I've never posted on these forums before, but this subject made me feel compelled to reply.
To really understand why NHL '94 is so special to many of us, you would have to have lived during the era when it was released. If you are a teenager who was born just before, when, or just after this game was released you will never really understand. It is us old timers (and I use the term loosely as I am only 23) who played this game when it was originally released that will appreciate it the most.
Let me elaborate:
Growing up, I played two hockey games for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Ice Hockey and later, Blades of Steel. When Blades of Steel was released I was completely floored as it looked amazing and had the most realistic hockey action I had played up to that point.
When I was 7 years old in the fall of 1991, NHL Hockey was released for the SEGA Genesis. A friend of mine got the game immediately. To say that I was in awe would be an understatement. Not only did the game feature real NHL teams with real logos and team colors, but players were also featured. Later I would find that it was only player NUMBERS that were included in the game and not actual player names as EA did not have the license from the NHLPA, but that is besides the point. The fact that numbers, team colors, logos, cities, etc were included and were accurate was amazing. On top of this, real penalties and rules were enforced. Penalties were given based on true to life infractions rather than given to players for losing a fight, and off sides could be enforced. And to add icing to the cake, the player could use a password system to guide a team through the playoffs to the Stanley Cup. Gameplay was also amazing as the graphics combined with a new perspective (north and south rather than east and west) making this game a totally new experience. This game was truely leaps and bounds ahead of anything I had seen before.
I tried to purchase the game for months but it was continually sold out where I lived (St. Louis) and I never did get it. But the rumors at school began to circulate in the fall of 1992 that a newer version of the game was coming out... this one had extra letters added for some reason... NHLXWYZ or something, but it was essentially the same game. In early 1993 I finally found and purchased NHLPA Hockey '93. This game featured real player names and numbers among other gameplay refinements and improvements (such as organ music and player injuries). I was puzzled as to why EASN was at center ice rather than team logos but this was only a minor flaw. I would later realize it was because EA had the NHLPA license but not an NHL license to team names, logos, and the Stanley Cup could not appear in the game. Despite this, the gameplay and features still improved and it was really a quality experience.
That brings us to NHL '94. This game finally tied everything together with NHL and NHLPA licenses. Team names and logos appeared in the game along with player names and numbers and even photos. The gameplay and animations also reached their pinnacle. This truely was the crowning achievement of three years of work on the same game engine. Small things like real team themed organ music (such as "When the Blues go Marching In" for St. Louis and Chicago's theme), improved crowd animations, breaking glass, hats on the ice for hat tricks, players getting checked into the bench, and of course the one timer made this game stand tall above the previous releases. That is why this game is still so revered. It is the game where the NHL and NHLPA licenses finally met and the gameplay and graphics were refined for three years to reach the top of the mountain.
NHL '95 also awed me with the addition of full season play, player awards, trades, and the ability to create players but the gameplay itself was lacking as they completely changed the game engine. The graphics were worse, the sound effects were worse, the crowd noise was annoying.... I even disliked the organ music. Had they simply taken NHL '94, updated the rosters and added all of those other features, we would be at an NHL '95 website right now. Unfortunately that is not the case and NHL '94 turned out to be the best game in the series.
Lastly, I think it is important to note the standards that were held at that time. I remember being amazed by the Big Boo in Super Mario World, and a group of us kids sitting around with our mouths dropped in stunned silence over watching a friend play Sonic the Hedgehog for the first time. With each new generation of video games our expectations rise higher and higher and we are not as easily impressed. When these games were released it was a huge jump from what we had before. Games now are only a small hop above what was previously released. Therefore nostalgia is another reason there is such a fanbase for this game. We remember playing it when our expectations were different and we had a blast. Fond memories were formed, and in my case at least, life was much simpler at that time.
Anyway, I'm done with the long winded post but I thought I'd add my two cents and reasons for loving this game.