Twenty years later, 'The Mighty Ducks' remains classic
In October 1992, a pack of ragtag hockey brats became a box-office hit, inspiring two sequels, countless toys, an animated series, and -- in an unprecedented moment in sports history -- an NHL franchise.
As with most classic films, "The Mighty Ducks" started with an out-of-work writer in his apartment.
Twenty years after its release as a box-office hit, Disney's 'The Mighty Ducks' remains a classic sports film series. (Photo Credit: Walt Disney Home Video)
"I was a young, unemployed writer and had just moved to Hollywood. I was thinking about my youth hockey experiences in upstate New York," Steven Brill, who also wrote both "Mighty Ducks" sequels, said. "Since I didn't have a job, I would waste my time by skating at the rink. My roommate and I would go and skate to kill time."
Brill's roommate and skating partner, Peter Berg, now is one of Hollywood's biggest directors, with films "Friday Night Lights" and "Hancock" on his resume. Back then, the pair would satisfy their hockey fix by skating at the local rink and going to Los Angeles Kings games. All that inspiration helped Brill write his script for "The Mighty Ducks."
"I wrote it in 1987. It was right before the Gretzky trade," Brill told NHL.com. "When the Gretzky trade happened, it probably did help a lot."
Almost overnight, Los Angeles caught Gretzky fever and executives at Walt Disney Studios became very enthusiastic about Brill's script.
By this time, the screenwriter was writing a television show starring a no-name actor named Brad Pitt. The show, "Glory Days," didn't last. But big things were about to happen for Brill at Disney.
"[Michael] Eisner, who was then chairman of the Walt Disney Co., was a huge hockey fan. Both of his sons played hockey," Jordan Kerner, who co-produced the films along with Jon Avnet, said. "There was a big hockey culture at Disney. So everybody loved it from the get-go."
After shooting in Minnesota, Disney released the movie in October 1992. Despite screening in considerably fewer theaters than its competition, the film posted the second-best box-office earnings of that week, with a gross of more than $7 million. A beaming Brill was accompanied at the New York premiere by an old friend, a recent addition to the cast of "Saturday Night Live" named Adam Sandler.
"The Mighty Ducks" would gross more than $50 million in domestic box office and immediately inspire Disney to start work on a sequel. That film would take on new meaning when Eisner and Walt Disney were awarded an NHL franchise less than a year after "The Mighty Ducks" was released.
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"I remember being backstage with Eisner before the announcement of the team, but no one knew the team's name," said Brill. "In my wildest dreams I never thought they would call them the Ducks, let alone the Mighty Ducks."
Days before the 1992-93 season was scheduled to end, Montreal pro scout Jack Ferreira was named the new club's general manager. Tasked with assembling a team through an expansion draft and entry draft in three months, one of Ferreira's first meetings was with wardrobe.
"We went over to Disneyland, to where they had all these designs for the uniforms," Ferreira said. "Originally the colors were going to be green and gold. It just didn't look right. It looked too glitzy. To me, it was too Ice Capades."
In a classic case of synergy, the Pond in Anaheim hosted two Disney teams as it was being built in 1993: the NHL team and the film production team. Michael Graves, who previously designed a number of Disney's resorts, was the architect behind the arena, which served as a primary set for "D2: The Mighty Ducks," which was released in 1994.
Ferreira even served as an extra in the picture when he and his wife sat in the stands during filming.
"We were in the crowd for a couple of scenes. Never made it in the movie," Ferreira said. "I wore a USA jacket. I figured if I was in the movie I could pick that out."
Ferreira may not have made the final cut of any of the Mighty Ducks movies, but the series still played a role in the growth of hockey in the United States. The evidence may be anecdotal, but USA Hockey experienced an explosion in enrollment during the time between the first two Mighty Ducks movies.
For the 1991-92 season, just before the first film's release, USA Hockey's total enrollment was at 189,549 players. The next year, after the release of "The Mighty Ducks," enrollment increased to 220,495. By the 1994-95 season, a year before the third Mighty Ducks film, enrollment topped out at 295,451, a remarkable 56-percent increase from three years earlier.
"I remember being backstage with [Michael] Eisner before the announcement of the team, but no one knew the team's name. In my wildest dreams I never thought they would call them the Ducks, let alone the Mighty Ducks." -- Steven Brill, screenwriter of Disney's 'The Mighty Ducks' series
"It really spoke to an age that I was at that particular time and captured our attention as youth hockey players. It was great. It was a cool movie and fun to watch and laugh at. You certainly saw kids trying to emulate things they did in that movie," said former NHL player Ben Clymer, who growing up in Minnesota played with and against youth players who appeared in the first Ducks movie. "It was fun seeing your friends in the movie. It was surreal to see someone you know on the big screen."
Two decades after the first movie's release, the Mighty Ducks trilogy remains one of film's most successful sports franchises. And for Kerner and Brill, there remains hope of bringing the series back.
"We have some stories that we would like to tell. These were great characters," Kerner said. "It doesn't leave me easily. I'm not ready to let go of it yet. We let go of it for 14 years after the third movie. But we're looking at it right now."