The game was perfect, and I discovered that I was nearly perfect at playing it. By some odd calibration of the cosmos -- the provenance of which I never understood to begin with, and has long since vanished anyway -- I was absolutely unstoppable at NHL Hitz 2003, defeating all comers with a freakish combination of precise strategy, button-mashing furor, and deft manipulation of the game's many glitches. Players with better speed ratings could easily own any fight, but my slower-fisted skaters won thanks to my uncanny timing with an underutilized block move. I checked goalies to take intentional penalties, only to score shorthanded thanks to a poorly weighted AI that actually made it easier to net goals man-down. Then, having immediately caught on to the simple roshambo-style matrix that decided face-offs, I swindled possession from my opponent on the next puck-drop. Lather, rinse, repeat.
In a chubby adolescence full of performative knowledge-dropping and not making out with girls, finally there was something I was good at. Consistently, definitively good at. It was a thrill. My confidence soared. Emboldened by the rush of winning at something -- anything -- I did what felt right. I immediately began talking spectacular amounts of shit.
I don't remember the specific insults I hurled at opponents in front of the TV, but I do know that they didn't really have much to do with the actual gameplay, or what the game's own automated "sports casters" said about it. Their outcries were broad, gleeful, and impartial. "Ooooh, what a bone-crushing hit THAT was!" they’d scream repeatedly as players on either side committed ice-borne atrocities.
My invective, by contrast, was personal and cruel, mixing the normal venom of teenage powerlessness with the vindictive delight of teenage empowerment. Bitchtits. Asswipe. Shit-guzzler. I spent a good portion of the ensuing decade playing NHL Hitz 2003 (Midway released only one additional version afterward, NHL Pro, which was largely identical), and all of it accompanied by a steady stream of vicious color commentary on my opponents’ shortcomings.
A friend in my freshman hall at college had a PlayStation 2, and a copy of Hitz. I was 18 at that point, a bundle of over-caffeinated, under-sexed anxiety, and I spent hours in his room, bringing the goddamned thunder on anyone who dared take up a controller against me. We all played Hitz, and with some real ringers in the group, I wasn't the undisputed champ anymore, but it didn't matter. I was still one of the best. Besides, I'd honed myself into a formidable pest in the mold of actual NHL players like Darius Kasparaitis or Ian Laperrière, whose relentless trash talking was so incisive as to be weaponized, forcing errors and drawing penalties from opposing teams.
"I'm going to skull-fuck you into Middle-earth" was not something I said during these marathon sessions of dorm room Hitz, though I wish I had. Still, it's something I might have said. More comfortable in my own skin, my verbal abuse became more florid. I'd strike nerves with long, complex insults that functioned like narrative assaults, then punctuate them by hammering home a shallow-angle, cross-ice one-timer (a classic Hitz glitch, and completely indefensible) for the go-ahead goal. It drove my friends nuts, and made me feel like a goddamned legend. These were formative times.