Disney’s The Mighty Ducks, which began life as a live-action 1992 feature, has been surprisingly elastic and enduring. In its near-30-year lifespan, it has inspired a successful trilogy (during a time when Disney was far less franchise-focused), a science fiction-y animated series and a brand-new streaming show, The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers, which debuts on Disney+ this week. (It’s very cute.) But the most fascinating chapter in the saga of The Mighty Ducks was when an enterprising executive turned the Bad News Bears-like story of a Pee-Wee hockey team into a really-for-real NHL team.
The story of The Mighty Ducks is largely the story of Michael Eisner. Eisner was the brash, enthusiastic executive who was installed as the Chairman and CEO of Disney after a tumultuous battle with corporate raiders that saw Disney paying millions of dollars in greenmail to shrewd businessmen looking to strip the company for parts. Instead of a businessman, Eisner was an English major; he was a true creative executive. And, by his own admission, he was obsessed with hockey. Two of his sons played the sport, and as he says in his memoir Work in Progress, he and his wife had spent “countless hours accompanying them to practices, games, and tournaments.” At the urging of his wife, he and film executive Jeffrey Katzenberg commissioned a script about misfit youth hockey players (unsurprisingly, Eisner had been involved with The Bad News Bears at Paramount). The resulting film was a surprise smash (and, as Eisner notes, “one of Disney’s very few hits of 1993”). And a few months before the movie opened, Eisner received a call from Bruce McNall, who was then the owner of the Los Angeles Kings hockey team.
McNall called Eisner was simple: a brand new, state-of-the art arena was being finished down the street from Disneyland in Anaheim, without any kind of major sports franchise attached to it. In his memoir Eisner remarked that the $110 million arena was built in good faith, “only to discover that no professional sports team was interested.” The resulting desperation allowed Disney, in Eisner’s words, “to make a very reasonable deal to play there.” The new team was announced in 1992 as part of a two-city NHL expansion (the other city was Miami, with a new team owned by the then-bustling Blockbuster Video); along with the licensing and leasing fees, Disney paid a $50 million fee to be admitted into the league that allowed it to “share” the Los Angeles area with the Kings. The Orange County register, ahead of the official announcement, warned that the team “could be called The Mighty Ducks.”
On March 1, 1993, Eisner, wearing a screen-accurate Mighty Ducks jersey and a hat that read “Coach Goofy,” announced that the Mighty Ducks would be coming to Anaheim. ““If we’re a very good team, I think it will be a great name,” Eisner said during the extravagant press conference. “If we’re a very bad team, it will be a bad name. But I welcome the puns.” Not only would the team play down the street from Disneyland, but Jack Lindquist, who was then Disneyland’s President and a true Disney stalwart, having joined the park two months after it opened in 1955, would serve as the team’s chairman and “chief marketeer” (his advertising and promotional wizardry was legendary). Additionally, merchandise for the new team would be available at Disney Store locations nationwide. (“It’s the newest item from Disney merchandise, it’ll be a quack heard ‘round the world,” Eisner said at the press conference.) And a Mighty Ducks sequel, then referred to as D2: The Champions, would be partially shot in the new area sometime before the season began.
The Anaheim arena would soon be referred to as The Pond. Since the arena was completely state-of-the-art, there wasn’t much for Disney’s secret unit of designers and engineers, known as Walt Disney Imagineering, to do. (Years later, when Disney purchased the Anaheim Angels, Imagineering retrofitted the ailing stadium.) Instead, Eisner left his stamp on the team by hiring postmodern architect Frank Gehry, one of a stable of high-profile architects Eisner hired that created a movement referred to by the New York Times as “Disney Deco,” to design the practice space for the team. It was in the practice facility that Disney also launched Disney Goals, a nonprofit initiative that allowed for inner city kids to learn how to skate and play hockey, building character and establishing mentorship and guidance. The iconic Mighty Ducks logo was co-designed by Robert A.M. Stern, another powerhouse in the world of postmodern architecture who had designed a number of key spaces for Disney (including the Yacht and Beach Clubs in Walt Disney World and what was then known as the Walt Disney Feature Animation building in Burbank) and was the only architect to ever sit on the Disney board. And when the team discovered that there was a problem with “soft ice” in the arena, Eisner roped in Disney’s R&D team, part of the Imagineering group, to solve the problem. (They did.)
The name, Eisner explained later in his memoir, “gave us instant national awareness, and an opportunity to cross-promote with our Mighty Ducks movie franchise. Our merchandise, for example, outsold all NHL teams combined.” And, true to his word, as the actual hockey team took shape, its influence on the franchise deepened. The climax of the sequel, eventually dubbed D2: The Mighty Ducks, was shot in the Pond. (In October 1993, Arrowhead was granted naming rights to the arena, so it was called the Arrowhead Pond by the time the season started.) The Mighty Ducks: The Animated Series, while boasting a science fiction premise centered around anthropomorphic, human-like duck characters, continued using the terminology developed by the real-life team (including The Pond). And the decision to establish a big, splashy expansion team in Anaheim solidified Disney’s commitment to the area, as it began to plan a second theme park in earnest. In his memoir Eisner admitted that owning a professional sports team (let alone two!) is “rarely good business.” The Mighty Ducks in Anaheim became a symbolic gesture more than anything else and one that, happily, did end up making the company a lot of money.
And as The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers is hitting Disney+, the team is still there. Sort of. In 2004, as Eisner was embroiled in a heated conflict with Walt Disney’s nephew, Roy Disney, over the direction of the company, he quietly sold the team to Broadcom co-founder Henry Samueli for $75 million. As news coverage from the time noted, while the team was once hugely profitable and had appeared in the Stanley Cup finals in the 2002-2003 season, they had begun to lose money. They had attempted, for at least three years, to sell the Mighty Ducks. And the year before the sale went through, Disney had sold off the Anaheim Angels. The Eisner era, with its flights of fancy and throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks mentality, was fading. A new era, which saw the company locking heads with the city of Anaheim in increasingly contentious fashion, had just begun.
The team, stripped of its connection to Disney, ditched the iconic logo in favor of a large, aggressively “extreme” D, and altered the name from The Mighty Ducks to the Anaheim Ducks. The Pond is now the more blankly anonymous Honda Center. But the merchandise – cited at the very first press conference and co-authored by one of the leading designers of his generation – is still available. Eisner was right. It really was the quack heard ‘round the world.
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