Die-hard Detroit Red Wings fan crowned best ‘NHL 23’ player in the world

Detroit Free Press

NASHVILLE — What I knew about hockey growing up as a Southerner, I mostly learned by playing video games.

And one game, in particular.

Since the early 1990s, one of the best things this sport has had going is the series of annual NHL games produced by Electronic Arts (or EA Sports). I spent a sizable chunk of my life playing them. Once thought that I was pretty dang good.

Well, I wasn’t.

Tell you who is, though: Joseph Olmstead.

The 19-year-old from Troy, Michigan, in fact, is the best “NHL 23” player in the world. That was decided on a pre-NHL draft Tuesday afternoon across the street from Bridgestone Arena, where for hours one paid nothing to sizzle and sweat and later be able to say you witnessed Connor McDavid lead the Detroit Red Wings past Andrei Vasilevskiy’s New York Islanders for a title.

Olmstead’s Red Wings – he’s a “die-hard fan,” being from Michigan and all – won him a $28,000 prize, surpassing three other players from around the globe who’d earned the right to travel to Nashville and compete in the 2023 EA Sports NHL 23 World Championship.

A small, curious, crowd was on hand by the end. But the real interest was elsewhere. The league broadcasted and streamed the event live on various platforms.

None of the four players were older than 24. Olmstead was the youngest.

“It’s going to be a lot harder finding games (online), I’ll tell you that,” he said with a smile.

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The son of a tennis pro, Olmstead works with his father. He plays tennis. He has played hockey, having participated in youth tournaments in Nashville before. But mostly, he plays “NHL 23,” and he’s better at it than most people will be at anything in their lives.

His is a full-time passion. To compete at this level, it must be.

“Last year, I mean, I would play for like seven hours a day probably,” he said.

Olmstead was joined in Nashville by two Finnish players, 24-year-old Erik Tammenpää and 22-year-old Teemu Karvoven, who’d qualified from Europe, and Canadian Samuel Landry, 21, who’d beaten Olmstead to win the North American title.

This was the first in-person NHL EA championship event since the COVID-19 pandemic. The Finnish players each spoke highly of this experience in Nashville, and Tammenpää – a goalie himself – even noticed that his countryman and Nashville Predators legend Pekka Rinne was behind him in an airport security line as he was traveling here.

A well-known streamer and content creator, Tammenpää – who goes by “EKI” – won this tournament back in 2018. After a preliminary round and semifinals and numerous delays caused by technical glitches with the NHL’s extravagant mobile gaming truck, Olmstead ended up in a best-of-three final against EKI’s Islanders.

In an upset, Olmstead swept both games, winning 7-5 and 2-1.

“The difference (in players) is so small. It’s a bloodbath,” Tammenpää said. “You really need to perform at a high level. You need some luck as well. Yeah, you need to be good when it counts. It’s really a mental game.”

At points along the way Tuesday, Connor Bedard – the likely No. 1 pick in Wednesday night’s NHL draft at Bridgestone – showed up and played a little virtual hockey. Nashville Predators mascot Gnash high-fived people and took pictures.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, woefully overdressed for the heat in pants and a zip-up sweater, made an appearance, too, with an interview on the league’s on-site streaming broadcast.

“We think it’s vitally important that we give fans – no matter how old you are or what your interest is in the game – ways to connect on your terms,” Bettman said. “… We want to make sure we’re on the cutting edge to the extent that we can be.”

The games themselves – once they took place – were intense and highly entertaining. Remarkably similar to real hockey, which is a nod to the long-time quality of EA Sports’ NHL games as well as the skill of the four gamers sitting with controllers in hand, sipping water and wiping sweat off their faces.

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Players selected teams in a fantasy-style draft months ago before tournaments prior to this one, which created some amusing duplicates. One matchup had goalie Jake Oettinger in the net for both teams.

Tammenpaa is known for his defense. So he prioritized drafting Vasilevskiy. Olmstead, however, was the only one of the four to have McDavid.

The best hockey player in the world helped determine the world’s best video-game hockey player – all for the Red Wings.

What might Detroit fans have thought?

“They might not like that,” Olmstead said. “Or they probably do like that, actually.”

Reach Tennessean sports columnist Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.

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