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The Mighty Ducks Are Back! And They’re the Bad Guys?

When ‘Game Changers’ reboots the franchise on Disney+, the Ducks won’t return as the ragtag underdogs we all knew and loved. Instead, they’ll look a lot more like—gulp—the Hawks. 

Dan Evans

In the 1990s, there were few children’s entertainment franchises as relentless as The Mighty Ducks. Disney’s comedic saga about a ragtag Minnesota youth hockey team and its redemption-seeking coach began 29 years ago with a hit movie that spawned two sequels—and an onslaught of tie-ins. By the turn of the millennium there was a cartoon with anthropomorphic heroes, a theme park attraction, a resort hotel, and an actual NHL team bearing the name of the titular waterfowl.

Over the past two decades, however, original live-action family films gave way to slick digital animation, Marvel, and Star Wars. The Ducks stopped quacking, but their creator, Steven Brill, never thought that the property was dead. He even once envisioned it as a Broadway extravaganza. “If you can do Spider-Man as a play, you can do Mighty Ducks as a play,” the writer-director says. “A musical with skating kids and real ice. I thought that would be fun. I never got too far with that.”

As the Ducks on Ice concept floundered in Brill’s mind, something unexpected happened: The rise of streaming platforms necessitated a seemingly endless demand for programming. Suddenly, everything from The Karate Kid to Saved by the Bell was being revived, and in 2018 when Disney announced that it was launching its own digital service, it was only a matter of time before the Quack Attack was back. The question was: How?

“I don’t think we wanted to do That Championship Season, where you’d just hang out with the 40-year-old Ducks,” Brill says. “We could have. But I felt we had to reinvent and refresh it.”

In The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers, the Disney+ series that premieres on March 26, the once-scrappy hockey program is now a Montreal Canadiens–level dynasty. The show’s central characters are a ragtag squad of middle schoolers who supposedly aren’t good enough to play for the Ducks, who’ve shamelessly shed their status as underdogs. “They became the bad guys,” says Brill. It feels almost blasphemous to say, but a quarter-century after upsetting the Hawks in the peewee state championship, the Ducks—gulpbecame the Hawks.

Though inverting the premise felt like a natural fit, it presented a challenge. To work, the half-hour comedy needed to serve not just nostalgic adults but also adolescents who didn’t grow up practicing the knucklepuck in their driveways. After all, the new series is supposed to be for kids.

“It makes perfect sense that if you extend these story lines out 30 years, they can change,” Brill says. Set in the present, the show is a balancing act between old and new. Emilio Estevez is back as former (but still redemption-seeking) coach Gordon Bombay; some of the old Ducks will pop up as well. But taking their place on the ice is a similarly diverse and unpolished group of fresh recruits—and while the plot of the remade Mighty Ducks is different, its tone remains the same. “It wasn’t some sort of gritty new look at the Ducks,” Brill says. “I wanted it to feel like a sports movie and a melodrama.”

A lot may have changed since the ’90s, but everyone still loves an underdog story. Game Changers just makes the point that some underdogs don’t stay that way forever.

When he was developing the new Mighty Ducks, Brill knew that he had to not only acknowledge the franchise’s past, but also modernize it. That required updates large and small. Instead of radio broadcasters at the first practice of the season, there are two tweens hosting a hockey podcast. All the Minnesota North Stars gear in the first film has been replaced by Minnesota Wild merch. And the new goalie is a hardcore sports gamer who hopes to translate his virtual hockey skills to the ice.

But the biggest change is, of course, the transformation of the Ducks. It’s a massive risk to turn the Mighty Ducks, a shining symbol of nostalgia and youthful heroism, into a stand-in for arrogance and mean-spiritedness—especially in a show that has Mighty Ducks in its title. But Brill and Co. had good reasons to do it: Aside from the draw of the initial shock, the twist also gives the younger generation their own squad to root for while enabling the show to insert some obvious but pointed commentary. From the first episode of Game Changers, showrunners Cathy Yuspa and Josh Goldsmith use the ascendance of the Ducks to play up the disturbing professionalization of youth sports.

Like countless real-life, upper-echelon youth hockey programs, the Mighty Ducks have become an expensive factory that purports to mold kids into elite players who one day will earn college scholarships. The arrogance and delusion that often comes along with that creates a natural villain. The Ducks are no longer David. They’re Goliath. And no one roots for Goliath.

The powerhouse program’s mostly upper-class team parents aren’t the stereotypically aggressive Hockey Dads of old; their over-involvement has evolved. Instead of worrying about playing time and wins and losses, they fret about their kids’ nutrition and extracurricular résumés. Sports aren’t a way for kids to have fun, blow off steam, and learn about triumph and disappointment—they’re solely a vehicle to get ahead in life.

Now, the gone-corporate Mighty Ducks are led by a 20-something bro with flowing hair played by Canadian comedy Letterkenny’s Dylan Playfair, whose father, Jim, is a longtime NHL coach. He’s the kind of modern youth coach who likes to cosplay as a pro club’s cold, calculating general manager. “All of that stuff is born out of truth,” says Playfair, who played junior hockey before taking up acting. “In the 20 years since the last movie was made, this is what has happened. We’ve evolved into this insanity. I think for me that really anchored it in truth. There’s something hilarious about a nutritionist for a 12-year-old kid.”

Though it reflects how the world has changed for kids since the ’90s, Game Changers still feels like a true extension of the Mighty Ducks trilogy. “I wanted to hit the same beats that I did in the movies,” Brill says. In the spirit of the originals, he molded a main character who is gritty, endearingly enthusiastic, and constantly underestimated. Like Charlie Conway in the movies, Evan (played by Brady Noon from raunchy middle school comedy Good Boys), the son of Lauren Graham’s working-class single mom Alex, doesn’t seem to have enough talent on the ice. But he definitely has enough heart. After the Ducks cut him, he rounds up classmates from different backgrounds, races, and genders, emboldened by his mom to stand up for himself and draft his own squad. And though not in name, the new team—called the “Don’t Bothers”—feels a whole lot like those kids in hand-me-down equipment who once piled into Gordon Bombay’s limousine.

“This time is so appropriate to have a show like this where it’s about getting back to the basics,” Playfair says. “What’s the value in kids’ sports? Teaching those lessons of teamwork and putting fun first and dealing with adversity. The lessons that, I think, sometimes get lost in the shuffle.”

To Brill, the fact that The Mighty Ducks ever became a Hollywood production in the first place is still unbelievable. The 58-year-old filmmaker has his own underdog story. When he was an aspiring screenwriter living in Los Angeles with actor and future director Peter Berg back in the mid-’80s, the two East Coast transplants spent winter nights at the Forum watching the Marcel Dionne–led L.A. Kings, and winter days skating at a rink near their Culver City apartment. “That’s where I got into hockey, playing it and seeing it, and seeing little kids come in,” says Brill, who recalls once catching actor Gary Oldman reluctantly renting a pair of skates in the rink’s pro shop.

At the time, Brill had just finished a script that didn’t sell. So he set out to write one about a teen from Minnesota who, like Daniel LaRusso in The Karate Kid, moves to L.A. Except in this case, instead of getting into martial arts, the main character starts a hockey team. Eventually, Brill cut out the fish-out-of-water element and reset the movie in the hockey-mad Twin Cities.

In 1988, the same year the Edmonton Oilers traded Wayne Gretzky to the Kings, Disney acquired Brill’s screenplay. “The real champion was [CEO] Michael Eisner,” he says. “He loved hockey, his kids played hockey. He wanted to buy a hockey team. He had this plan in his head.”

Before The Mighty Ducks got made, Brill had to tinker with the script. The initial draft was as razor-sharp as a fresh pair of Bauers, but by then, the days of kids’ movies as edgy as The Bad News Bears were over. Disney asked him to tone it down. “They go, ‘Yeah, we like this. We bought it, but we’re not going to make that,’” Brill says. “We’re going to make something closer to what I turned in for the final draft.”

He did manage to avoid complete sanitization. The PG-rated movie still hinges on lawyer Gordon Bombay getting arrested for drunk driving and a judge sentencing him to 500 hours of community service in the form of coaching hockey. There are tame fart and sex jokes. And when Bombay ties Goldberg to the net in an attempt to ease his fear of the puck, the terrified goaltender says that his mother would like him to live long enough to be bar mitzvahed. After the coach responds that the barrage of slap shots that he’s about to face is his bar mitzvah, Goldberg says, “I think you got the ceremonies mixed up. It’s more like a circumcision.”

According to Brill, Estevez was the first choice to play Bombay. “And unlike many movies, we got our first choice,” he says. “He said yes off the script. And then we were good.”

Directed by Stephen Herek and starring a teenage Joshua Jackson as Charlie Conway—Jake Gyllenhaal also auditioned for the roleThe Mighty Ducks hit theaters on October 2, 1992. The $14 million film made $50.8 million at the domestic box office, leading to a boomlet of live-action kids’ sports comedies like The Sandlot, Rookie of the Year, Little Big League, Little Giants, and The Big Green.

About a year later, the Disney-owned Mighty Ducks of Anaheim took to the ice at the Pond for the first time in front of a home crowd of 17,174. “It feels like the Academy Awards except I haven’t won anything,” Eisner told the L.A. Times before the game. That night, the Detroit Red Wings crushed the Ducks 7-2. It was fitting. The expansion team, just like its fictional namesake, was an underdog.

After the success of the first Mighty Ducks, Disney ordered a sequel. Then another. Brill had a hand in writing both D2 (1994) and D3 (1996). By then, the movie franchise had inspired a wildly popular pro sports franchise—neither would have existed without the writer’s ideas. Anaheim didn’t make the playoffs during its inaugural season, but that year Ducks gear reportedly accounted for a whopping 80 percent of all American NHL merchandise sales.

None of those profits made their way to Brill. So in 1998, he sued Walt Disney Pictures for a chunk of hockey revenue, reportedly citing a Writers Guild of America agreement that entitled him to “5 percent of the absolute gross that the studio receives from exploiting unique objects and things.” (The parties eventually settled for an undisclosed amount out of court.)

Lawsuit aside, Brill had by the late ’90s already moved on from the beloved franchise that he’d created. He made his directorial debut in 1995 with kids’ cult classic Heavyweights and then transitioned to raunchier comedies in the early 2000s, helming Adam Sandler’s Little Nicky and Mr. Deeds. Over the past five years, he’s made three Netflix movies with Sandler, including 2020’s Hubie Halloween. “When I got to Sandler land, I was like, ‘No. I’m not going to do [another] Ducks movie,’” Brill says. “And Disney and I were at odds and it didn’t seem reasonable for that to even pass. And it was fine.” But, he admits, “I always knew that I would love to go back to it at some point.”

Late in the 2010s, Brill began seriously thinking about resurrecting the Ducks. Since working on the original trilogy together, he and Estevez have remained friends. They’d long wondered how to reboot the franchise. “Part of our conversations over the years was always, ‘What could we do? What should we do?’” Brill says. “And then I did the heavy lifting and got this thing going conceptually, and then got Josh and Cathy involved. And they brought it to the next level. Then it became real.”

Brill didn’t come up with the new show knowing that Estevez would be on board. But naturally, the actor liked that Bombay and his new team would be the underdogs. “He always loved the character and he always loved putting on that jacket, being a coach and a father figure,” Brill says. “He was really excited about it.”

By January 2018, Brill and The Mighty Ducks producer Jordan Kerner had pitched the idea for a series to ABC Signature Studios. When Disney+ announced its initial slate late that year, Game Changers was on it. COVID-19 interrupted the Vancouver-set production in March 2020, but it picked up again late last year.

On set, Estevez’s presence gave the young cast an incalculably big boost. “With any spinoff, to have someone like Emilio come back and anchor the show is huge,” Playfair says. “I think that brought a ton of legitimacy to the project. And to have him want to be there and making sure everyone feels like they’re on the same team? That made it feel like it was something special.”

If Brill has one regret it’s that the show couldn’t be shot on location. “We were never able to go to Minnesota,” he says. “It just doesn’t have the infrastructure for movies anymore, which sucks, because I’d do anything to go there.”

Still, the Mighty Ducks are back, in a form that both pays homage to the original movies and also tinkers with the original formula. And though the show hasn’t aired yet, it already has fans in NHL players who were weaned on the Mighty Ducks trilogy. “I don’t know how far off we are from seeing the Flying V in an NHL game,” Playfair says. “I have a feeling it’s probably not gonna happen. But it is cool to know the generational divide is smaller than we thought it was.”

Before the pandemic made scheduling cameos impossible, Brill hoped that 6-foot-9 defenseman Zdeno Chara could make one. He also had other players clamoring to get in on the action. “Brad Marchand really wanted to be in this season,” Brill says. “He called. His agent called.”

If you think about it, it’s not all that surprising. After all, everyone loves the underdogs—no matter what sweater they’re wearing.

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