PHT remembers hockey video games: ‘NHL Hitz 2003’ still delivers

James O'Brien
NBC Sports

Every week, PHT will remember a hockey video game (or games). For the first time in this series, PHT invites a guest contributor. Enjoy a fun take from Tony Abbott (@OhHiTony) on the very fun Midway title NHL Hitz 2003. Some refer to it as “NHL Hitz 20-03,” but for the sake of simplicity, we’ll drop the hyphen.

I’ve always been a sucker for the cult classic.

My favorite movie? The Room. I’ll tell anyone who will listen that the best rock record is a science-fiction punk album called Death By Television. Catch me on the right day and I’ll argue that Dollhouse was better than both Buffy and Firefly. And of course, hockey is my favorite sport. For whatever reason, if it isn’t for everyone, there’s a good chance it might be for me.

So it may not surprise anyone that my favorite hockey video game is NHL Hitz 2003.

The Hitz series, published by Midway as a companion to games like NBA Jam and NFL Blitz, hasn’t endured quite like other hockey games. It wasn’t an early pioneer like Blades of Steel or the NES’ Ice Hockey. It wasn’t the classic perfection of NHL 94. And it certainly isn’t the monolith that the NHL games of today are.

While I’m not immune to the charms of those games — I’ll gladly play any of them today — none of them will ever make me as giddy as NHL Hitz 2003 does. Thought making Gretzky’s head bleed was pure joy? You haven’t lived until you’ve knocked Jeremy Roenick through the glass, then centered the puck for a one-time goal.

Intensive research shows: NHL Hitz 2003 holds up, and the hits(z) keep coming

I dug up my Playstation 2 last night, strictly for research purposes, for the first time in over a year. It took two games for me to get used to the controls again. Super easy. A button to pass, to shoot (hold for a slapper), to deke and to protect the puck from poke checks on offense. A button for body and stick checking on defense. Left trigger for a limited turbo.

The polygonal graphics may not be crisp anymore, but that gameplay still is. Every match is 3-on-3, and it perfectly replicates the excitement of today’s NHL overtime. Oversized players zip around on undersized ice. The passing is tape-to-tape. There are odd-man rushes. You will see breakaways. All game long.

And there are the Hitz! The Hitz keep coming! You’ll have to play a heavy style of hockey that will make Tom Wilson blush if you want to win. Open-ice hits that send players flipping. Body checks that put the unlucky recipients through the glass, creating a temporary 3-on-2 rush. Casually grabbing opponents and ripping them down. Even the poke checking is nothing more than tripping half the time.

You ride this tense line all game: You have the speed to be five seconds from scoring at any time. If you can’t dodge the other team, you’ll get knocked down before you can fire even a weak wrist shot.

Experiencing that again was like visiting an old college friend again. And it reminded me of another one.

A friendly rivalry forms around “NHL Hitz 2003”

There’s a lot to do as a single player in NHL Hitz 2003. There’s a franchise mode where you start as a terrible team and work your way into the NHL. You can play as any team in season mode, and even jumble the rosters up in a fantasy draft. There are a massive number of classic jerseys to unlock, and trivia questions to answer after every match. When you get bored of playing the main game, there are plenty of minigames to conquer.

But there’s nothing like a good rivalry. These were the pre-online days, so any multiplayer was local. And a couch or dorm room is a terrific cauldron for a bitter, decade-long grudge with your best friend.

It happened to me. I learned of the game from my freshman roommate’s GameCube collection. It wouldn’t take long for me to find a copy for myself at a game store. And once I had it, it wasn’t long before I fired it up for the first time with my neighbor Danny.

Danny picked up the game instantly, and we were both hooked. We’d play late into the night, cycling through our favorite teams, and trash-talking loud enough to garner the occasional threat from the RAs. The 15-minute games made for the perfect study break during the school year. And stringing seven of them together made for an even more perfect study break.

Hitz’ appeal lasted through the years. Danny left to study abroad in Germany for a year. Upon his return, we were back to Hitz in a week. After we graduated and Danny had moved two hours south? I’d bring my PS2 in tow whenever we visited. And when he moved back to the area, the game was there and the rivalry was as fierce as ever.

This was in large part due to how evenly matched we were. In games like NHL 94 or NBA Jam, I stood little chance. Whether it was the ease of play of the scores of hours I sunk into it, I could keep up with him in NHL Hitz 2003.

The legendary rivalry of Ron Francis vs … Mike Comrie?

We both succeeded with vastly different styles. I was skilled with poke checks and dined out on one-timers. Danny had incredible reflexes around the net, cashing in rebounds with regularity. He also had a frustrating ability to score on breakaways without making any fancy moves whatsoever.

But the defining dynamic of our rivalry boiled down to two players, the mere mention of whom will cause one of us to cackle and the other to spit. Ron Francis and Mike Comrie.

I played a memorable game as the Carolina Hurricanes, who had Francis on the team. Francis was very slow, but had a cannon for a shot and was the best passer in the game not named “Mario”. One game I was able to feed one-timer after one-timer to Francis, who couldn’t be stopped. He scored five goals, and my gloating increased every time he lit the lamp en route to victory.

Ron Francis in "NHL Hitz 2003/20-03"
Ron Francis in "NHL Hitz 2003/20-03"

Shortly after, Danny got his revenge in picking Edmonton. He got a quick hat trick with Comrie, then a fourth goal. Getting blown out, I decided to give up on the victory and devote myself to only one task: Stop Comrie by any means necessary. Danny scored a fifth and sixth goal with Comrie, completing my humiliation.

We cycle through a number of teams (about half the league is extremely fun to play as) so as not to get stale. But when one of our backs are against the wall, we’ll go back to Carolina or Edmonton to break a slump. Our message to each other: “You’re going to lose, and you’re going to lose to the player you hate the most.”

The NHL Hitz didn’t exactly keep coming

Other games have come along to fulfill Hitz’ legacy, but none have filled its shoes. EA released an arcade version of its game that was more stripped-down than Hitz’ brand of hockey. NHL 18 offered a 3-on-3 mode that, while fun, lacked the sharp passing and heightened reality that Midway offered.

18 years later, we’re still looking for a true successor to Hitz (This is the part where I beg Metalhead to create Super Mega Hockey). But that’s OK. As long as my PS2 is working, I’ll gladly revisit Hitz. And the next time I visit Danny, I’ll make it a priority to reacquaint him with Ron Francis.

Note from James O’Brien: For whatever reason, the “shooting out windows” minigame stood out for me:

Also, it’s worth noting that NHL Hitz Pro served as a sequel to NHL Hitz 2003. That doesn’t make Abbott wrong, about the lack of a true successor, though. That’s because Hitz Pro tried to blur the lines between hockey sims and the arcade-style action. While the reviews were reasonably decent for NHL Hitz Pro, it also represented the end of that series. What are hockey video games without Hitz? They’re less fun.

Now, as bonus, Tony Abbott shared his power rankings for the top 10 teams in NHL Hitz 2003. (Do note that Abbott wasn’t counting the create-a-team you made with cowboys or giraffes or whatever.)

NHL Hitz 2003 Power Rankings:

  1. Colorado Avalanche: Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic bring the skill, Rob Blake pounds opponents into submission, and Patrick Roy is in net. Honestly, it’s unfair.

  2. Detroit Red Wings: With Brendan Shanahan, Steve Yzerman, and Nick Lidstrom at their peaks, Sergei Fedorov can’t even crack the lineup.

  3. Philadelphia Flyers: Jeremy Roenick and company punished you with a bruising style, and this game happened to be released when Roman Cechmanek was a thing.

  4. St. Louis Blues: Cover Athlete Chris Pronger and Keith Tkachuk were more than enough to cover for occasionally shaky goaltending.

  5. San Jose Sharks: Vincent Damphousse’s top-notch passing means you can set up Teemu Selanne and Owen Nolan all game.

  6. New Jersey Devils: Surprisingly light on the defensive end. Patrik Elias brings some skills, but the game underrates Scott Niedermayer. If Martin Brodeur falters, you’re in trouble.

  7. New York Rangers: Will Mike Richter let you down? Frequently. Are Eric Lindros, Pavel Bure, and Brian Leech fun enough to cancel that out? Absolutely.

  8. Boston Bruins: Another bad goaltending team, but with Joe Thornton and Brian Rolston blasting shots, you have plenty of opportunity to out-score the other guys.

  9. Dallas Stars: Bill Guerin and Mike Modano form an elite power/speed duo. Too bad the Stars’ goal song doesn’t make it in, as it’d fit perfectly with the metal-focused soundtrack.

  10. Carolina Hurricanes: The playmaking Francis, a speedy sniper in Sami Kapanen, and the do-it-all Jeff O’Neill make for a balanced team.

Tony Abbott is a freelance writer, primarily covering the Minnesota Wild. His work has been featured at Zone Coverage, The Athletic Minnesota, and SB Nation’s Hockey Wilderness. Follow him @OhHiTony on Twitter.

PHT remembers other hockey video games:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

PHT remembers hockey video games: ‘NHL Hitz 2003’ still delivers originally appeared on NBCSports.com

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