‘The Mighty Ducks’ – A Slapstick Class Struggle With Heart

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The Mighty Ducks

Directed by Stephen Herek

Written by Steven Brill

imdb, USA, 1992

To mark my guest appearance on Josh Speigel‘s Mousterpiece Cinema podcast to talk about The Mighty Ducks, I decided to jot down my own thoughts about the film, much as Josh did.

*****

I would never describe The Mighty Ducks as a great film, but it is an incredibly fun film and amazingly rewatchable. On initial viewing, it’s the comedy slapstick of the young hockey players that draws your attention, while it’s the relationship between arrogant lawyer turned hockey coach Gordon Bombay (Emilio Estevez) and hockey team captain Charlie Conway (Joshua Jackson) that keeps you watching. Follow-up viewing reveals how accurate and specific the film is in its hockey references and how important the class struggle is between the Ducks aka the working-class District Five hockey team and their arch-rivals the Hawks, the “cake-eaters” from the upper-class Minneapolis suburb of Edina.

The Mighty Ducks follows the sports-film blueprint of the flawed adult forced to become coach of a group of young losers almost to a fault. In these films, the adult is redeemed by learning sportsmanship from the children he coaches, while the kids learn how to win from their coach. The (admittedly subtle) distinction in The Mighty Ducks is what Gordon Bombay and his Ducks share: an irreverent attitude towards authority which results from a hard scrabble working-class background.

This connection is explicit in the relationship between Gordon Bombay and Charlie Conway. Like Gordon as a kid, Charlie is struggling to lead his team while growing up without a father at home. Gordon’s growth as a coach and a father figure is motivated by Gordon’s need to become the father figure that he never had as a kid. (Or to put it another way, to be a better father replacement to Charlie than Gordon’s pee-wee hockey coach was to him.)

When Gordon’s patrician boss forces Gordon to take time off from being a lawyer to become a pee-wee hockey coach, it is not because Gordon is a failure as a lawyer – in fact Gordon’s court record is 30-1. Gerald Duckworth’s problem isn’t that Bombay wins, it is the way that he celebrates his victories, or as Ducksworth puts it, “Score, don’t spike.” As the film makes clear, Duckworth’s commitment to sportsmanship is paper-thin. His main concern is with Gordon’s manners. Ducksworth wants his hired gun to continue winning, but to win in a polite, upper-class way.

While Gordon played for the Hawks as a kid, he was never really from Edina, never a cake-eater. He was from a working-class neighbourhood that had been gerrymandered into the Edina/Hawks district perhaps, the film implies, just to get the talented Gordon onto the Hawks roster.

Is is also significant that Gordon wears the number 9, that he is named after the ultimate working-class hockey hero: Gordie Howe. When a player scores three goals in a game it’s called a hat trick, but when a player gets a goal, an assist and gets into a fight, it’s called a Gordie Howe hat trick. Hockey has a strange and contradictory attitude towards getting penalties, one that the film shares. On one hand, the sport and the film view both attacks from behind and diving as cowardly, but defending your teammates by picking up a bully and stuffing him head-first into his own bench as Fulton Reed does late in the film is approved of, by both the sport, the film and critically by Gordie Bombay, who complains when Fulton is subsequently given a game misconduct, “He barely touched him!

The Ducks are from Gordon’s working-class neighbourhood and they share his contempt for authority and the monied-class. This is demonstrated by their elaborate practical joke, booby-trapping a purse full of runny dog-shit and using a dollar bill sticking out of the purse as bait. The ensuing chase connects the film to Hal Roach’s Our Gang films, which featured working-class kids with an anarchistic contempt for authority, money and the upper class. This contempt is emphasized when the Ducks get new equipment and use their roller-blades to practice skating through a local shopping mall, leaving chaos in their wake. Using money to destroy the temple of money.

This working-class connection explains Gordon Bombay’s decision to force Adam Banks to play for the Ducks. It seems at first like a contradiction, that Gordie is looking for another legal loophole to cheat to victory, but what he is really doing is trying to correct decades of cheating by the Hawks and their coach Jack Reilly (Lane Smith). Like Gordon Bombay as a kid, Adam Banks lives within the natural borders of the working-class District 5, only the Hawks haven’t gone around to gerrymandering the district lines to include Banks’ house in their district. Since the film suggests that Banks’ father is rich enough to influence Ducksworth, it is possible that Banks’ house is part of a gentrification of the District 5 neighbourhood. By forcing Adam Banks to play for the Ducks, Gordie is forcing Adam to become part of the neighbourhood that he lives in.

The irony of The Mighty Ducks is that the upper-class money beat working-class hockey. When Gordon takes the Ducks to watch a professional hockey game, they watch a game between the Minnesota North Stars and the Hartford Whalers in the Met Centre. Within a very few short years, money had exiled the North Stars to Dallas, the Whale to Carolina and replaced the Met Centre with a Mall of America.

The shopping center got its revenge on hockey.

– Michael Ryan

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