‘D2: The Mighty Ducks’ still resonates after all these years
Written by Steven Brill
Directed by Sam Weisman
USA, 1994, imdb
For any critic, opinions about a particular piece of art are influenced by your life experiences.
I grew up loving hockey in general and the Montreal Canadians in particular. The first hockey game that I ever saw was “The New Year’s Eve Classic” on December 31, 1975 between the Red Army and the Montreal Canadiens. The Canadiens out-shot the Red Army 38-13, but every Soviet shot was a planned dagger designed to confuse and destroy Montreal goaltender Ken Dryden, while Vladislav Tretiak batted away shots from every conceivable angle. The game, which many considered at the time to be the unofficial World Championship ended in a 3-3 tie.
The Philadelphia Flyers were the defending Stanley Cup champions that year. They beat the Red Army after the Canadiens got their tie, but did it by acting like goons, living up to their nicknames, “The Broad Street Bullies”. What many hockey fans believe is that the Montreal Canadiens who watched that game became convinced that the Flyers could not play the beautiful style of hockey practiced by the Russians, that, like all bullies, they were vulnerable to someone who stood up to them. Proof of that belief, the Canadiens swept the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1976 Stanley Cup Finals 4-0, starting a run of four consecutive Stanley Cups.
My connection to the Montreal Canadiens helps explain why I see Charlie Conway’s speed but inability to score in the first Mighty Ducks film (or more dramatically Luis Mendoza in the second film) and think of Russ Courtnall, or think of Bernie “Boom-Boom” Geoffrion when Fulton Reed winds up his slapshot, or remember Lyle Odelein’s seeing-eye floaters from the point when Russ Tyler shows off his knuckle puck. (In fairness to my Lyle Odelein comparison, the Habs’ refrigerator on skates scored a career-high 11 goals and 29 points in the 1993-94 season – while D2 was filming – after Jacques Demers went counter-intuitive and put him on the point of the power-play, despite having a wrist-shot that could have been stopped by a damp sheet of toilet paper. His unexpected offensive outburst has even led to what hockey fans call “Le syndrôme de Lyle Odelein” when a defenceman with no discernible offensive skills has a weird burst of goals and assists.)
At the same time that I was learning to love hockey, I was also learning to love The Little Rascals. On Saturdays, my father would set up a 16MM projector on our porch and play selections of films from the National Film Board’s lending library. Many NFB titles naturally, but also Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and films by Hal Roach including his Our Gang series better known today as The Little Rascals.
Part of what makes that series work is that most of it is kids being kids, figuring out ways to amuse themselves and they just happen to be doing it on camera. Despite starting in the 1920s, the series always included girls and African-Americans as equals, perhaps because the kids in the series were too young to be prejudiced. To the extent that the kids in the series had enemies, they tended to be either officious adults or rich kids. The Rascals were from working class stock with all the natural suspicion of the 1% – keep in mind that most of the films were produced during the Great Depression.
Is it any wonder that I love a series that combines the beautiful game of hockey with the anarchistic spirit of The Little Rascals? And despite its many obvious flaws, I especially like the second film in the Mighty Ducks series. Partly, this is because the film gives us everything that worked in the first film, only slightly magnified, and with the kids (based on their improved skating) having spent the 18 months between the two films learning to be better hockey players.
The film also avoids the downfall of The Bad News Bears series,which never recovered from losing Walther Matthau and Tatum O’Neal after the first movie. There is some cast shuffling and additions, but all the important actors/players are back and the new additions are properly introduced as reinforcements for the Ducks transformation into Team USA for the Junior Goodwill Games. D2 even tips a wink to The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training by including a sequence where a Los Angeles street roller-hockey team re-teaches the Ducks how to play, in a similar, but more inspirational scene to the disastrous game that the Bears play while travelling to Houston. It’s not an accident that the focus of the lesson is that success in hockey comes through hard work.
Hockey is a working-class sport. Talent is important, but hard work to maximize that talent and to win is just as important. The fit between the working-class sport and the working-class roots of The Little Rascals are a perfect match. The best example of this comes when the Ducks scam a Rodeo Drive store to get beautiful models posing in the store’s clothes by having Goldberg pretend to Aaron Spelling’s nephew. A customer in the store points out that as Team USA, the kids had no need to pretend, but the Ducks shrug that off, having no interest in walking through the open door when there is a forbidden fence to climb over.
The biggest reason that the film resonates is that the journey of Gordon Bombay (Emilio Estevez) – from hard-working Minnesotan scratching out a living to Hollywood celebrity blinded by the bright lights and back again – is the same path that the National Hockey League was on in 1994.
It is no accident that Wayne Gretzky, “The Great One” makes a cameo in the film. It was his trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988 that began the process of the NHL changing from a league strong in Canada and the North-East to one that was being pushed South, slicking back its hair and acting like Ric Flair. This didn’t just involve adding teams in unlikely places like the San Jose Sharks (1991), the Tampa Bay Lightning (1992) , the Florida Panthers (1993) and, of course, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks (1993), but it also involved moving teams from smaller northern cities (with passionate hockey fans) to larger, richer, southern cities. The first casualty, ironically, was the Minnesota North Stars, the team that Bombay took the Ducks to watch in the first film. They were moved to Dallas between the two films, so as D2 starts, the Ducks no longer have a professional hockey team in their home town. (Even the arena that they watched the game in would be torn down to make room for a Mall of America.)
Quebec City lost the Nordiques in 1995 as they became the Colorado Avalanche; the Winnipeg Jets became the Phoenix Coyotes in 1996 and Hartford lost their beloved Whale in 1997 as the Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes – the same year that the Nashville Predators and the Atlanta Thrashers started. In the process of chasing wealth and fame (like Gordon Bombay), the NHL forgot the most important part of its success, it’s humble northern working-class roots.
Unlike Bombay, who made the error, realized his mistake and corrected it within a family-friendly 106 minutes, it took years for the NHL to recognize its mistake and begin fixing it. Minnesota was without a team for 7 years until they were awarded the Wild as an expansion in 2000. Winnipeg got the Atlanta Thrashers and renamed them the Jets just this year, in the process selling out of season tickets in just 18 minutes. Quebec City and Hartford are still without teams, although their desperate, passionate hockey fans eye southern hockey teams and their half-filled (or if you prefer half-empty) arenas with unconcealed avarice.
The most successful annual game for the NHL, every year since 2008, is an outdoor game called The Winter Classic played usually on New Year’s Eve, a game that has to be played in a northern city.
That’s why D2: The Mighty Ducks resonates with me.
Not that the film doesn’t have its problems. I mean have you looked at who the Ducks had to play to make the Finals? Their group of teams (Group A) has Iceland, USA, Germany, Italy and Trinidad. In real life, the Iceland team is awful, but they are the villains of the piece, presumably because they were the only country small enough that Disney didn’t mind offending them by making them evil, but Germany and Italy are not good at hockey and Trinidad is obviously a joke on par with the Jamaican bobsled team in Cool Runnings the year before.
The other group (Group B) has Canada, Russia, Denmark, Sweden and France. (Somewhere Norway, Finland, the Czechs and the Slovaks are wondering how they got excluded when Trinidad was allowed in.) Except for France, that group is Olympic hockey calibre and France is at least as good as Germany and Italy.
It only makes sense when you remember that the tournament is double elimination. Lose two games and you are out. Clearly the tournament was rigged so that Canada and Russia would destroy each other making it easier for Team USA to win. I’m not the only that sees this, right?
– Michael Ryan