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NHL covers are a coveted thing among hockey players. They’re a reminder of who the biggest names were in the sport for a particular year, and that’s why we thought it’d be fun to look back on them with every NHL cover athlete in one place. You smell that? Greatness. And, admittedly, some locker room funk mixed in there, too. Seriously. Give Patrick Roy’s pads a wide berth.

Since 1991, hockey games have been appealing to gamers using the sport’s most beloved figures. 31 years later, what we have is a year-by-year record of the league’s most en-vogue players, even during the seasons when they didn’t put a skate on the ice thanks to lockouts.

But let’s be real, you’re probably here to settle a bar argument over who was on the NHL ‘94 cover, or whether a goaltender has ever been given the cover athlete treatment. So let’s just get into it before any more beer nuts are spilled.

NHL Hockey (1991) cover

Glenn Healy on the NHL 91 cover.

Glenn Healy

Goaltender-turned-sportscaster Healy might be better known to a younger generation as the inventor of the Loch Ness Monster, a segment on TSN that highlights the big player who goes missing on a particular night.

As a netminder though, Healy was never prone to such inconsistency. Not only did he lead the Islanders to an unlikely conference finals in the 1992-93 season, he was also part of the 1994 Stanley Cup-winning Rangers, letting in just one playoff goal. Although in fairness, he did only play 68 post-season minutes.

This is actually just one of three video game covers Healy graces, along with Pro Sport Hockey and NHL All-Star Hockey ‘95. Not bad for a goaltender.

NHLPA Hockey ‘93 cover

Rod Brind’Amour, Mike Richter, Randy Moller on the NHLPA Hockey 93 cover.

Rod Brind’Amour, Mike Richter, Randy Moller

As far as video game covers were concerned, this era was all about the Rangers. What’s bizarre about this action shot of Brind’Amour and Moller tussling while Richter watches on is that it graces a game released the year before the Rangers’ cup win, and mostly obscures the players. Would you even know that was Brind’Amour?

Perhaps more bizarrely, Mark Messier never featured on a game box. Despite the facts that a) video games all seemed obsessed with his team at the time, and b) the image of him lifting the cup in ‘94 is as iconic as it gets.

NHL ‘94 cover

Thomas Sandstrom, Andy Moog on the NHL 94 cover.

Thomas Sandstrom, Andy Moog

How best to explain this one… the EA NHL series wasn’t the juggernaut that we know it as today. Not in those 16-bit days. These stills were probably selected for their licensing cost as much as the athletes within them, and this particular moment frozen in time of Sandstrom deking past a collapsed Bruins defense seems much more about the dynamism of the image than the names. And we mean that with the greatest of respect to all players involved. Hand on heart though, who had an Andy Moog jersey in ‘94?

NHL 95 cover

Alexei Kovalev, Kirk McLean on the NHL 95 cover.

Alexei Kovalev, Kirk McLean

NHL 95 rang in the changes by dropping the apostrophe from its title. Its SNES version was ironically developed by Visual Concepts, a studio now synonymous with the NBA 2K basketball series. We don’t remember paying to have our skates sharpened with VC in this game, though.

Anyway - Kovalev and McLean. Yet another Rangers netminder features on a game cover - these guys really had the early ‘90s sewn up. Kovalev’s pictured here scoring one of the 24 goals he logged in the ‘95-’96 campaign in the second of his 20 NHL seasons. This guy was still active in the league in 2011. Mind. Blown.

NHL 96 cover

Scott Stevens, Steve Yzerman on the NHL 96 cover.

Scott Stevens, Steve Yzerman

Now this is more like it. Although ‘96 was the Avalanche’s turn to lift the Stanley Cup, Stevens and Yzerman definitely represented the league zeitgeist at the time. The Devils and Red Wings were finalists in ‘95, and perennial contenders for about the next decade. They wouldn’t have got there without hulking defenseman Stevens and laser-eyed being of unfathomable offensive power (and later GMing) Yzerman.

After an opening few years selecting cover stars according to how cool the photo looked, this was the first cover that really tapped into who the big stars were in the moment.

NHL 97 cover

John Vanbiesbrouck on the NHL 97 cover.

John Vanbiesbrouck

We spoke too soon. JVB had a hell of a career spanning three decades in the league, and was inducted into the hall of fame in 2007. However, it does seem an odd choice looking back to select a 34-year-old goaltender playing for the Florida Panthers to sell your game. Maybe it was his long stint at the Rangers previously that swayed the EA decision-makers…

EA wasn’t to know at the time of course, but Vanbiesbrouck would unfortunately tarnish his reputation in the hockey world by using a racial slur targeted at Trevor Daley in his short coaching career, following his retirement in 2003. All in all, then, this is a cover to forget. Roll on ‘98.

NHL 98 cover

Peter Forsberg on the NHL 98 cover.

Peter Forsberg

And we’re back. Everybody wanted to be Peter Forsberg in 1998, with the possible exception of those who wanted to be his linemate, Joe Sakic. EA could, conceivably, have picked a more flattering shot of the two-way forward than this image of him, apparently enduring the last of several two-minute shifts of the night. But still - he’s recognizable, he’s a Stanley Cup winner at this point, and he’s not a New York Rangers goaltender. Well done, everybody involved.

NHL 99 cover

Eric Lindros on the NHL 99 cover.

Eric Lindros

A jawline you could cut glass on, the shoulder span of a Marvel character, and one of nineties hockey’s most recognizable numbers - 88. Eric Lindros is a fantastic pick for the NHL 99 cover. He embarked on a 93-point season the previous year, and his offensive production would remain at elite level for years to come, even as injuries, concussions, and a trade away from the Flyers – a very bad look for the organization in retrospect, responding to Lindros’ criticism that the team failed to diagnose four concussions.

Despite leading the Flyers to the finals in 1997, there’s a sense that Lindros’ career could have been so much more than it was, such was his phenomenal on-ice presence. So it’s nice that he’s immortalized in his prime on a game cover.

NHL 2000 cover

Chris Pronger on the NHL 2000 cover.

Chris Pronger

You were doing so well, EA. How we got from the Hollywood looks and showstopping offensive talents of Lindros to the chirping, slashing bullishness of Chris Pronger in one year is a mystery lost in the mists of time, but it happened.

In fairness to Pronger, who’d one day don the Flyers jersey like his cover ancestor Lindros, he was an elite-level defenseman his whole career. The reason everybody hated him except his team’s own fans was because he was so effective at disrupting offenses, physically and mentally. Everybody would have taken him on their roster. He’s just not the kind of player you think of when you think ‘poster boy for the sport.’

NHL 2001 cover

Owen Nolan on the NHL 2001 cover.

Owen Nolan

We’ll go out on a limb here and guess that whoever picked Pronger the previous year was also in charge of putting Owen Nolan on the cover of NHL 2001. We’re talking about a five-time NHL all-star here, a guy with two 30+ goal seasons in his career. But Nolan was always very much a power forward, somebody to impose his physical presence on the ice, grind out a possession play and then put a point on the board with sheer force of will.

Nolan seems a leftfield choice. Presumably, Mike Modano and Miroslav Satan were feeling shy at the time. Or maybe they just didn’t photograph well.

NHL 2002 cover

Mario Lemieux on the NHL 2002 cover.

Mario Lemieux

And we’re back on track. NHL 2002 will forever be remembered for its stellar commentary, and one of the lines baked into the consciousness of everyone who played it is the outrageously OTT ‘LEMIEUUUXXX!” that commentator Jim Hughson bellowed whenever the Penguin got on the puck. Not when he scored, you understand. Just for being in possession of the puck or taking even the tamest of shots, the stadium’s sound system would erupt with that commentary line. Great times.

Lemieux needs no introduction. One of the greatest players to grace the NHL. 1,723 points. A bunch of Penguins records not even Crosby has broken. Made of glass. Never played a full season, and yet put up numbers comparable to The Great One. We’d say that warrants a cover.

NHL 2003 cover

Jarome Iginla on the NHL 2003 cover.

Jarome Iginla

One of the greatest cover star picks in EA NHL history, if not the outright best. Iginla was coming off a 2002-02 season in which he’d earned the Maurice Richard, Art Ross, and Lester B. Pearson awards (for goals, points, and MVP respectively), and would take the Flames all the way to the Stanley cup finals in 2004, scoring 22 points in the playoffs.

In other words, Iginla was just about the most likable and exciting player in the league at the exact moment EA slapped his image on the cover of NHL 2003. He’d remain a player of that caliber for many years, scoring at least 30 goals in his next eight consecutive seasons, and finally drawing his career to a close 20(!) seasons and 1,554 games after it began, in 2017.

NHL 2004 cover

Dany Heatley on the NHL 2004 cover.

Dany Heatley

Take in that Thrashers uniform - beautiful, isn’t it? Heatley was one of the brightest young offensive stars in the league when NHL 2004 hit the shelves, along with the likes of Rick Nash and Ilya Kovalchuck. Would he be the player to elevate Atlanta’s expansion franchise to playoff success?

No. No, he wouldn’t. Instead, Heatley would play just 31 games of the 2003-04 season due to injury, and when the league finally resumed after the 2004-05 season lockout, he donned a Senators jersey and started slapping in 50 goals a season for Ottawa instead. It’s a cover that captures a moment in time, if not one of the league’s true icons, as it did the year previously.

NHL 2005 cover

Markus Naslund on the NHL 2005 cover.

Markus Naslund

NHL 2005 had the unenviable task of depicting a 2004-05 NHL season that never was, so it feels a bit like Markus Naslund drew the short straw here. He and the Sedin twins had recently turned the Canucks into playoff regulars, and he was coming off of three 40+ goal seasons and one 35-goal season before he hit the cover.

When the league resumed two seasons later, Naslund was right back at it with the same levels of offensive production, but the Canucks only managed one more playoff run in ‘06-’07 before he headed off to the Rangers in the twilight of his career. A couple of years later in 2011, the Canucks would face the Bruins in an infamous Stanley Cup finals that resulted in rioting and many broken Canadian hearts. Maybe Naslund got out just in time – it spared him the anguish of that loss.

NHL 06 cover

Vincent Lecavalier on the NHL 2006 cover.

Vincent Lecavalier

Vincent Lecavalier lifted the Stanley Cup trophy in 2004, and remained one of the league’s most exciting, productive, and absurdly baby-faced forwards throughout the decade. One might argue his appearance on the NHL 06 cover was slightly late for it to have had maximum impact and relevance, but let’s just be glad it happened at all.

Vinnie’s one of the few players you could describe as a true great of the game, and an even better philanthropist. In 2007 he pledged $3m – nearly half his annual salary – to a new children’s hospital under construction in his team’s native Florida. It was named the Vincent Lecavalier Pediatric Cancer and Blood Disorders Center in his honor.

NHL 07 cover

Alexander Ovechkin on the NHL 2007 cover.

Alexander Ovechkin

This is the first cover star who’s still active in the league. And when we say active, we mean still posting 50+ goal seasons. Ovi has been terrorizing defensemen for 17 NHL seasons now, and he’s entering his 18th with just as much fire in his belly.

The big narrative around Alexander the Great’s career until 2018 was whether he could ever get his Capitals over the playoff hump and lift the Stanley Cup. So many times prior, Washington had met Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference Finals, and so many times they’d come up short to their adversaries. But in 2018, it finally happened. The Capitals prevailed, thanks in no small part to Ovechkin’s 15 postseason goals.

He’s won more awards and holds more records than we could possibly list here. Suffice to say, the guy’s earned a cover spot.

Spoilers: this isn’t the last we’ll be hearing from Ovechkin on this list, either.

NHL 08 cover

Eric Staal on the NHL 2008 cover.

Eric Staal

Following Ovechkin was always going to be a tough act for the NHL 08 cover star, whoever EA picked. It’s like walking onstage after a Richard Prior set, except the stage is covered in ice and Prior’s still on it, holding off two defensemen as he barrels into the crease at 30mph. Anyway, please welcome to the stage, ladies and gentlemen… Eric Staal.

In fairness, Staal won the Stanley Cup as a rookie, with an unfavored Carolina Hurricanes team that he subsequently stuck with until 2016, amassing several franchise records along the way. Plus, there’s the added complication that his three very similar-looking brothers have also been in the league – two also at the Hurricanes for most of his career – so all the Staal accomplishments have a way of amalgamating.

But let’s not take anything away from Eric. He nearly won a second Stanley cup in 2021 with the Canadians, in his last season in the league. Really, it was petty selfish of the Lightning to deprive him of that.

NHL 09 cover

Dion Phaneuf on the NHL 2009 cover.

Dion Phaneuf

NHL 09 marks the first defensemen on the cover since… well, since those early 16-bit days when the covers were a bit more haphazard and defensemen featured merely as background scenery to the likes of Alexei Kovalev ripping off a shot. That says a lot about Dion Phaneuf’s impact on the league.

Perhaps he’s best known as a Toronto Maple Leaf, a partner to Elisha Cuthbert, and a love rival with Sean Avery, but before things got all National Inquirer, Phaneuf was simply known as a commanding defenseman with a horrifyingly powerful slapshot from the blueline, good for 15-20 goals per season for the Flames. Phaneuf made it to the playoffs in his first four seasons in a row, and although postseason appearances became less frequent when he made his way to Toronto, and later Ottawa, he remained one of the most potent top line d-men in the league. A fine debutant for his position in the NHL cover spot.

NHL 10 cover

Patrick Kane on the NHL 2010 cover.

Patrick Kane

Kane’s career hasn’t been without controversy, and that’s been covered in great detail elsewhere. Whether or not EA would have showcased the Blackhawk later on in his career, post-legal issues is another question. What we can say is that he’s been a frightening offensive talent since his debut one season before his cover pick.

A key part of the Blackhawks dynasty that took home three Stanley Cups in 2010, 2013, and 2015, he’s the exact type of player you want on the puck in this video game series - incredible speed, soft hands, great dangles, and a killer wrister.

NHL 11 cover

Jonathan Toews on the NHL 11 cover.

Jonathan Toews

In contrast to his Blackhawks teammate and often linemate Kane, Jonathan Toews isn’t exactly Mr Flashy. Never one to pull out a deke when a simple turn of pace would do, his professionalism and leadership singled him out as the crucial piece of the three-cup Blackhawks dynasty. In that sense, maybe it’s odd that he’s featured on not one but two NHL covers. After all, professionalism and leadership are pretty abstract concepts in the video game version of the sport.

Nonetheless, nobody would begrudge Toews this pair of cover accolades. Chicago may no longer be the perennial contender it once was, but Toews still puts in a shift night in, night out.

NHL 12 cover

Steven Stamkos on the NHL 12 cover.

Steven Stamkos

EA picked a pretty good time to feature Stamkos on the NHL 12 cover. He’d been drafted first overall in 2008, but it was around the 2011-12 season that we saw the first signs that Tampa Bay could become a true cup contender with a roster built around him. He put 60 goals past his opponents’ netminders that year, and although it would take longer than everyone imagined to convert that talent into titles, GM Steve Yzerman knew what he had in Stamkos.

Unfortunately, he’s as fragile as he is talented, and long injury absences have affected his career. But by the time the Lightning took back-to-back cups in 2020 and 2021, Stamkos had a formidable roster built around him. He didn’t have to shoulder the offensive burden alone. The team had enough depth that it may arguably have still taken those cup wins had Stamkos picked up knocks in the playoffs. Fortunately, he remained healthy and played 23 postseason games in each of their successful cup runs.

NHL 13 cover

Claude Giroux on the NHL 2013 cover.

Claude Giroux

Oh, the plight of the Flyers fan. Without a cup win since 1975, Philadelphia came dangerously close in 2010 before being bested 4-2 by the Blackhawks. And young Giroux played a big part in that turn of fortunes. The roster was already stacked with talent by the time he started getting major NHL minutes, so even when Mike Richards and Jeff Carter were traded away shortly after their finals appearance, Giroux kept the Flyers competitive. And that’s as good a reason to stick him on the NHL cover as any.

Unfortunately for Philly, Giroux’s talent was never quite supported with a deep enough roster to put another convincing cup run together. At least not until 2020, when the Flyers made it through the preliminary round robin qualifiers and got two rounds deep into the playoff before coming unstuck against the Islanders. Numerous young talents emerged at Philadelphia, not least hot young goaltender Carter Hart, but they couldn’t replicate their form in the coming seasons. Giroux was traded to Florida for the 2021-22 season, but again Giroux didn’t make it past the second round as his team met the Lightning and were duly swept 4-0.

NHL 14 cover

Martin Brodeur on the NHL 14 cover.

Martin Brodeur

After quite the hiatus, goaltending fans, we’re finally back with another goalie on the NHL cover. John VanBiesbrouck seems an awfully long time ago now, doesn’t he? If there was ever a man to be honored for his time between the pipes though, it’s Marty Brodeur.

The release of NHL 14 marked Brodeur’s final season with the Devils. During his time there they won the cup three times, in 1995, 200, and 2003, featuring as runners-up in 2001. Brodeur’s longevity and phenomenal shot-stopping earned him a long list of records, including the most wins for a goaltender with 691, and a total of 1,266 total appearances. That one’s going to take a while to be beaten – the closest active goalie is Marc-Andre Fleury, with 939.

NHL 15 cover

Patrice Bergeon on the NHL 15 cover.

Patrice Bergeon

Back to forwards but continuing the theme of players with incredible longevity, Bergeron got the nod for the NHL 15 cover. It was slightly unfortunate timing since Bergeron’s annoyingly consistent Bruins would miss the playoffs two years in a row following this cover, but overall it’s hard to argue he doesn’t deserve a nod. Playing all of his NHL games since 2003 for the Bruins, Bergeron’s scored 400 career goals and he’s narrowing in on 1000 points, too.

It’s just hard to truly be happy for a guy who’s willingly shared a locker room with Brad Marchand for this long.

NHL 16 cover

Jonathan Toews on the NHL 16 cover.

Jonathan Toews

That’s right, Toews is the first player to feature on two separate EA NHL covers, and only five titles apart, too. We’re guessing NHL 11 must have sold pretty well for EA, and with the Blackhawks winning their third title with Toews in 2015, it made sense.

You’d have got some pretty long odds on Toews being the first player to achieve this before it happened since his image has always been built around work ethic and responsibility rather than highlight reel plays, but it’s great to see one of the league’s true good guys held up in such high regard. Well-deserved.

NHL 17 cover

Vladimir Tarasenko on the NHL 17 cover.

Vladimir Tarasenko

It seems like so long ago now that everybody except St Louis Blues fans were worrying themselves into a stupor that Tarasenko might be the next unstoppable force in the league, a jewel in a Blues dynasty crown that might go on to hoover up Stanley Cups for the next decade. That was before injuries, and the Russian sniper’s tendency to go missing in playoff games came to the fore. But Tarasenko took those setbacks in his stride and did indeed lift the cup in 2019 with a career-high 17 playoff points. The near misses of previous seasons were forgiven, and Tarasenko became Blues royalty.

This cover spot found him at the peak of his powers, three seasons deep into consecutive 30+ goal-scoring streaks, so it’s hard to argue against EA’s decision-making here.

NHL 18 cover

Connor McDavid on the NHL 18 cover.

Connor McDavid

The kind of player video game covers are made for. McDavid was drafted first overall by the Oilers in 2015. He’s failed to score at least 100 points in a season only twice in his career so far – once in his debut campaign, where he only played 45 games due to injury and put up 48, and again in the shortened 2019-20 season. He only scored 97 that year.

It’s like somebody in the Oilers’ front office has found the cheat codes. McDavid’s stats definitely benefit from playing with linemate Leon Draisaitl, and vice versa, but you could probably put the guy out on the ice wearing one skate, with Nail Yakupov and Hunter the lynx for company, and still expect him to get on the board. We predict further covers for young McDavid – but will he ever bring a cup to Edmonton?

NHL 19 cover

P.K. Subban on the NHL 19 cover.

P.K. Subban

Repping defensemen on the NHL cover for the first time since Phaneuf’s NHL 09 appearance, P.K. Subban’s larger-than-life persona, offensive excursions, and wildly generous philanthropic work made him the perfect figure to carry the torch for the guardians of the blue line.

At the time of NHL 19’s release, Subban had recently been traded away from Montreal to the Predators, much to the furrowing of brows in Quebec, and was just about to be traded to the Devil the following season. The latter move really halted Subban’s playoff aspirations, and he’s failed to make a single post-season appearance since then. The Devils’ rebuild is looking nearly ready now though – maybe we’ll see him back to his best in that deep 2016 Preds run soon.

NHL 20 cover

Auston Matthews on the NHL 20 cover.

Auston Matthews

Rumor has it that whoever found the cheat codes in Edmonton let Toronto in on the secret the following year. Drafted first overall by the Maple Leafs, Matthews quickly revealed himself to be another generational talent akin to McDavid over in Alberta, scoring four goals in his first professional NHL game.

Also like McDavid, he’s yet to lift a Stanley Cup despite a Leafs roster that’s absolutely stacked with talent. Everybody who plays in Toronto feels the pressure, but Matthews’ prodigious talent has put him in the spotlight more than any Leaf for decades. He scored just 60 goals last season. We may be hearing more from Matthews shortly in this list…

NHL 21 cover

Alexander Ovechkin on the NHL 21 cover.

Alexander Ovechkin

14 years after his last appearance on an EA NHL cover, Ovi pops up again to remind every defenseman in the league that they’re still not safe. This cover feels like an appropriate celebration of the Russian’s phenomenal career, his bulletproof longevity, and cartoonish stat lines. It also makes the score 2-0 between him and fellow generational superstar Sidney Crosby, whose absence from any and all game covers has been widely speculated on over the years. The consensus is, Sid the Kid just never felt like it.

NHL 22 cover

Auston Matthews on the NHL 22 cover.

Auston Matthews

Puzzling. Not only did EA go with back-to-back game covers featuring returning cover stars, it also featured Auston Matthews for the second time in three games. Nothing really changed in that time – the Leafs stumbled in the first round of the playoffs year after year, Matthews remained imperious in his individual performances, and his resemblance to Burt Reynolds grew steadily with each passing season. We’re guessing this one was sales-related again.

NHL 23 cover

Trevor Zegras and Sarah Nurse on the NHL 23 cover.

Trevor Zegras and Sarah Nurse

The 2023 EA NHL cover represents a radical change of direction. Not only does it feature a female athlete for the first time in Toronto’s Sarah Nurse (cousin of Edmonton defenseman Darnell Nurse, if you’re interested), it also features the Duck’s floppy-haired Trevor Zegras in an unprecedented level of casual attire. Shorts! A hoodie underneath his jersey! Where do you think you are, Trevor, a mumble rap video shoot? Whatever would Markus Naslund think?

NHL 24 cover

A white man wearing a red and blue hockey uniform is skating down the ice, with the words EA Sports NHL 24 emblazoned at the top of the image

Multiple trophy-winner and Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar skates his way onto the cover of NHL 24. It's the latest in a long list of achievements for the 24-year-old. He won the Calder Rookie of the Year trophy in 2017, the Norris Trophy for Top Defenseman, and the Conn Smythe trophy during the 2021-2022 season in recognition of his achievement as playoff MVP during the Stanley Cup run.

Perhaps we’ll see 2023's format repeated in future EA NHL installments. Representatives from both the mens’ and womens’ games? Sign us up. Shorts and hoodies? Hard pass.