The speculation and apocrypha surrounding "cover curses" in sports go back at least as far as the "SportsIllustrated cover jinx." In the age of video games, the "Madden Curse" has taken up the mantle as the most hotly-debated superstition in sports marketing.
It's important to note that "curses" are empirically bunk, especially in sports. Sports is a relatively binary experience for the people who buy sports video games, the fans. Either an athlete exceeds fan and media expectations or does not.
In a profession where so much can go wrong; injuries, trades, coaching changes, improved competition, etc., what side of the expectation barrier an athlete ends up on in a given year seems somewhat random. Especially when an athlete reaches rises to the level of expectations to be picked to grace the cover, the odds of falling below expectations are even greater.
EA Sports has been featuring individual players on the cover of "NHL" for 17 editions of the game. The first individual star to grace the cover by himself was actually a goalie, John Vanbiesbrouck of the Florida Panthers, who was featured on "NHL '97."
Vanbiesbrouck was the last goalie to make the cover, so there is a fairly good sample size of 16 consecutive skaters who have had their images on the game's box in North America. The data for this whimsical experiment (you can see our spreadsheet here) comes from looking at the cover athletes from "NHL 98" to "NHL 12" and their points per game, games missed and playoff games played.
The data shows that in recent seasons especially, being on the cover of "NHL" has almost little to no effect on scoring production. Four of the last five players have actually scored more per game in the season when they were on the cover than in the season before. Overall, the average drop between the year before and the players’ cover year was a measly .04 points per game.
Injuries and off-ice problems are often associated with curses, but if you find yourself on the cover of "NHL," you are actually likely to play in .33 more games than you did in the previous season.
This of course does not account for two dark periods in hockey's history that would skew the numbers considerably. For one, the entire 2004-05 NHL season was cancelled due to lockout, so Vancouver Canucks forward Markus Naslund may have waited out the year he would have been "cursed."
However, in March of that season, Thornton was arrested for obstructing and assaulting a police officer during a bar incident in his Ontario hometown.
EA chose to tap Atlanta Thrashers scorer (and Thornton's future linemate) Dany Heatley as the new "NHL 2004" coverboy. The game was released on September 22, 2003 with Heatley on the cover.
Just seven days later, Heatley drove his Ferrari into a wall, killing passenger and teammate Dan Snyder. EA quickly attempted to replace Heatley with Colorado's Joe Sakic, but plenty of copies of the Heatley-adorned "NHL 2004" reached gamers.
Since those two tumultuous seasons, it's been relatively quiet for the supposed curse. Chicago Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane, the first and only American to make the cover, more or less debunked any thoughts of a curse in 2010.
The "NHL 10" cover star upped his points per game by the largest margin in "NHL" cover history, played two more games than in his previous season and powered the Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup victory.
So what can Flyers fans expect from Claude Giroux during the 2012-13 NHL season? Giroux missed five games last year due to a head injury, and while those can be recurring problems, the data says that Giroux will miss between four and five games again. The history of "NHL" cover players shows that his point production is likely to hold steady, projecting at a very strong 1.17 points per game.
However, the most looming curse-like figure is the fact that Giroux played in ten Stanley Cup playoff games last year for Philly.
With the average "NHL" cover athlete playing in six fewer games in the year after they make the cover, that means that Philly could be in for a brief four-game sweep in the first round of the playoffs next spring.
But then again, who really believes in curses?