I’m one of many hockey-obsessed children of the ’90s who grew up regarding the Mighty Ducks film series with a near-religious reverence. These movies left a gigantic cultural footprint and are now far enough in the past that Disney has seen fit to mine this vein of millennial nostalgia with a new TV series, The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers, which comes out Friday on Disney+.
In the spirit of nostalgia, this release offers an opportunity to revisit the franchise’s source material—and specifically, the various shenanigans that occur during the Ducks’ games.
The on-ice action of the Mighty Ducks film series is famously cartoonish, with its trick plays and acrobatic hip checks. (About 60 percent of every Ducks game consists of uncalled and unremarked upon interference penalties.) This isn’t altogether surprising: The franchise was acted by and choreographed for children, so it’s probably better that it didn’t aim for the realism of, say, Miracle. But given these films’ outsize importance on a certain corner of hockey culture, it’s still fun to look back at the series’s most famous gambits with the benefit of 20 years of hindsight. Not in the spirit of Neil deGrasse Tyson ruining Gravity, but to tease the real-world relevance from Gordon Bombay’s coaching lessons.
Compared to what you’d ordinarily see in a shoot-out or breakaway situation, the triple deke is simplistic, slow, and exaggerated. But the basic idea behind the move is sound: With no other offensive players to keep track of, the goalie can focus 100 percent on the shooter and close off most of the available angles. One way to counteract this is for the shooter to get the goalie moving laterally and hope they’ll eventually leave part of the net open. Peter Forsberg’s postage-stamp move at the 1994 Olympics—probably the most famous shootout goal in real-world hockey history—operates on this same principle.
So does Adam Banks’s more subtle shoot-out move to win the Junior Goodwill Games in D2. The key, however, is not to drag out the maneuver, but to shoot as quickly as possible if the goalie bites. Charlie Conway scores the championship-winning penalty shot in the original Mighty Ducks by swerving around the Hawks’ goalie right after his last deke. Iceland star Gunnar Stahl, meanwhile, drops a triple deke on Julie Gaffney, then comes to a full stop and winds up for a slap shot, giving the Cat more than enough time to square herself and ready her glove. “You lost it for me,” Iceland coach Wolf Stansson tells his top scorer after the game. That’s a real asshole thing to say to a 12-year-old, but he’s not wrong. By stopping, Stahl defeated the entire purpose of his shootout move.
The Flying V
While the triple deke has its merits, the Flying V is utter nonsense. Last year, Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews—probably the best American player in the NHL—evaluated various hockey movie scenes for GQ. He described the Flying V as “the most unrealistic thing I’ve ever seen, but it looks unreal.”
As a breakout play, the Flying V takes away the puckcarrier’s passing options and focuses the entire attack into one slow-moving and predictable action. If the V were inverted, at least the defense would have to cover multiple points of attack, but as portrayed in the films, the whole concept involves one puckcarrier stickhandling over the blue line while all four teammates follow behind.
The first time we see the Flying V, it’s the equivalent of a basketball iso play for Jesse Hall, who dangles through the defense while all four of his teammates fan out into the offensive zone to take out defenders. There are better ways to create space for a star player—and safer methods for Jesse to travel through the neutral zone than with his head down, waiting for a pass to come from behind him and between his skates.
In a best-case scenario, the Flying V results in a star player taking on the defense one-on-five. When it doesn’t work, and when said player turns the puck over, the entire Ducks team is way too far up the ice and going in the wrong direction, leaving the opponent with a four-on-zero rush the other way. That’s what Iceland did in D2, and Charlie—for all the talk about his coach-level hockey smarts—calls the same play against the Eden Hall varsity during D3’s dawn scrimmage, with the same result.
The Flying V probably best encapsulates the disconnect between the Mighty Ducks series’s critical reputation and its place in the canon of millennial nostalgia. It’s a preposterous tactical gambit—Mike-Milbury-as-Islanders-GM-level stupid to anyone with a basic understanding of the game. But as someone who grew up playing hockey in the mid-’90s, I can say firsthand that my friends and I thought this was the coolest shit ever and spent hours attempting to perfect our own version. It doesn’t have to be smart to leave an indelible mark.
Coach Orion’s Two-Way Hockey
Guy Germaine is the smartest hockey mind in the Mighty Ducks series. Yes, you read that right. On the ice, Guy is the team’s unsung offensive powerhouse. In the three climactic games of the series (the state peewee final, the Junior Goodwill Games’ gold-medal game, and the Eden Hall JV-Varsity showdown) it’s Guy, not Banks or Charlie, who leads the Ducks in points. Off the ice, while his teammates are devoting all their time to cracking wise and performing antics, Guy is playing footsie with Connie Moreau, one of two girls on the team. Guy got the stats, the trophies, and the girl. What did being funny get Averman? That’s right: pushing 40 and still single, most likely.
The second-smartest hockey mind in the Mighty Ducks trilogy is coach Ted Orion, Jeffrey Nordling’s martinet who replaces Gordon Bombay as the Ducks’ coach in D3. Orion knows that the flashy, dipsy-doodle hockey that made the Ducks champions in their childhood won’t cut it at the high school level, and he says as much to his players from the outset. When they resist, he lets them fail on their own terms. And when they finally buy into his coaching philosophy, Orion loosens the reins to blend his defensive structure with the Ducks’ natural firewagon offense to create a powerhouse. He envisioned what a team with Banks, Dwayne Robertson, Guy, and Julie could do if they had any kind of tactical purpose—and he made it happen.
We all love Bombay, but he’s not a teacher. He’s out here chasing his own demons and/or his players’ single moms. Orion, though, is a coach and an educator, and only he could get the best out of the Ducks by teaching them a 200-foot game. Bombay knows this, which is why his greatest coaching decision was to step away to make room for someone better.
The Bash Brothers Line
He might not have been as great a tactician or motivator as Coach Orion, but Coach Bombay did have his moments of inspiration—one of which was pairing Kenny Wu with Dean Portman and Fulton Reed, his two hard hitters, in D2. The original Mighty Ducks movie came out in 1992, when hockey was a much more violent sport than it is now. Basil McRae, he of four seasons of 300 or more penalty minutes, got first billing in his cameo with future Hall of Famer Mike Modano. There are at least a dozen jokes about head injuries in these films. It was a different time.
But Bombay doesn’t just put his enforcers on a checking line. (The term “line” is used loosely here, since Fulton is a defenseman.) He pairs them with a skilled forward, a former figure skater capable of creating his own shot without relying on a playmaker to get him the puck. Real-world college and NHL coaches create line combinations like this all the time, pairing skill players with grinders in the hope of bringing out the best in all of their players. The goal scorer plays with a little more edge, while the checking-line forwards find another gear offensively. That’s what happened with the Bash Brothers—Portman and Fulton both assisted on trick-play goals in the comeback against Iceland, while the diminutive Kenny Wu contributed a Gordie Howe hat trick.
Another relic of The Mighty Ducks’ early-’90s setting is the conceit that not one but two of the team’s biggest offensive weapons are defensemen with big shots from the point: Fulton and Russ Tyler, the creator of the knucklepuck. (Speaking of things my friends and I spent hours trying to replicate in street hockey. I don’t think we hit the net once.) This is a callback to the days of Al MacInnis, Al Iafrate, and other hard-shooting, high-scoring blueliners not named Al. In the Junior Goodwill Games’ gold-medal game, Stansson identifies one Duck to man-mark out of the game. Not Banks, or Guy, or Jesse, or any of the Ducks’ flashy forwards, but Russ, whom he refers to as “the shooter.”
The knucklepuck is just that dangerous. But in real life, players with big slapshots not only need to hit the puck hard, but they also need to have a quick release. Fulton isn’t exactly Alex Ovechkin in this respect, but he’s faster than Russ, who needs about eight seconds to set the puck on edge, wind up, and hit it. That kind of time simply doesn’t exist in hockey, not even fictional Disney children’s hockey. The only way Russ can get enough space to score the game-tying goal is to dress up as Goldberg, the team’s goalie.
We learn in D2 that the Junior Goodwill Games has no rule against teams changing uniforms midgame. (The regulations of the Junior Goodwill Games are curious to say the least. When Dwayne leaves the bench without a helmet to lasso an Icelander, he draws a specific penalty for “roping,” which is a two-minute minor and not a misconduct.) Apparently that lack of regulation also extends to a skater not only putting on goalie pads but changing into another player’s sweater during a timeout. We knew that Ted Turner was drunk with power in the early ’90s, but I had no idea he was so powerful he could flout the IIHF so brazenly.
Taking the Fall
Before Bombay teaches the Ducks to play hockey—before they’re even the Ducks, in fact—he teaches them to cheat. To dive, in the hope of drawing penalties. This tactic backfires immediately. Not only does Bombay get chewed out by Mr. Hall after a game, the referee catches on immediately and swallows his whistle.
This, if nothing else, is true to life. In the real world, it turns out, referees don’t call penalties based on the rule book or players’ ability to sell or embellish a hit. All things being equal, NHL referees tend to call the same number of penalties on both teams in a given game. So even if the Ducks (or District 5) managed to steal the odd power play by diving, they’d probably give it right back on an equally sketchy make-up call a few minutes later.
Both Ducks coaches—Bombay and Orion—understood the value of creative pedagogy. Standard drills are great, but they work only to a point. The Ducks pass eggs back and forth and throw footballs before the game to make them better passers. They bat garbage around to learn the importance of clearing rebounds in front of the net. They learn teamwork and communication by skating around the rink while tied together. Are these gimmicks cheesy? Absolutely. But more important than that: They’re memorable. And when Bombay leaves for his minor league tryout, his players repeat the lessons they’ve learned back to him, proving the efficacy of his methods.
If only he hadn’t taught them the Flying V.