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Flying high at 25: An oral history on the making of 'The Mighty Ducks'

Sal Barry
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Flying high at 25: An oral history on the making of 'The Mighty Ducks' movie

The cast of The Mighty Ducks.

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Flying high at 25: An oral history on the making of 'The Mighty Ducks'

Sal Barry
By:

Twenty-five years ago, in October 1992, The Mighty Ducks flew into movie theaters and changed hockey forever.

Twenty-five years ago, in October 1992, The Mighty Ducks flew into movie theaters and changed hockey forever. The film hatched two sequels and had an NHL team named after it, all in a five-year span. Terms from The Mighty Ducks like the “Flying V” and the “Triple Deke” became part of hockey’s cultural lexicon. A few years before all of that happened, though, it was just an idea, flapping around the mind of an unemployed screenwriter.

It is the late 1980s. Steven Brill started working on his script for a hockey movie. He combined his memories of playing hockey as a child, his renewed interest in the game after Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings, and his love for the film The Bad News Bears.

Steven Brill, writer (and movie cameo as 'Frank Huddy'): I played peewee hockey as a little kid, on one of the worst teams ever, and it was just a horrible experience to be horrible at a game that I didn’t know how to play. We had a mean coach, but I loved being part of a team. It was something that always stuck with me. My passion for hockey and memories of my youth made me always want to revisit the sport.

Brill stopped playing hockey at age 11 when his family moved to Florida. He moved to Los Angeles after college and tried to break into Hollywood as a screenwriter and director. At the time, Brill shared an apartment with Peter Berg, who went on to direct Friday Night Lights and the Wayne Gretzky documentary Kings Ransom.

Brill: Peter and I had nothing to do. We were unemployed and we got into hockey again. We started going to Kings games in the late 1980s. Wayne Gretzky came to L.A., and nothing was more exciting than paying $5 for cheap seats and going to watch the Kings. At the same time, I started skating again. Since Pete and I didn’t have a job or anything during the day, we’d go to a rink and sometimes skate all afternoon. One day, I saw the little peewee guys come in to do an after-school hockey program. It brought me back to the memory of playing hockey as a kid and loving the sport. The third part of the equation was loving the movie The Bad News Bears. That’s one of my favorite movies. And I just said, "Well, now’s the time to do a hockey movie. How about a kid’s hockey team based on my experiences?" I started writing The Mighty Ducks around 1988. 

Brill was unsuccessful in his initial attempts to sell the script, but got a job as a writer for a few TV shows. That led to signing with Creative Artists Agency, who shopped his script around. Disney purchased The Mighty Ducks, brought in director Stephen Herek (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Mr. Holland’s Opus) and cast Emilio Estevez as Gordon Bombay, the District 5 team’s reluctant coach. Brill was also cast in the minor role of Frank Huddy, the young lawyer opposite Bombay. Next came assembling the rest of the cast and crew.

Thomas Del Ruth, cinematographer: I was sent the script due to the work I had done previously, with a lot of films about coming of age. I had been successful in that genre. Once you kind of get typecast in a specific area, they try to repeat that success with you. Since I had done The Breakfast Club and Stand By Me, I was somewhat of a natural choice to be towards the top of the list of people they’d want doing the picture.

Jack White, hockey trainer and technical adviser: I moved from Windsor, Ont., to California to work as an animator, and I also opened a hockey clinic. Over the years, I gained a reputation for being able to train people quickly. And actors. I trained Rob Lowe and Patrick Swayze before they filmed Youngblood in Toronto. Then Michael Keaton was doing a film called Touch and Go, and I got the job to train him. I had been offered a job as an animation supervisor for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles when I got the phone call about The Mighty Ducks. I was just turning 50 and figured I’d never have another opportunity to be involved like this, so I said, "No, thank you" to the Ninja Turtles' offer. And thank God, because Ducks was just a wonderful, wonderful time.

Matt Doherty a.k.a. 'Les Averman': There was a national talent search. Disney didn’t want California kids for The Mighty Ducks. They wanted people from all over. I originally auditioned for the part of Fulton Reed, which is funny because he was supposed to be the big kid, and at the time I looked like I was eight or nine, even though I was one of the oldest guys. Then I read for Averman and got the part.

Vincent Larusso a.k.a. 'Adam Banks': I believe I was always reading for (Hawks player) Larson. When we finally got to Minneapolis, everyone’s picture is up on the wall, and every kid’s character’s name was written on it. And I remember mine had two: “Larson/McGill.” They hadn’t yet decided who I was going to play. I was cast, I was in Minneapolis, contract signed, the whole thing, and my character wasn’t set, other than that I was going to be one of the Hawks.

Doherty: We all lied and said we knew how to play hockey. And they all knew we were lying. It was like a game of chess. Everybody knows that actors don’t tell the truth. Then we had six weeks of hockey camp.

White: None of them could skate. I’m not telling you any fibs. When we get got them all dressed up, they skated around on the ice for the first time, and they literally all fell down. It was hilarious. So now, I had to develop these kids into hockey players.

Larusso: I had never played hockey before. I had never rollerbladed. I had skated before, but I would consider myself a level one out of 10.

Doherty: We would go to school for four hours a day and then we would go train for four hours a day. Oh man, my favorite time in all of those movies was being on the ice.

Larusso: It was difficult, but at that age, it’s all very exciting. I remember one drill was sitting on buckets and skating around and playing, I don’t know, dodgeball or bumper cars. And Jack would do those things to distract us from the fact that we were learning how to skate, getting comfortable on the ice and learning the edges of your blades.

Doherty: We used to skate in circles, my God, non-stop. Crossovers. You got to learn how to find your edge and keep finding it. Jack was a good coach, because his job was to get people to look like hockey players in a short period of time.

White: When Josh (Jackson, who played Charlie Conway) had to do the Triple Deke, I developed a drill where he put one knee on the ice and his stick comes all the way to the side, then he brings his stick across to the other side and the other knee goes down and the first knee comes up off the ice. It was harder than the Triple Deke. Give them something harder, then when it comes time to do something simpler, they’re going to be more comfortable on camera.

Doherty: Jack taught me a ton. I learned everything about the sport from him. By the third movie, I was skating with the doubles and that was fun. I was captain of my hockey team at Thornwood High School my senior year. I had a scholarship to play at Western Michigan. Then I got a concussion in a game and was like, "Oh boy, I don’t know if I want to go this route." I think I’d rather be an actor and writer and play a little bit of hockey. 

White: I had different people come out and train with the kids, like actor Richard Dean Anderson, Olympian Eric Strobel and future Olympian Cammi Granato. I got different people coming to keep it interesting. What it was doing was letting these kids know that there’s another level. I was just trying to submerge them in a complete hockey world.

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It's been 25 years since the release of the original 'The Mighty Ducks' movie, which spawned a sequel, then another sequel, then a TV series – and, of course, an NHL hockey team.

Like any big-budget film, The Mighty Ducks underwent a number of changes before and during production.

Brill: The biggest thing that changed was that Casey, who was Bombay’s love interest, and Charlie Conway were African-American in the first script that I wrote. It was just a factor that I put in there, an interracial romance. It didn’t change because I was told to change it. It just changed as a natural evolution of the script. There wasn’t a social message that was necessary to put through with this movie. It sort of overwhelmed everything else, it felt a little stuck in there. I might've actually changed that in the first draft that Disney saw, but as a young writer, I was trying to put more issues and elements into the piece.

Larusso: I do remember a couple of my first auditions and that the script was not-so-Disney in the very beginning. I remember it was a little more PG-13-ish. I could've sworn the kids cursed.

Brill: The team’s goalie was originally an Inuit named Atuk. He was more of a stoic figure, and we wanted to make the goalie more colorful and more outspoken, so we changed the character to Greg Goldberg. Then the silent killer shtick went to Fulton in the first movie.

Larusso: The kid who was originally cast to play Adam Banks didn’t stay with the film, and then they asked me to audition for the role. Obviously, I was more than willing to audition, it went well, and the rest is history.

Filming in either the cold confines of a hockey rink or in the harsh Minnesota winter gave The Mighty Ducks its own set of challenges to overcome.

Del Ruth: Film equipment doesn’t hold up particularly well in extremely cold environments, unless certain winterization techniques are used. Oil is subject to freezing, it's viscous and things slow down. Components like crane arms and dollies had to have the oil removed. Same with the cameras. Basically, you are dealing with bare metal. However, odd as it sounds, it works rather smoothly in those cold temperatures without the grease. Cables have to be insulated because they will freeze in place at a certain temperature and they can snap. That happened to me during a television commercial shoot at the North Pole.

Larusso: Minneapolis was super-cold. I’m from Jersey, so it was colder than I was used to.

Doherty: The scene where the kids are playing outdoors and the limo drives out on the ice, we shot that on two separate occasions. The first time it was one of the coldest days of the year, and we were just freezing our asses off. And then the second day was like one of the warmest days in winter history in Minneapolis. They had to fly in this special equipment to make the ice happen, which was like soup.

Although the child actors who appeared in The Mighty Ducks attended a hockey camp, skating doubles were frequently relied on for the action sequences.

Doherty: In the first movie, we did all the bad skating, and when they wanted us to be good, most of the time it was the doubles. There was a lot of liability back then, they were so worried that we were going to get hurt.

White: Each actor had four skating doubles. Because we’re filming in Minnesota, if any of the doubles had a game to play, they wouldn’t come to the set. Hockey in Minnesota is more important than doing a film. You never knew who you were going to get. A good day would be when I got the No. 1 double. If it was a bad day, I had No. 4, and now we’re going to struggle, because some were so young that none of them had developed that well. We had a few kids that could really move, and thank God for that.

Del Ruth: You’re usually filming a double from three-quarter back or the back. Sometimes, you can shoot straight from the front, because a lot of times the player was wearing a faceshield, and there’s so much reflection that the faceshield obscures who is behind it. If they’re not wearing a mask, then you can get away with five or six frames (one-quarter of a second) of shooting someone in profile, as long as the helmet they're wearing is identified with the actor. There are all sorts of techniques, but you have to reply upon editorial as much as you do the creation of the image.

Filming hockey action was very important for the filmmakers, who wanted to show off the sport’s speed, physicality and excitement.

Del Ruth: I shot most of the skating sequences at 22 frames per second. The two-frame difference speeds up the action a little bit, which is something that really helped, but at the same time didn’t have that cartoon effect and look too fast. There were times when I shot at 18 frames, but you have to be very careful that nothing else is moving in the frame, or any lights, which will appear to flicker.

Brill: A goal in hockey means a lot. There’s more than soccer, there’s less than football, it’s just the right amount of action for me, and it’s so cathartic when a goal is scored. So, the idea of scoring goals was something we really had to get into, so we could have the audience feel what it was like to be in a game of hockey. The idea of that puck going into the net, or the puck being saved, just sort of getting that down was the real challenge of the first movie.

Doherty: They were inventing stuff on the go. Somebody would come up with an idea on how to rig ice skates to a dolly, or make a puck look like it was flying. It was just really cool to watch everybody come up with ideas on how to do it.

Del Ruth: I wanted to do the shot where the camera follows the puck. We used a wide-angle lens, and I boosted the film speed to a very high level so the foreground and background would remain in focus. I had the visual effects guy build a variable-speed motor with a small shaft that would attach to the bottom of the puck. Then I placed that on arms in front of the camera, where it was just at the lower part of the frame. No matter which way the camera pointed, the puck went with it.

Brill: When I got back to playing hockey, I was astounded at how heavy the pucks were. I was flinching at the puck. I knew it wasn’t going to hurt me bad, I just needed to take some shots. I had the idea that if I was tied up to poles like a mythological figure and fired at, it would get me over my fear of the puck. The idea of the goalie being afraid of the puck was a funny idea. So, the way to get Goldberg over his fear was to have Bombay lash him to the goalposts and have everyone shoot at him, and that would be his trial by fire. Then, he would come out on the other side, and not be afraid of the puck. It would be a great moment for him to overcome his fear and get to the next level. I remember writing this scene in the very first draft, and Peter encouraging me, saying that was the kind of thing this movie needed.

White: In addition to training the kids, my job was storyboarding anything that was going on the ice concerning hockey. I also played a referee, because I had to be out there. I’m not a director, but I was doing the on-ice choreography. Being an animator, I’m great with action. To me, it was like animating kids for real.

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A 21-year-old Mike Modano had a memorable cameo with Emilio Estevez in 'The Mighty Ducks' – even if Basil McRae, his teammate/co-star at the time, claims Modano couldn't deliver his lines. (For the record, Modano disputes McRae's version of events.)

In a scene particularly memorable for hockey fans, coach Bombay takes the Ducks to watch the NHL's Minnesota North Stars practice and then skate on the Met Center ice before watching a North Stars-Hartford Whalers game. But first, the Ducks get to meet Mike Modano and Basil McRae.

Brill: I wanted to incorporate the idea that the kids could skate on that NHL ice. They went from the pond, the least comfortable environment to skate, to the most luxurious.

Larusso: It wasn’t hard for any of us to put those surprised faces that they show in the movie, of all the kids being wide-eyed, because I think we were all that way anyway. It was shocking, in a very good way.

Basil McRae a.k.a. 'North Stars Player No. 1': I remember two things about being in that scene. One, what a nice guy Emilio Estevez was. Really sincere, nice guy. Two, how hard it is to memorize lines. It was tough. I think he made me and Mike even more uptight because he was so good. Because Emilio’s a short guy, and we had skates on, they had to put him on a box. Maybe that loosened us up a bit.

Mike Modano a.k.a. 'North Stars Player No. 2': It took a good three, four hours. We had the extras on the ice, acting as North Stars during practice. We had to figure out our lines and deliver them right, on time, and we had different angles of the shots, so it took a while.

McRae: I was supposed to be North Star Player No. 2, but what happened, probably 20 minutes into doing some takes, they reversed us. Let me say that Mike Modano is an awesome hockey player, but at that point, his public-speaking skills … well, they’re much improved now. He’s good with interviewing and speaks very well now, but at 21 he wasn’t so good. That’s why I got five lines and Mike got two. I still give Mike a hard time about that.

Modano: (laughs) I think that’s Basil’s story, because he claims I was messing them up too much, so they had to switch us. But I think it was the other way around.

McRae: You really get an appreciation for how good and how professional these actors are. It was impressive.

Modano: At the time, we thought we were just going to film our scene and never hear anything about it. But The Mighty Ducks has turned into kind of a cult movie, to say the least.

The Mighty Ducks was released in October 1992 and was a success at the box office, grossing over $50 million domestically. Brill wrote two sequels, which came out in 1994 and 1996. But perhaps the biggest shock was that Disney, helmed by CEO Michael Eisner, bought an NHL expansion team that would join the league for the 1993-94 season.

Brill: At the end of the first movie, when the kids are saying goodbye to Bombay, he says, “Hey Ducks! No matter what happens, we’ll see you next season. We got a title to defend.” Emilio added that last line, then he winked at me and laughed. It was kind of a joke, because it was presumptuous to think there’d be another Ducks movie. Then by the time we put the movie together, we kept that line in because we started to hear that there would be a sequel. Very shortly after The Mighty Ducks came out, we were given the go-ahead to get rockin’ on the sequel.

Doherty: My dad woke me. I think CNN or NBC was breaking the news that Eisner was buying an NHL hockey team and calling it the Mighty Ducks. It was a shock. We were like, "Holy s---, wow!" Pretty incredible.

Brill: Michael Eisner invited me to the naming of the team announcement at The Pond (now the Honda Center). He went out on stage and took the covering off of this big name: the Mighty Ducks. That was the most surreal moment of all-time. I couldn’t imagine that this would ever happen. It was just a dream, a bizarre dream. Two or three years before that, I was paying $5 to sit in the cheap seats, and now a team that I essentially named was going to be competing in the NHL. That was pretty awesome.

Doherty: The best thing about Ducks 2 was playing on The Pond. We played there before anyone else did. The place wasn’t even open yet. Jack fought for us to scrimmage in front of the whole crowd one day. I got to score a goal in front of 13,000 people. That was a day, man. That was a day. I think Jack might have told the Iceland players to take a dive while we were scrimmaging, but even so, we still had a blast (laughs).

Larusso: We were just a group of kids, running around, having fun. I felt like we really became a part of popular, professional sports and corporate culture, all at the same time. Which is incredible to happen without aiming in that direction. We felt iconic, and I’ll never forget that for as long as I live. To this day, I can’t see an Anaheim Ducks jersey without feeling somewhat a part of the seed of that plan, you know?

All good things must come to an end, and in 1996, The Mighty Ducks film franchise had run its course. This was also the beginning of the end of children’s movies, as Hollywood became increasingly enamored with big-budget sci-fi and superhero flicks. But just like how the Ducks in the movies always make a comeback, the idea about a rag-tag group of kids overcoming impossible odds might, too.

Del Ruth: I lament the demise of that kind of narrative picture, the coming-of-age picture, the imminent story of youth, of dealing with the problems at that age. It’s a shame, because you have a new generation of people that would like to be a little more insightful of the angst they have. So, you have to rely on those older films that provide that information. It’s nice for someone to see themselves portrayed on screen and identify with it. You don’t get to do that now, so I’m kind of sorry to see that all go away.

Larusso: Times have changed. They don’t make a lot of different kinds of movies anymore. The format’s changed, and television, Netflix and the Internet have changed things.

Del Ruth: Most box office returns today are generated by foreign markets like China and India, and they demand action. So essentially, you have Marvel comic books being produced constantly.

Brill: Back then (in 1996), it really did feel like Ducks was done. There wasn’t another next-generation type thing to do. And then, 10 years after that, the appetite started getting renewed. Now it feels like it has been building over the last 10 years. There haven’t been any formal talks with Disney because management changed and the new people didn’t really feel like the Ducks was something to pick up right away. We started to talk about a way to do a Ducks 4, either a movie or a TV show, or both. I wasn’t really interested in it until the last few years. Now I started to think about it and the timing could be right.

Doherty: There’s a lot of talk about rebranding it right now. And Ducks still has a huge following. Everybody loves those movies and owns them. I can’t tell you how many times people have said to me, “I grew up with The Mighty Ducks.” And my answer usually is, "Well, so did I. So did I."

–Sal Barry is a contributing writer for The Hockey News and an adjunct professor at DePaul University in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @PuckJunk.

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Flying high at 25: An oral history on the making of 'The Mighty Ducks'