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key art for the X-Factor Edition of NHL 23, featuring a silver background with the game’s logo above an image of Trevor Zegras crouching while holding a hockey stick next to Sarah Nurse standing with a hockey stick, in front of blocks of ice, a hockey net, and palm trees Image: Electronic Arts

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NHL 23 puts two of hockey’s brightest stars on the cover

A woman fronts the hockey sim for the first time, too

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Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

With Electronic Arts’ hockey franchise now in its fourth decade of existence, NHL 23 will deliver two milestones for the series: Its cover features Trevor Zegras of the Anaheim Ducks and Sarah Nurse of the Canadian women’s national team, marking the first time in EA Sports NHL history that a woman has appeared on the cover of a game, and the first time that two people have shared the stage.

For years now, EA has been putting some of the NHL’s youngest stars on the box, like Auston Matthews (twice), P.K. Subban, and Connor McDavid. Zegras, 21, is even earlier in his career than those players were when they became EA Sports NHL cover athletes. But he’s already starting to put together an impressive resume, having finished second in the voting for the Calder Trophy (the NHL’s rookie of the year award) with 61 points — 23 goals and 38 assists — in 75 games last season.

As for Nurse, 27, she made a name for herself on the world’s biggest hockey stage at the Winter Olympics in Beijing earlier this year. Setting Olympic records for most points (18) and most assists (13) in a single women’s hockey tournament, Nurse helped Team Canada capture a gold medal and avenge the squad’s shootout loss to the Americans four years earlier. Nurse, who is biracial, also became the first Black woman to win an Olympic gold medal in hockey.

With the NHL always searching for young, marketable stars, and professional women’s hockey leagues working to gain a foothold, Zegras and Nurse are sensible choices for NHL 23’s cover. In their own way, each of them represents a modern type of athlete who is changing the face of hockey.

The buttoned-up, team-first hockey culture of old is slowly giving way to times where players feel comfortable sharing their personality and their off-ice passions. Sure, you’ll still see plenty of boring athlete interviews full of cliches about “getting pucks in deep” and “getting back to our game.” But on social media, NHL teams are now posting photos of their stars arriving to game day dressed to the nines, and The Athletic took the next logical step last season: doing power rankings of NHL style icons.

Nurse shares plenty of images in hockey gear with her 53,000-plus followers on Instagram, but she also posts sponsored fashion photo shoots and shots of her recently acquired Pomeranian, Romeo. “I’m somebody that, when I leave the rink, it stays at the rink,” said Nurse. “And I love so many other things. I’m probably, like, one of the most untraditional women’s hockey players you’d ever meet. Like, I love hair and makeup and fashion, and different things like that.”

In the world of hockey, calling attention to yourself — whether on or off the ice — rubs some the wrong way. If you follow the sport at all, you’ve probably seen clips of Zegras’ incredible plays, like scoring lacrosse-style goals against the Montreal Canadiens and Arizona Coyotes (or faking the same move and instead flipping the puck over the net for a teammate to bat it in).

After months of grumbling around the NHL about Zegras’ show-stopping play, his team’s general manager, Pat Verbeek, defended him in an interview with the media, saying, “This is just another unreal skill set and creative way to score goals.” However, Verbeek acknowledged that if someone had done what Zegras did when he himself was in the league — Verbeek played from 1982-2002, notching more than 1,000 points — it would have been “frowned upon,” and considered showing up an opponent by “hot-dogging.”

“Whenever I watched hockey, I’d always just think about other ways that you could get the puck to where you want it to go,” Zegras said of the origins of his playing style, in an interview with EA that the publisher provided to the media. “The way I’m wired is, like, if I see a play and I think I can make it, I’m going to try.”

Nurse counts herself among Zegras’ growing legion of fans.

“I think that’s why people resonate with [players like Zegras], is because they’re unapologetically themselves, they’re genuine, and they’re willing to express themselves,” Nurse told Polygon. “And I think that that’s huge, and that’s critical to our game.”

Nurse was speaking generally about growing the sport of hockey, but she’s focused on growing women’s hockey in particular. Although she played a starring role on Team Canada in Beijing, Nurse doesn’t have a club of her own at the moment.

While a fledgling women’s pro league does exist — the Premier Hockey Federation, formerly known as the National Women’s Hockey League — most of the top women’s players, including Nurse, have allied themselves with the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association and are holding out for something different. The PWHPA is an organization that is working to create a sustainable women’s hockey league in North America that will pay players as the professionals they are; one of the group’s main points of contention with the PHF is that it believes the existing league doesn’t support players sufficiently to allow them to be year-round pro athletes.

Obviously, Nurse’s appearance on the cover of NHL 23 isn’t going to will a new league into existence by itself. But these kinds of things can make a difference in raising awareness and forming a base of support that will pay dividends down the line.

“Visibility is one of the most important things when it comes to representation,” said Nurse. “Because I know, for me personally, there were women’s hockey players when I was growing up — but I never saw them, right? They were not visible. And so what EA is really doing here is really putting women on a platform and saying women have value in our game. Which I think is very important — not only for little girls to recognize their value, but also for the little boys to be able to see women in positions of power and women in sports, and make it normal.”

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