THE MOST MODDED: HOCKEY GAMES
Looking for some Old Time Hackey with a modern touch? The following games have strong fan communities dedicated to updating and modernizing them each year.
EA'S NHL series for 16-bit consoles was the first hockey game to blend NHL rosters and fairly accurate game rules/physics with a fun and accessible gameplay experience. The whole lineup was pretty solid, so why have modders focused so much on the 1994 edition?
It's kind of hard to say why this particular entry is the one most players rally around; potentially just nostalgia due to being the first in the series to have both NHL players and teams included, as well as the first to introduce various gameplay features like the one-timer and the ability to randomly break glass with shots (though it also is the only one to remove fighting and blood). It may just be that the NHL games that followed each year through the '90s were basically just minor derivations on the pattern started here, each with their own little unique hinks such that none stands out as a truly superior evolution.
Whatever the case, while you'll see roster patches and such for a variety of other 16-bit NHL titles, NHL '94 definitely gets the lions share of the attention. And among the different versions, the Sega Genesis port appears to be king.
-- NHL94.com is an enthusiast hub where you can get involved with tournaments and leagues. NHL94Online is a similar hub.
-- In addition to roster and team name/color updates for each new season, players have created ROMs for seasons of the past, the AHL and even the Olympics. The best resource I've found for keeping track of them all (and seeing new updates) is this subforum on NHL94.com
How Do You Play?
-- The easiest way will be to simply download an updated ROM and an emulator. Any modern PC (and probably just about any modern smartphone or tablet) should be able to run these at this point. A gamepad is highly recommended; try the Hyperkin GN6 for Sega Genesis authenticity or the Xbox 360 pad for a solid all-rounder that will work with everything else.
-- If you want to play on a cartridge on an actual Sega Genesis, you'll have to get into the world of repro cartridges, for which there is neither a simple nor inexpensive solution. It'll involve both some mild programming and soldering at the very least. This is a good guide. People also sometimes sell their own repros for a reasonable price through sites like Etsy, but it's a very spotty way of getting ahold of one.
-- If you just want the console experience but don't want to bother with creating an actual cartridge, the best solution is to get one of the Genesis knockoff consoles (which are actually just emulators in a console shell) that can play ROMs from an SD card or otherwise give you a means of adding them to the system. The biggest legal name in this space (and also the easiest to find) is ATGames; they make a console as well as a generalized Ultimate Portable Game Player that can play Genesis ROMs.
-- If you're good with a handheld system, in addition to the aforementioned ATGames system, there's the GPD XD. It's also very easy to install custom firmware on a Sony PSP to get emulators going from an SD card, and the Genesis emulation is excellent.
* NHL Hitz 2003 (Gamecube)
This wacky hockey series was created by Midway and kinda picks up where their 2-on-2 Open Ice Challenge arcade game (itself in turn an NBA Jam derivative) left off. John Mazzocchi, ROM hacker and big fan of the game, created a comprehensive roster update in 2013 current to the summer of that year. Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to have created any more recent versions, but you can pick up the lone 2013 release here.
How Do You Play?
Only real option at this point is a Gamecube emulator (Dolphin is a good one) on a PC that can handle it. A gamepad is definitely wanted; pick up a Retro Link for Gamecube authenticity or an Xbox 360 pad for general versatility.
* Ike Ike! Nekketsu Hockey (NES)
A member of the prolific Nekketsu High School series (which mixes sports with a hearty dose of brawling), this one puts the crew on the ice. You won't get NHL or national teams here, but a couple of different ROM hackers have hacked an even greater selection of teams in using characters from other Nekketsu games. Check out Technos Ice Hockey Reloaded and Nekketsu Hockey League 2016. There's also a simple editor for basic game attributes called Turbo Hockey Editor 3000.
How Do You Play?
Yet another case where an emulator and a patched ROM will be the easiest means by far. It's possible to make repro cartridges using a ROM, but as with any other system it's pretty complicated and requires a donor cartridge along with some basic programming and soldering knowledge. Here's a good guide for NES games.
If you want to get a console that can play ROMs, the NES Classic Edition is of course the premier version, but there's two problems: Nintendo discontinued it at breakneck speed guaranteeing it to be an overpriced hipster item, and also it's not designed to allow you to upload ROMs out of the box and takes some hackery. Other console options that are cheaper and easier to work with (albeit probably not having 100% accurate emulation include the RetroTRIO for best accuracy or the Retron 5 for added emulation features.
For a handheld option the GPD XD works well here as does the Sony PSP with custom firmware installed, which gives you excellent NES emulation.
* NHL 2004 (PC)
NHL 2004 has emerged as the odd flashpoint for fan modding efforts of PC hockey games, mostly due to AI, puck physics and player movement seen as anomalously realistic for the series. It's also exceptionally mod-friendly since it has an HTML frontend that handles most of the necessary details.
How Do You Play?
The centerpoint of the whole community is NHL04 Rebuilt. You'll need the original game in some form or another to install it, but once installed you no longer need the disc to run the game. The "stock" version gives you the latest rosters, arenas and etc. for the most recent NHL season, but there are also branch versions for other leagues like Russia's KHL. As always, a gamepad is recommended, and the standard Xbox 360 pad will work with it right out of the box.
* NHL '09 (PC)
Though fan sentiment isn't quite as high for NHL '09, it seems to be the second-most popular among EA's games for PC modding. There isn't a full "rebuilt" project like there is with NHL '04, but some modders have been doing annual roster and team updates as of late: The Breakaway seems to be where most of the action is centered.
* NHL Eastside Hockey Manager (PC)
If you just want to manage a franchise without having to bother with actually taking control of games, EHM is the main series you want to look at. There has been a yearly entry since 2001; it started out as a small freeware project and eventually grew to be an officially licensed NHL product published by Sega. People still mod the original freeware versions to keep them up to date as well as doing roster/team updates and such for various older versions. Regardless of which version you have, The Blue Line seems to be the place to find everything you need.
* NHL 2007 (PSP)
NHL 2007 is basically the lone viable hockey game for the PSP, and arguably all handhelds. It's a pretty good reproduction of the more arcadey style of EA's NHL games on consoles. A guy named AronVad used to do a yearly roster/team update patch, which you could install by patching a save file on an SD card; unfortunately he seems to have stopped after doing the 2015/2106 season, and while it also used to be a free download with a donation requested, at some point he switched to mandating a $5 donation to get the patch emailed to you. You can at least get up to 2015/2016 and then arrange things for yourself from there though, but you'll have to whip up the Vegas Golden Knights from scratch.