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Premature Evaluation: Eastside Hockey Manager

H-e-hockey-sticks

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As a citizen of Canada, it’s safe to say Paul Newman’s Slap Shot is the single greatest hockey movie of all time.

This is a film so mired in obscurity it’s not even possible to illegally torrent like its thematic cousin The Mighty Ducks, so allow me lay the scene for you instead. Slap Shot is perhaps Newman’s finest work: a comedy from the ’70s about a crappy mill-town hockey team who, after years of crumby results, decides to let their latest acquisitions, three brothers – depicted with glorious thug-moron precision – finally play. The brothers’ savage style of hockey reinvigorates their fanbase and the team is retooled using violence to draw in big crowds.

It’s a wonderful lesson for everyone: Embrace your talents, however impractical, illegal or violent they may be. This is the kind of meat-and-potatoes advice that helped turn Slap Shot into an honourary Canadian sports film and a favourite among the demographic of retirees who like anything vaguely nationalistic, all despite being filmed in Pennsylvania and havinng no Canadian actors.

But it’s a lesson you should follow to a T when playing Sports Interactive’s recently revived Eastside Hockey Manager.

Slap Shot is a story of overcoming failure, and EHM keeps to a similar subplot: The game is to cultivate a team, raising relative unknowns into trained gods of sport before selling them off to one of your manager buddies for millions of that filthy puck lucre.

Quite understandably, it will be a familiar set up for anyone whose spent time with the Football Manager series. EHM is being developed as a side project by the developers of Football Manager following the hockey series’ cancellation eight years ago. Like its Football Manager cousin, it’s a behind-the-scenes look at frontline management where I dash between trimming the salaries of the Charlestown Chiefs to experiencing the minutia of contract buyouts. Also like FM, the learning curve is ruthless.

As I begin, EHM greets me with a message sent to my managerial inbox to tell me just how shitty everything is. “Vancouver hired Emily Gera as their new General Manager to great apathy amongst fans,” says the game. Its subject head reads: “Fans Indifferent at Appointment of Gera.” It’s an underdog story to the Paul Newmanianth degree.

It’s with this in mind, and a limit on expenses, I begin filling my team with the cheapest and most under-hyped French Canadians I can find. Sports Interactive’s aim is to give you every opportunity to chisel out a great team from nothing. They throw information at your desktop like broken hydrant expels water, with a database of around 3,000 players and staff, and a virtually unlimited number of seasons to play. As Manager you can help your chosen team inch toward greatness through salary renegotiations, trading, firing, juggling between star talent and lower leaguers, cultivating young prodigies, scouting foreign leagues, combing reports of individual players.

For the skeptic, EHM is proof there’s complexity underlying hockey’s Drunk Dude Culture, stripping the sport down to its bare and innumerable facts. Even the matches are secondary to the hundreds of micro-events that come before it, which means you’ll spend very little time watching anybody on the ice. Hockey games can be viewed as a top-down ballet on ice where teams are represented as an ever-moving collective of circles. It’s simple stuff, but the mechanisms that run it are not.

Eastside Hockey Manager’s latest patch is a good example: It includes not only graphical and AI updates but changes based on the sport’s constantly adapting ruleset: exhibition games now use the rules of the home team league, while a new NAL rule has been implemented to resume play in an offending team’s defensive zone after penalty. The game features some of the more eccentric rules of hockey that leave stuff like recruitment and salary management eternal head scratchers for me still. Luckily, you choose your own level of involvement, which means your fate can rest in the hands of a head coach and scouts who are usually on-hand to tell you what you need.

It’s a shame, then, that a few hours in my strategic decision to recreate the entire plot of Slap Shot is a failure, but perhaps there’s a lesson in that too. As is happens, overcoming adversity is a concept that’s hardwired into this game.

The fact EHM exists at all on Steam right now is a heck of a surprise. The series started life as freeware developed by a programmer in Finland before gaining traction as a cult hit online among those so inclined. But SI, despite eventually buying the franchise and moving its Finnish programmer to the UK, cancelled it in 2007.

“We were not only badly affected by piracy, we were also hit by the way retail used to work, particularly in the US,” SI said at the time. “Boxed copies of the game would fly off the shelves in places where hockey was popular, but would languish in places where it wasn’t – and there was no system in place for those boxes to be shifted from one State to another. Steam wasn’t anywhere near as popular back then as it is now, so we didn’t have a digital solution to this problem like we do now.”

It’s only through Early Access that the studio has been able to afford regular staff for the project.  It’s a labour of love, in other words. A story of beating the odds. And never has a lesson learnt from a ’70s hockey film rang truer.

*Full disclosure: Slap Shot’s sequel, Slap Shot 2. is a favourite of the whole Gera clan and alumni of the Gera gene pool will be familiar with the happy anecdotes of Uncle Chuck’s part-time job selling pot to the actors on their Vancouver set during production in the early 2000s. I really feel in some small way my family helped to shape the quality of this film.

Eastside Hockey Manager is currently in Early Access and will set you back £9.99 on Steam. I played version 15.1.0b.

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