Most sports and gaming enthusiasts are aware of the Madden Curse. Basically, NFL athletes who ended up on the cover of the popular EA Sports video game were likely to face some type of real-life downfall shortly thereafter. Well, hockey fans, a similar pattern has now emerged within the NHL.
Constructing the Video Game Coincidence
Let’s add a little context before comparing groups as though it’s all the same. As opposed to the personal ailments each respective football star inevitably faced, hockey’s best end up being part of a collective problem throughout the season in which they grace the game’s main graphics.
Rewinding time to over a decade ago will help prove the point, too.
NHL 10 currently stands as the last release to foreshadow any sense of success for the athlete that donned its cover. Patrick Kane took things so far as to score the game-winning goal that secured the 2010 Stanley Cup for his Chicago Blackhawks. It was the franchise’s first championship in nearly 50 years.
From the peak that Kane had climbed in that regard, came a downfall for the rest that followed. Not one of the EA NHL cover athletes that we’ve seen since has experienced any amount of meaningful team success.
Sound far-fetched? Keep reading.
It’s noteworthy to point out that Electronic Arts tends to select NHL athletes that are playing through their prime. By the time they see their face all over EA’s marketing, winning has become the expectation.
Let’s look back on the more recent covers, to see just how far away those that followed Kane have been from the ultimate prize. Let alone any sense of overall achievement, whatsoever.
NHL 11: Jonathan Toews
Although Jonathan Toews achieved one of his highest production levels in 2010-11, accumulating 76 points in 80 games, his team’s results didn’t align. Toews maintained his Conn Smyth Trophy-winning momentum, but the Blackhawks did not.
Chicago followed up its 2010 Stanley Cup with a Central Division ranking that barely earned them a playoff spot.
What’s worse, is that the reigning champions were then knocked out as early as anyone entering the tournament could have been. They didn’t even make it past the Western Conference Quarterfinals. In other words, they went from winning it all to losing when it mattered most.
NHL 12: Steven Stamkos
Looking back on Steven Stamkos’ 2011-12 campaign, EA Sports projected some incredible foreshadowing with this pick. That was the year that Stamkos scored 60, en route to his second Maurice Richard Trophy. A unique feat that forever linked him to the NHL’s elite.
Unfortunately, that was the only thing that went right for the Tampa Bay Lightning that season. Having finished well inside the bottom half of the league, the Lightning failed to make the postseason.
NHL 13: Claude Giroux
Already a force to be reckoned with by 2012-13, Claude Giroux was coming off a 93-point campaign that ranked him third across the NHL. Unfortunately for the star, his team didn’t get the memo that their accomplishments were to align.
The Philadelphia Flyers failed to find their way into the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Breaking a five-year streak that preceded the disappointment.
NHL 14: Martin Brodeur
After nearly 20 years of only non-goalies gracing their cover, EA Sports remembered that goalies existed in 2013-14. Apparently, that was the perfect time to highlight future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur.
However, if they expected that name-dropping one of the game’s most accomplished netminders would influence more of the same, they were wrong.
Brodeur was well past his award-winning prime by that point. Case in point, he was no longer considered the New Jersey Devils’ No. 1. The franchise finished the year sixth in the Metropolitan Division and missed the playoffs altogether.
NHL 15: Patrice Bergeron
By 2014-15, Patrice Bergeron had already established himself as one of the best two-way players in the league. A shoo-in for every annual Selke Trophy discussion. Bergeron had also led his Boston Bruins to the 2011 Stanley Cup, which further amplified his stardom throughout the sport.
The reigning Selke winner was certainly a worthy candidate for NHL 15’s cover in his own regard, having gone on to win the award for the second year in a row. Boston, on the other hand, was far from being as deserving. After seven straight playoff appearances, that run was ruined in 2014-15.
NHL 16: Jonathan Toews
NHL 16 presented Toews with an opportunity to rewrite the script EA had been following. Let alone redeem himself from the failure his Blackhawks faced the last time he represented the video game franchise. However, his second experience seemed tainted from the get-go.
Originally, this was poised to be a recognition of Chicago’s dynasty status with both Kane and Toews hoisting the Cup. But an off-ice investigation involving Kane forced EA to remove the winger.
Toews went on to experience regression across most parts of his stat line through 2015-16. What’s worse, the Blackhawks’ campaign then concluded in a First Round knockout.
NHL 17: Vladimir Tarasenko
A two-time all-star by the time his face made its way onto EA’s cover, Vladimir Tarasenko was a perfect fit for NHL 17. Following a couple of 70+ point campaigns in a row, Tarasenko then set a career-high with 75 in 2016-17.
However, despite the St. Louis Blues having achieved a six-year run of postseason participation, Tarasenko’s team came up short that year. St. Louis failed to make it beyond the Second Round.
NHL 18: Connor McDavid
An undisputed generational player, having hit the 100-point mark in just his second campaign, Connor McDavid on NHL 18 just made sense. He was the new face of the league, after all.
With an already crowded trophy case, McDavid was just getting started. He notched 108 points and accumulated even more hardware throughout the year that followed.
Unfortunately, McDavid’s individual accolades couldn’t compensate for what the Edmonton Oilers lacked. Despite his help in getting the Oilers into the postseason the year before, Edmonton missed the playoffs for the 11th time through a 12-year span in 2017-18.
NHL 19: P.K. Subban
After spending his first seven seasons in Montreal, earning a Norris Trophy while there, the Nashville Predators were hoping to cash in on P.K. Subban‘s dynamic presence. Heading into 2018-19, they had been. The defenseman compiled 99 points through his first two campaigns in Tennesee.
Subban then started down the other side of his peak, as the 31 points earned that year set a new career low. A regression that didn’t do Nashville any favours in those playoffs, either. Their Central Division title wasn’t enough to push them past the First Round.
NHL 20: Auston Matthews
A former first-overall pick that went on to capture the Calder Trophy, Auston Matthews was quickly turning into exactly what onlookers expected him to become. His goal-scoring ability was beyond obvious to every onlooker, with an unmatched impact every time he hit the ice.
Matthews had already accumulated 111 goals through only his first 212 contests as he entered 2019-20, with a pace that was rapidly increasing.
Unfortunately, that campaign wasn’t a great one for several reasons. Although Matthews’ production progressed in the right direction, with 80 points through 70 games, the Toronto Maple Leafs found a way to follow up three First Round exists in a row with a loss in the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifying Round.
NHL 21: Alex Ovechkin
For the second time in his career, having already joined the 500-goal club years before and showing no signs of slowing down in that respect, Alex Ovechkin was a cover athlete.
Playing through a unique league realignment, with revised logistics to help ease into their return, Ovechkin’s run of scoring titles ended at three years when Matthews won the Maurice Richard Trophy in 2020-21.
What made things for the Washington Capitals was the pattern of First Round exists that they set following their 2018 Stanley Cup. 2021 marked the third year in a row that they were knocked out that early.
NHL 22: Auston Matthews
For whatever reason, those who make the decisions at EA felt it was a good idea to get Matthews back on the cover for the second time in three years. Meanwhile, there were a plethora of other suitable names deserving of the honour.
Nevertheless, Matthews was climbing closer to McDavid as they competed to be the NHL’s most recognizable name. Perhaps this was also a foreshadowing of presumptive progress anticipated in Toronto, with the Maple Leafs nearing closer to breaking their own internal curse that’s existed since 1967.
Matthews certainly reached another gear through 2021-22, scoring 60 goals and breaking the 100-point threshold for the first time in his career. A performance that earned him the Rocket Richard, Hart, and Ted Lindsey.
Contrary to that elevation, though, his Maple Leafs failed in the First Round yet again. Their fifth time in six years, with the outlier being their Qualifying Round loss in 2020.
NHL 23: Trevor Zegras & Sarah Nurse
For the first time, a female hockey player has made her way onto the cover. NHL 23’s artwork includes both Trevor Zegras of the Anaheim Ducks and Sarah Nurse of Team Canada.
While it’s taken far too long for this type of recognition to occur, that it’s now happened is certainly worthy of celebration. Such meaningful growth within the game is a wonderful thing — for fans and athletes alike.
While one can theorize that EA has found a coincidental loophole that cancels the continuation of this storyline, that there is still an NHL star donning the cover provides more than enough substance for the curse to work with.
Having missed the playoffs for four seasons in a row at this point, can Anaheim find a way to propel back to some sense of relevance in the Pacific? We’ll have to wait and see, but I’m certainly not betting against the narrative at this point.
EA’s Next Cover Athlete
While many who have enjoyed owning cover athlete status have gone on to elevate their peak on a personal level, their clubs have continually faced a less-than-ideal fate by that same season’s end.
Between NHL 11 and NHL 22, the collection of cover athletes’ franchises had:
- Failed to bypass the First Round five times.
- Lost in the Second Round once.
- Missed the playoffs outright on six occasions.
With every public relations announcement, it becomes that much more interesting to witness who was chosen as the video game’s next spokesperson. Beyond the spotlight it presents that player, it’s also anxiety-inducing to ponder what that means for their team and when this impossible-to-ignore pattern will finally be broken.
Can it be this year? Will it be next? Is it even worthwhile to keep track anymore? Who knows.
In the meantime, though, keep those controllers charged and never succumb to a rage quit.
Even if the NHL’s cover athlete doesn’t help their lineup reach meaningful success in the real world, that doesn’t mean you can’t while playing as your favourite team on their behalf.