With The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers streaming series premiering on Disney+ this Friday, now seemed like a good time to re-watch and review the original The Mighty Ducks trilogy of films. The first Ducks is one of the all-time great hockey movies, and I am very excited that it is being spun-off into a hockey-themed TV show.
But first, I have a confession to make. Even though I’ve been a hockey fan most of my life, I had zero interest in watching The Mighty Ducks when it originally came out in theaters in 1992. I was 17 then and it looked like a stupid movie for little kids. Needless to say, the two sequels — D2: The Mighty Ducks (1994) and D3: Mighty Ducks (1996) — were the furthest thing from my mind when they each came out.
In fact, I avoided those movies because I figured they would be the typical, dumb kiddie fare like so many other kids movies at the time, and I ain’t got time for that. I actually did not see The Mighty Ducks movies until 2017, when I wrote a story about the first film’s 25th anniversary for The Hockey News. Seeing the Ducks films for the first time in my 40s gave me a level of detachment from them. I knew that I was not the intended audience, and so I was able to appreciate the Ducks movies for what they are.
Yes, the Ducks movies are kids movies. And despite being a Disney movie for kids, the first Mighty Ducks movie is not a stupid movie. It has a degree of maturity about it that most kids movies don’t have, which makes it enjoyable for viewers of all ages.Gordon Bombay (Emilio Estevez) is a 29-year-old lawyer who used to play hockey when he was young. He was on a team called the Hawks; basically, the Cobra Kai of youth hockey teams, complete with black uniforms and a cult-like motto, and headed by a cruel, arrogant coach named Jack Riley (Lane Smith).
In a flashback sequence, we learn that Bombay and the Hawks were in the 1973 Minnesota State Pee Wee Hockey Championships. He is awarded a penalty shot, which could win the Hawks the game. But Bombay hits the post and the Hawks’ string of state championships is broken. This angers Coach Riley, who blames Bombay, who then quits hockey. Twenty years later, Bombay is now a successful lawyer. Fresh off of winning his 30th court case, he promptly celebrates by drinking and driving, then gets arrested for a DUI.
Bombay’s boss at the law firm arranges with the judge to have Bombay serve 500 hours of community service by coaching the local District 5 pee wee hockey team.
Of course, Bombay doesn’t like the idea. “I hate hockey and I don’t like kids,” he exclaims. But his boss insists, stating that Bombay is too wrapped in his work and needs a break from it — and that a legal case against their young star lawyer would hurt the law firm’s image.
Of course, the real reason Bombay hates hockey is because he hasn’t gotten over his own past demons.
Bombay meets with the District 5 team, a ragtag bunch — the poor kids — wearing hand-me-down equipment and mismatched jerseys, with “D-5” scrawled across the front in marker. At first, Bombay does not like the kids, and the kids do not trust Bombay.
Coincidentally, Bombay’s first game coaching the District 5 team is against the Hawks, who are still being run by Coach Riley. Bombay’s old coach seems happy to see him at first, thinking it is great that one of his former players is now coaching. But Riley also points out the second-place banner that the Hawks got in 1973, reminding Bombay of why he quit hockey. The District 5 team does not listen to any of Bombay’s coaching, and they get clobbered 17-0 by the Hawks.Bombay soon has a falling out with Charlie Conway, the District 5 team’s de-facto captain. Bombay then seeks out console from Hans, his old mentor and owner of the local hockey pro shop. Hans gives Bombay a pep talk and a pair of skates, and tells him to go skating. Bombay does so that night and rekindles his love of hockey. He wins over Charlie and the rest of the kids, and help build the District 5 team — who he renames the Ducks — into a contender.
Oh, and Bombay also takes the Ducks to a Minnesota North Stars Game — this is back in 1992, when the North Stars still existed — and they get to meet real-life NHL players Mike Modano and Basil McRae. Truth be told, had I known that Modano and McRae were in the film, I probably wouldn’t have waited 25 years to watch The Mighty Ducks.Things turn around for the Ducks and without giving every detail, yes, they eventually go on to win the championship because, at the end, this is still a Disney movie for kids. The hockey action is fun, though many times far-fetched — from slap shots that knock over the goalie, to a figure skate-wearing player performing a pirouette to distract opponents before whacking in a goal. Perhaps most interesting — from an adult’s point of view, anyway — is the story of Gordon Bombay. While The Mighty Ducks is about a group of scrappy, hockey-playing kids, it is really about Bombay’s growth as a person. Part of the film’s subtext is how actions by adults — our parents and our coaches — can affect us our entire lives. Coach Riley believes in winning at all costs, even if it means harming others. And even though Bombay quit hockey at age 10, he still clung to Riley’s notion of winning at all costs — subconsciously, or otherwise — in his own work as a lawyer two decades later. It is this attitude that Bombay must learn to break. That is the real story of The Mighty Ducks, a story that can be appreciated by all ages.
The Mighty Ducks — the first one, anyway — is one of the all-time greats of hockey movies. Apologies for the tired cliché, but if there was a Mt. Rushmore of hockey movies, the original Ducks film would rightfully be on it alongside Slap Shot and Youngblood. (Whether the fourth slot goes to Miracle or Goon is a debate for another day.) Phrases from The Mighty Ducks has found their way into hockey culture, from “The Flying V,” to “The Triple Deke,” to “The Knuckle Puck” (yes, that is from the second film, but still). And let’s not forget that an NHL team was named after the movie. Adult viewers may not enjoy everything about The Mighty Ducks, but it is a film that all hockey fans should see because of its impact on and integration into hockey culture.
Follow Sal Barry on Twitter @PuckJunk. ■