Youth hockey has changed a lot over the past 25 years — and much of it not for the better. While equipment, training and nutrition have all improved, gone are the carefree days of playing a sport with friends and having fun. It’s all so serious now. Much of youth sports today, particularly hockey, are fixated on getting kids to the next level, without really enjoying the level that they are at. The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers, a new series on Disney+, is a sports drama about a youth hockey team of cast-offs, told that they weren’t good enough, that just want to play the game they love.
NOTE: This review does not contain any spoilers but it does mention some plot points that have already been disclosed in the trailer and press release.
Twenty-five years have passed, and now the Mighty Ducks are the powerhouse team in Minnesota, having won 10 consecutive state championships. They play at the fancy new Hendrix Ice Pavilion, and are headed by Coach T. (Dylan Playfair), who comes off as a typical hockey bro; smug and more concerned about his “flow” than coaching kids. He probably played three games in Junior C., too.Young Evan Morrow (Brady Noon) has played for the Ducks practically his entire life. He’s not their best player, but he is proud to be part of the team.
Early in the first episode, that quickly comes to an end. Coach T. cuts Evan after one scrimmage in tryouts because he’s not good enough for the 12-to-14 year-old level. Coach T. then explains to his mother Alex (Lauren Graham) that he’s actually doing Evan a favor: “It’s like at this stage, if you can’t be great at hockey, don’t bother,” he says.
Alex is of course outraged — not because she is a typical hockey parent. In fact, she’s quite the opposite. (The other hockey parents still give her grief about the time she brought Cheese Puffs as a snack for the team.) She points out, to Coach T. and the other parents at the tryouts, how youth hockey has gotten out of hand, with parents hiring trainers for their children, who are more so just hockey-playing robots than kids having fun.
“Does no one else see the insanity but me?” exclaims Alex, to a chorus of whispers and eye rolls.
Undeterred, she decides to start a team for Evan to play on. Evan sets out to recruit classmates to play on this new team, while Alex seeks out a rink they can skate at for games and practices. While on a work errand, she happens to spot a dilapidated rink that is run by the “Minnesota Miracle Man” himself, Gordon Bombay (Emilio Estevez).Surprisingly, he is against the idea. “I hate hockey and I don’t like kids,” he affirms, as he points to a NO HOCKEY! sign on the wall.
Sigh. When have we heard that before? He quickly changes his tune about no hockey when Alex explains that they have ample funding from a state hockey grant. But Bombay refuses to coach the team.
Game Changers, at first, seemed a little too fast-paced, with Evan getting cut almost immediately into the first episode. Yes, we see that he has a Ducks hockey bag and a Ducks wallpaper on his phone, but we don’t really feel like he lost all that much when he gets cut. Later on, though, we realize how no longer being on the Ducks affects him socially.
Then, Game Changers slows down to a more realistic, almost leisurely pace — and that’s great. Evan doesn’t build a team in a snappy, five-minute montage sequence, underscored by some uplifting pop music. Instead, it takes, time, effort, and the willingness to look for teammates in unusual places. Meanwhile, Alex has trouble finding ice to rent, calling every rink she can think of before lucking into the one that is run by Bombay. I can relate to the difficulties in both of these aspects; finding teammates to build a new team is hard and finding rent to ice at a decent time is sometimes even harder.
Thankfully, Game Changers thus far lacks the cringeworthy, slapstick elements that bogged down the Ducks movies, particularly the second and third installments. Game Changers seems a little more grounded in reality, with the humor coming from the characters and their interactions . We probably won’t see kids jumping over the net or doing the “Flying V” anytime soon.
So far Game Changers has my attention. But to quote Coach T.: “You’re good, but you’re not good enough.” Unlike Coach T., though, I’ll give you more time before I make any cuts. Game Changers is entertaining and I look forward to the next episode.
BONUS: Duck Eggs for Season 1, Episode 1 “Game On”
Each week, I’ll share a few “Easter Eggs” — which I’m instead calling Duck Eggs — about the episode reviewed:
Coach T. is played by Dylan Playfair from the series Letterkenny. He actually played 46 games of Junior C. hockey and 40 games of Junior B, as per his profile page on Elite Hockey Prospects.
The Mighty Ducks play at Hendrix Ice Pavilion. Hendrix is the name of the sporting good company that sponsored Gordon Bombay in D2: The Mighty Ducks.
In case you don’t remember, “I hate hockey and I don’t like kids,” is the exact line Gordon Bombay said in the first Ducks film.
The Mighty Ducks team in Game Changers do not use any of the previous Ducks logos from the prior Ducks films. Their new logo is similar to the forward-facing “duck mask” logo used for Mighty Ducks: The Animated Series.
Several of the teams from the original Mighty Ducks movie appear briefly in Game Changers: the Bears, Cardinals and the Hawks, who have ditched the black uniforms for more-colorful orange and blue threads. I don’t think Coach Riley would approve.
Former NHL player Dave Tomlinson is the Hockey Coordinator / Choreographer for Game Changers. Tomlinson played 42 games in the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets and Florida Panthers, and played 15 seasons of pro hockey, including 10 years in Europe.
Alex works as a paralegal for Dan Ducksworth, presumably the son of Mr. Ducksworth from the first Ducks film.
When Gordon Bombay moves a stack of paperwork, it reveals a framed photo of him playing for the Minnesota Waves, the minor league team that he played for at the start of D2.
Follow Sal Barry on Twitter @PuckJunk. ■