Day 6

Why Disney turned The Mighty Ducks movie into an actual NHL team

The new series, The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers, harkens back to Disney's beloved 1992 hockey film. Though Disney didn't expect much from the original film, it turned into a huge success, spawning two sequels, an animated series, loads of merchandise — and as sportswriter CJ Woodling explains, a professional hockey team.

The Mighty Ducks were initially laughed off by traditional hockey markets, says sports writer

Shortly after the release of The Mighty Ducks movie, Disney was awarded a professional hockey team franchise by the NHL. The team was named the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim after the 1992 film. (Getty Images)

Disney and the NHL might seem as incompatible as fire and ice.

But in December 1992, these two worlds collided when the NHL awarded Disney its own expansion franchise, who they called the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.

"In hindsight, it's very weird that the Ducks came from this company that did so many of these beloved animated icons, especially geared toward children," said CJ Woodling, sports writer and co-founder of the blog Crash The Pond.

The path to a Disney-owned professional ice hockey team started with Disney's 1992 film, The Mighty Ducks. The film follows the Mighty Ducks, a losing pee-wee hockey team who are coached to championship glory by a Minneapolis defence attorney. 

With a budget of $14 million, Woodling says Disney didn't have high expectations for the film. But it ended up being a surprise success — it grossed more than $50 million between the United States and Canada, according to IMDB.

"It just kind of became this phenomenon, especially for a sport that, specifically in the United States had only regional popularity," he said.

Young fans cheer for the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim by blowing the trademark Mighty Ducks whistle. (Getty Images)

But following The Mighty Ducks' success, other regions in the U.S. started to catch on to the hockey craze.

One of those regions was southern California, which was in the middle of a hockey boom due in large part to Wayne Gretzky's 1988 trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings, according to Woodling. 

"So, [Disney] knew that there was a viable market here in southern California to create a team, specifically close to Disneyland, their original theme park [in California]," he said. 

Disney's vision was shared by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who assumed his position a couple of months after Disney was awarded an NHL team. Bettman has a reputation for expanding hockey to non-traditional markets, and during his tenure, the NHL has successfully expanded into states like Florida, Texas and Arizona. 

"This was a perfect opportunity for [Disney CEO] Michael Eisner and Disney's desire to use this team as a marketing tool to get into an area that has a lot of growth potential, and at the same time, matching Gary Bettman's vision to grow into non-traditional markets," he said.

They cared more about saving their money and getting a good return on their marketing investment than they did in providing a championship team.- CJ Woodling

Disney branding

The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim made their NHL debut on Oct. 8, 1993, but not everyone was pleased. 

"When the Mighty Ducks name was announced, and the branding was announced, and Disney was going to be the owner of the team, a lot of the traditional markets [and] a lot of the traditional journalists really didn't take the team seriously, and they were kind of laughed off," Woodling said. 

But Disney wasn't ashamed to attach their brand to the team.

"To just put into perspective how much Disney viewed the Ducks as a marketing tool, their very first home game … was preceded by a 20-minute pre-game show that was essentially a Disney on Ice production featuring a bunch of Disney characters," he said.

Disney was also happy to incorporate the Mighty Ducks into their other properties. The team's cartoon logo and jersey were used in movie sequels D2: The Mighty Ducks and D3: The Mighty Ducks, and the team's mascot, Wild Wing, starred in his own short-lived animated series.

Woodling says Disney's branding paid off for a while. At one point, the team reportedly accounted for 80 per cent of the NHL's $1 billion in merchandising revenues.

WATCH | Pre-game show for the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim's first home game

'Successful blueprint for companies'

Though the team experienced some highs under Disney ownership, it couldn't escape its tag as a marketing gimmick. 

"For a number of years, it was pretty clear that the Walt Disney Company didn't necessarily care so much about winning," Woodling said. "They cared more about saving their money and getting a good return on their marketing investment than they did in providing a championship team."

Wild Wing, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim mascot exhorts the crowd during an NHL game in 1994. As part of Disney's branding plan, he starred in his own short-lived animated series. (Getty Images)

This led to Disney selling the team to Henry and Susan Samueli in 2005. The Samuelis rebranded the team to the Anaheim Ducks and changed its logo and colours. 

"The Samuelis wanted to make the team grow up," he said. "They wanted to leave that past in the past, and they wanted to become a serious hockey team."

The team has seen some success since the rebranding — they won their only Stanley Cup in their first season as the rebranded Ducks. But when they can, the Ducks will throw it back to their Disney era.

This season, for example, the Ducks brought back a "very cartoonish, Wild Wing-jumping-out-of-the-ice jersey from the 1994 season" for the NHL's reverse retro line, recalled Woodling. 

The first episode of The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers, a new series based on the franchise's first film, has also premiered on Disney+.

"There's clearly interest, and there's clearly demand for new, refreshed content with a twinge of nostalgia," Woodling said.

Though the Mighty Ducks' Disney era didn't bring a championship to Anaheim, Woodling considers it a "successful blueprint for companies to plunge plenty of marketing dollars into sports, and to have sports become more of the popular culture, more of the mainstream culture, [and] more of this consumer culture."

Written and produced by Mouhamad Rachini.

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