-standard players are difficult to move unless it's for each other.
"If you have a Sidney Crosby or a Evgeni Malkin or an Alexander Ovechkin -- if you have a top-five player in the League -- that player is worth a lot, because nobody can match up with them," Schroeder said. "The scale between 98 and 90 is really, really big. But the scale between 70 and 60 isn't that much difference."
The next test for a trade is the salary cap on the game, which uses figures taken from the Web rather than from the NHL or NHLPA. If the numbers and contract years add up in the AI, then it's on to other factors Schroeder and his team have added to the decision-making process.
"The other thing that I take into account in my game is that each team has a particular strength or weakness. If my team has three really good centers, then they're not going to trade for another really good center," he said. "We take into account that teams are trying to build the best team; not just have the highest-rated players."
(So no Mario/Francis/Lindros up the middle then, huh?)
Something Schroeder plans to add for the next incarnation of the game: no-trade and no-movement clauses. "How do you get players to agree to waive them, and which players do you decide to offer them to?" he said.
"One of the things we have that isn't always visible to the user is that coaches and GMs all have personalities. Little factors that separate them from each other. Most of the time, that's randomly generated, but in other cases we can set the parameters of that. Like loyalty."
He said that the AI would take into account situations like those for Joe Sakic and Teemu Selanne last summer -- if they were coming back, it was just going to be with the Colorado Avalanche and the Anaheim Ducks respectively. Plus, "if a guy has a no-trade clause and you ask him to go to a team, he might say, ‘No, they suck. I won't go there,'" said Schroeder.
So trades are tested based on hockey sense, financial sense, franchise sense and, in the near future, the emotional attachment a player has for a city or against a potential trade partner.
Wouldn't something like this mechanism to test real-world trade rumors on a site like NHL.com be the ultimate time-waster for diehard puckheads, especially at the trade deadline?
Schroeder thinks so, and couldn't believe that a trade deadline approve/deny tester wasn't already available on the NHL's Web site.
"If you wanted to see if things were possible, you can just use the player salaries and the team cap numbers and figure that out," he said.
Ah, but there's the rub: There are no salary cap figures presented to the public by the NHL on its official Web site. Which is baffling when you consider how many corners of the Web now boast pages dedicated to the cap, individual salaries, free-agent and no-movement clause status.
The NHL had shown an eagerness to protect its assets and aggressively funnel traffic to its Web site. Yet it is letting the cash cow saunter away from the farm when it comes to salary information and an online trade "approver."
Video game companies like 2K Sports could have a "approve/deny" app ready for Deadline 2010 -- and we probably won't read hockey trade rumors the same way ever again.
Update: Our good friend Lyle "Spector" Richardson has been a human fact-check on hockey rumors for years. So we asked if he thought the hockey rumors business would be greatly affected if there was a trade "approve/disapprove" function that evaluated hockey scuttlebutt.
He said he expects hockey rumors would rage on even if there was an NHL-approved fact check on them. "The originators of the rumors would still say that 'the ones that don't make sense are the ones that come true,'" he said.
In other words: Never let the facts get in the way of entertainment, right?