With NHL 22, women hockey players are ‘in the game’ for the first time
When Kendall Coyne Schofield told her husband, Michael, that U.S. women’s national hockey team players were going to appear in EA Sports’ NHL series, he reacted as one would expect a Los Angeles Chargers offensive lineman would.
“My husband’s first question: ‘What’s your [player] rating?'” she said, laughing.
“And I said, ‘Well, what’s yours?'”
It’s a conversation that wouldn’t have happened before NHL 22, which is the first game in the series to feature playable women’s national teams.
“A lot of us grew up not seeing role models on a consistent basis. We’d go to NHL games to watch the game but never really saw anyone that looked like us. Unless it’s the Olympics every four years,” said Coyne Schofield, who will captain Team USA at the Beijing Olympics, where the Americans will attempt to win a second consecutive gold medal.
Throughout her life, Coyne Schofield has worked to address gender inequity in hockey.
There was the battle her U.S. women’s national team waged with USA Hockey, seeking levels of support commensurate with the men’s team and in line with their success on the ice. She was a broadcaster for the San Jose Sharks, before becoming a player development coach with the Chicago Blackhawks. She became the first woman to participate in an NHL All-Star Game skills competition in 2019.
Now she is part of the same video game series that she played growing up, using the Blackhawks in games against her brother. Which means women’s hockey players can now have the same debates about their respective speed and shot ratings as their male counterparts have had for years.
“There will be jokes in the locker room,” Coyne Schofield predicted.
Speed has been synonymous with Coyne Schofield. She was in the fastest skater event at the NHL All-Star Game. Her book “As Fast As Her” was released this month.
“I couldn’t find many books with women in hockey when I was a kid. It was a goal of mine [to write one]. And when I set a goal, I’m driven to do what it takes to make it happen,” she said. “Look where this game has taken me. Most recently now, in a video game.”
Has Coyne Schofield stressed to EA Sports how important it is to have a “100” in speed?
She laughed at the question.
“We haven’t started that negotiation yet. Should we start now?” she said. “I don’t know; maybe they think I have to prove myself first.”
Player rating bragging rights aside, Coyne Schofield sees this moment of digital hockey equality as an important one for the sport.
“We can only be at one place, at one time, at one rink playing a game. There are only so many people who can see us play at a time, and women’s hockey isn’t visible enough,” she said. “Knowing that this can be in so many homes, and we can be accessible to so many people at one time … it’s something that this game needs.
“I’m just super excited to see the effect that us being in the game has on the next generation of kids who grow up seeing women and men in the same game, in the same capacity, knowing that they can be either one of us. It’s going to be instrumental for the game.”
EA Sports started working on including women’s players in NHL 22 just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The series has had international men’s teams as a playable option for years, only with generic-looking uniforms. EA Sports and the International Ice Hockey Federation reached an agreement that would bring the teams from the world championship and world juniors into the game.
By securing the IIHF license for NHL 22, the game makers also had the opportunity to include women’s world championship teams in the game for the first time.
“I’m a big believer in ‘seeing it to be it,'” said Sean Ramjagsingh, vice president and general manager for EA Sports. “This is a real exciting time for us, and it’s a really big step for us. But it’s not going to be a one-and-done. I think it will be a focus for our franchise moving forward.
“We have this incredible platform where I think we can be real drivers of change in the sport of hockey and really resonate with that next generation of players. So they can see themselves in the game.”
Ramjagsingh said the demographics among those who play the video game skew considerably male, but there have been other female players in it.
In 2011, a 14-year-old girl named Lexi Peters wrote a letter lamenting that there were no female players in the game. EA Sports responded by adding a female character option and making Peters the “default” female player that gamers could customize. In 2012, Hayley Wickenheiser and Angela Ruggiero, both Hockey Hall of Famers, became the first two female athletes to be featured as playable characters in a professional sports league video game.
“This instance is different,” said Andy Agostini, senior producer at EA Sports. “We’re bringing real-world rosters of women into the game and allowing people to see what they see on television. For a user that might not know many teams outside of Canada and the U.S., they get to see how good the women’s players are in other countries. It’s going to create more awareness around women’s hockey.”
Ten international women’s teams were added in EA Sports’ patch update, which dropped Thursday. Getting those players in the game presented some unique challenges.
For example, the game maker needed to determine the proper player ratings for the women.
EA Sports uses a third party to secure the stats and ratings for international players. In this case, it used the stats and evaluations complied by two reporters who cover the IIHF world championships and women’s hockey at large.
“We had to explain how the video game takes the ratings and uses them properly. Sometimes, there’s a disconnect on something like offensive awareness because that could mean different things to different people doing ratings,” said Agostini, who noted it was a “back-and-forth process.”
There’s also a fundamental difference in the way the men’s and women’s games are played.
“Obviously, bodychecking isn’t allowed in the women’s game, so there was a rule implementation there that we had to deal with,” Ramjagsingh said.
Agostini said that doesn’t mean there’s a lack of physicality in the women’s game.
“Women are not exactly delicate when they’re playing hockey. They’re playing as hard as the men to win whatever game they’re playing,” he said. “The battles for pucks in corners are there, and there’s bumping and jostling. There’s just none of the huge hits where someone can take a run at someone and knock them down.”
In terms of aesthetics, the women’s players are wearing face cages. Because of the pandemic, the EA Sports design team didn’t get a chance to do face scans for the players or have motion capture sessions as it normally would for game updates.
“We worked our best to get some photographs that we used,” said Agostini, adding that 12 of the top players had their “traditional head” sculpts “hand done” for the game.
Ramjagsingh said “from a body perspective, because there’s so much equipment on their bodies, it probably generifies [the player design] a little bit.”
One aspect was particularly challenging for the designers: the players’ hair.
“That was probably the most difficult piece of the whole women’s player integration: The length of the hair, how it can move, within the limitations of our technology,” Agostini said. “Is it perfect? Probably not. But it’s a really good likeness.”
It’s all part of a work in progress. EA Sports said it looks forward to getting feedback from the women’s players on all aspects of its initial attempt at bringing their teams into the mix.
For Coyne Schofield, the most critical thing right now is that they’re in the game at all.
“It really shows what we’ve been fighting for, which is equality in this space and in this sport. Knowing that there’s equal opportunities for boys and girls in this sport,” she said.
“There’s still work to be done, but it’s a huge step in the right direction.”
Team USA captain Kendall Coyne Schofield reflects on whether beating Canada for Olympic gold in 2018 changes anything in the rivalry as the teams head to the Beijing Games.
The U.S. women’s Olympic hockey team took a huge step at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, finally winning gold after settling for consecutive silver medals, losing to archrival Canada in 2010 and 2014.
From 2010 to 2021, the U.S. women won six IIHF world championships to Canada’s two, although their rival won it in 2021.
Does the Olympic success over Canada change the dynamics of the rivalry at all?
“I don’t think it changes our approach by any means,” Coyne Schofield said. “This is a completely different roster than the roster we saw in 2018. Our culture, our mindset, our work, none of that changes. The way we do things doesn’t change. We have to continue to work toward our common goal every day.”
There are 13 players on the U.S. Olympic roster for the Beijing Games who won gold in South Korea.
“You have to recognize that there’s a handful of players that have never been to the Olympic Games, that have never won a gold medal. Our mindset doesn’t change because of 2018,” Coyne Schofield said.
Another difference between 2018 and 2022 is preparation time. The 2020 women’s world championships were postponed due to the pandemic. So were many exhibition games that Team USA would have played leading up to the Olympics.
“It’s definitely been different, from the cancellation of the world championship to camps getting canceled or being unable to play as many games,” Coyne Schofield said. “There’s been a lot of adjusting and adapting, but I think that’s one of the strengths of this group: We know there are so many things we can’t control in this pandemic, and we’ve adjusted accordingly.”
Coyne Schofield said the COVID-19 restrictions in place for Beijing weren’t a topic of conversation among the women’s players the way they were for NHL players, some of whom voiced concern about the stringent protocols before the league opted out of the Winter Games. She heard some of those concerns but said that the NHL players had a different mindset toward the Olympics than the members of women’s team do.
“For them, they’re going to go to the Olympics and then return to the National Hockey League,” she said. “This is our Stanley Cup Final. This is it for us.”