A few months ago I was on Up the Pucks, a podcast that mixes up punk rock and hockey. They asked me what got me into hockey and I blurted out The Mighty Ducks! After some thought, that answer rang true for me and I imagine for lots of other fans my age as well.
This week, that seminal movie celebrates its 20th anniversary. And as much as I am petrified by time’s march, the thought that The Mighty Ducks is twenty fills me more with nougaty nostalgia than existential dread. Yeah, it’s a craven exploitation flick starring an aged brat packer and liking it instantly brands you Too Old To Hit On College Girls, but it’s still an important part of our shared culture. So let’s take a moment, nay, an entire week, to revel in this Hockey Cinema Classic.
On the outside chance you haven’t seen The Mighty Ducks (or, obviously, read its novelization by Jordan Horowitz), here’s the pitch via IMDB:
A self-centered lawyer is sentenced to community service coaching a rag tag youth hockey team.
(Completely, unrelated, here’s a link to watch Bad News Bears on Netflix right now.)
Star Emilio Estevez, fresh off of Young Guns II, needed a kickstart to his career, which had stalled after the one-two punch of 1985’s The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire. That kickstart came in the form of The Mighty Ducks, a film dreamed up by Avnet-Kerner Productions, a team that has been responsible for some of the worst movies of the last 25 years.
Today it is a tired formula, but back in the salad days of 1992 Ducks was just a shameless retread of Bad News Bears: a troubled youth sports team gets a reluctant new coach, hijinx ensue, and Lessons are learned. Since the D trilogy, we’ve suffered through countless variations on that theme: Little Giants, Ladybugs, The Sandlot, thirty or forty Air Bud movies, Angels in the Outfield, Kicking and Screaming, The Big Green, Rookie of the Year, and a not-all-that-bad-but-completely-redundant remake of Bad News Bears. The kiddie-sports movie genre boomed after The Mighty Ducks.
But back in ’92, hockey held a peculiar place in popular culture. The NHL’s biggest stars were still active, it was still a few years out from the dead puck era, and it was buoyed by a curious new phenomenon: rollerblading. Inline skating allowed hockey to expand from a regional curiosity to a continental pastime. Like biker movies in the 50s and surf movies in the 60s and, The Mighty Ducks was a savvy way to capitalize on hockey’s upward trend.
It’s an exploitation film by definition. Its lean budget, trendy subject, and targeted demographics make Ducks the worst kind of cynical Hollywood offering, and yet I (and we– can I use we here?) are drawn to it anyway. Why?
I would like to think it’s because people like the underdog. People like fair play. The Mighty Ducks, in some ways, is a morality play in which the wicked are punished and the virtuous are rewarded. Estevez’s Gordon Bombay learns that cheating is bad and cooperation is good, and we the audience are heartwarmed.
But I doubt that’s it.
It’s more likely that The Mighty Ducks has lasted because it’s a syrupy swamp of crass gags and Queen songs surrounding core of exploitation. Take another look Averman’s painfully dated impression of Rob Schneider’s Richmeister routine or the Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch song and tell me I’m wrong about that.
I really do love The Mighty Ducks. It’s a part of my childhood, but I’d feel like a fraud if we didn’t air out these uncomfortable truths before we start piling on the praise. The things we love were designed to be loved. Even now, the NHL season we want so badly is imperiled because it might not make enough money for its owners. The NHL isn’t a labor of love, it’s a business. Same thing with The Mighty Ducks: we can’t delude ourselves into thinking that it was the work of some impassioned genius, slaving over a typewriter in some dusky cabin with a view of a frozen pond, writing with the sole purpose of delighting young viewers. No; it’s a scheme for profitability, a career vehicle, a cash-in.
Nostalgia is a funny like that; it doesn’t really stand up to adult scrutiny. The vocabulary of a grown-up can’t describe why we loved the things we loved when we were little– not without dousing it in irony or tearing into it like the cynical bastards we all inevitably become. And that’s the real sad part of getting older. The magic isn’t really gone, you just can’t see it anymore.
So I endeavor to spend this week talking about The Mighty Ducks with the same affection and wonder I had when I was nine years old. You go first: Did The Mighty Ducks get you into hockey? Why do you like it?