Outside their own geographic pockets, players for the Spokane Chiefs haven’t spent much time with their teammates during this prolonged offseason.
But online, it’s been much easier to stay connected and to keep up their hockey skills – at NHL 21, anyhow.
“I’ve been playing a lot,” Chiefs forward Erik Atchison said of the video game. “A lot more than I usually do.”
Atchison has been skating with teammate Bear Hughes in real life at Frontier Ice Arena in Coeur d’Alene, but he’s been able to play against many more of his teammates online.
“It’s awesome,” Atchison said. “Especially because you can talk about anything when you’re playing. Usually, it’s not a lot of hockey talk. It’s loose, getting your mind off things.”
It’s a pastime that has taken on an enhanced role for the Chiefs players during the pandemic, many of whom are separated by provincial and national borders.
It is also something the Canadian Hockey League has embraced by hosting the first Memorial eCup, a 64-team tournament that opened last weekend.
Each of its 60 teams – plus four celebrity guests – is represented by one player from each team, playing as himself and his teammates in NHL 21, which, in addition to the National Hockey League teams, includes rosters from more than a dozen leagues worldwide.
That includes the three junior leagues, one of which is the Western Hockey League, that comprise the CHL.
Through a lottery system, defenseman Matt Leduc was chosen to represent the Chiefs in the bracket. On Saturday, he lost 7-3 in the opening round to Danny Katic of the Saginaw Spirit.
Katic blew open the game with a four-goal spurt that gave him a 5-1 lead, and early in the third he added another to put the game out of reach. Luke Toporowski and Michael King added late goals for the Chiefs.
The single-elimination tournament will wrap up first-round games on Saturday and will crown a winner on Dec. 17. Games are streamed live on Twitch.
For his part, Leduc does not claim to be the best NHL 21 player on the Chiefs, a distinction widely given to defenseman Ty Smith. But Smith plays on Xbox, and the tournament was played on the PlayStation4.
“I think I got lucky that we were only doing PS4 players,” Leduc said. “If we were all on the same platform, I don’t think I would have been the chosen one. My skill set doesn’t lie in NHL (21). It’s more in the NBA ranks.”
Eli Zummack was direct in his assessment.
“No one beats Smitty,” Zummack said of his former billet mate. “If I was the Chiefs, I would have picked Smitty. He woulda won the whole thing.”
Leduc said it is a bit surreal to see himself in a video game. As a youth coach, Leduc is sometimes approached by his students, who brag that they played as him the night before.
“As a kid growing up, you dreamed of playing in the NHL and WHL, and it’s a pretty cool thing to say that you’re in a video game,” Leduc said.
During a previous season on a road trip to Vancouver, the Chiefs toured the Burnaby campus of EA Sports, the maker of NHL 21, arranged by former Spokane player Jackson Playfair, who is now an assistant producer at EA Sports. Zummack said that during the visit, Playfair got all the Chiefs players set up with a 99 overall card, which endows their virtual likeness the top rating in the game.
“It’s beast mode,” Zummack said. “You can fly around and absolutely rip it.”
Beyond the enjoyment of competition, though, video games provide the players with the opportunity to talk and catch up at a time they normally would be together playing actual hockey.
“Even when playing video games, we’re connecting. We don’t always have to be talking about practice or training,” Leduc said. “We’re all so far apart. I’m in Vancouver. (Toporowski is) in Iowa. Guys are all over the place, and it’s a way for us to talk and see what’s new with everyone. What we end up talking about isn’t hockey itself. There’s still that camaraderie.”
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