The way the season was going before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the NHL to hit the pause button on March 12, the Kings and Ducks would have been on vacation by now. But thanks to the magic of an EA SPORTS NHL 20 simulation they will renew their rivalry on Friday and they’ll enliven it with an intriguing twist.
Both teams’ rosters will include past players chosen in a fan vote as well as current players, an innovative element that should ignite more than a few what-if debates. The 90-minute telecast, to be aired starting at 7 p.m. on Prime Ticket and Fox Sports San Diego, will include play-by-play from Kings TV voices Alex Faust and Jim Fox, and Ducks voices John Ahlers and Brian Hayward in addition to player interviews.
Intermission features will detail each team’s ongoing efforts to support their respective communities during these strange times and will inform fans about helpful resources such as the educational programs for kids that are available on their respective websites.
There’s nothing like the edge-of-your-seat tension of playoff hockey, but seeing current players skating alongside familiar faces from the past like Wayne Gretzky, Luc Robitaille, Paul Kariya and other standouts should turn Friday’s simulated game into the next-best thing to being in an arena and dreaming of kissing the Stanley Cup.
“When you get in those arguments or conversations and you’re talking about who was better and everybody says, ‘You can’t compare eras,’ in this technological sort of way we were able to do that, and it was fun,” Ahlers said. “We were able to see some of the legends play with present-day players and in an interesting form. At the same time, it was fun to say those names in the process of calling a game.”
The collaboration was initiated by the Ducks, though Kings game presentation staffer Tim Smith had begun doing simulated games on his Twitter feed and through Twitch after the season was halted.
The Kings’ digital staff enhanced those efforts and added Faust, Fox, and sideline reporter Carrlyn Bathe to the mix. A robust following developed, Kings senior vice president Mike Altieri said, leaving the Kings receptive when the Ducks contacted them about what ideas the teams might be able to produce if they worked together.
Five or six brainstorming sessions and Fox Sports’ willingness to do something different led to the broadcast of the simulated game that viewers will see on Friday. “The concept of doing classic teams really got us excited because it’s different from the other simulations that were being done. The other simulations were the current teams,” Altieri said.
He also praised the quality of the technology. “It’s like watching a game, it’s so lifelike,” Altieri said. “The players skate like actual players, they have tendencies like the actual players.”
Ahlers isn’t a video-game player but was struck by the realistic details in the simulation. “What caught me is the realism of the fans,” he said. “You look in the crowd and you see fans wearing different versions of Kings jerseys from over the years, Ducks paraphernalia from over the years, different logoed things. It was very specific to that regard and I was very impressed by that.
“The game action itself was very high tech and it looks like a hockey game at Staples Center between the Kings and Ducks and that kind of warms your heart, if nothing else.”
Artistic license was taken in at least one area, per the request of Hall of Fame winger Kariya. “His one request was he doesn’t grow a very good beard in general, in real life, so this was an opportunity for him to have a full-fledged beard,” said Merit Tully, vice president of marketing for the Ducks. “So you may notice he has a bit more facial hair than he’s capable of growing. It presents some opportunities that way as well.”
If all goes well, Friday’s broadcast could lead to additional joint efforts between the Kings and Ducks. “For us,” Altieri said, “our main initiatives are how can we help in this current situation? How can we make an impact? But also, how can we keep people engaged? And we’ve had those conversations at the NHL level, with all our partner teams around the league, with the Ducks on this initiative.
“Everybody’s in the same boat. We’re all trying to do the same things, so that helps make it really easy.”
If the Ducks and Kings can come together in a time we’ve all been forced to stay apart, anything is possible. “So much has been taken away in our society right now,” Tully said. Getting hockey back, even in simulated and abbreviated form, is something to celebrate.