Anaheim Ducks – From Screen to Reality

Looking at today’s Anaheim Ducks, it’s impossible to see what was once purple and teal. Decked out in black, gold, and orange, they’re a far cry from the cartoonish jerseys of the mid- to late-90s.

Despite this, the Anaheim Ducks have a strong and unique history tied to the film franchise, the Disney Corporation, and the overall expansion of hockey in California. They’re the rare example of a sports franchise that didn’t inspire a movie, but instead, was inspired by one.

The Birth of a Cross-Promotional Franchise

The Mighty Ducks was released in 1992 to a surprising amount of commercial success. It tells the story of Gordon Bombay, an attorney who gets arrested and has to serve community service by coaching a peewee hockey team. Bombay, a former player who quit the sport after missing a crucial game-winning penalty shot, discovers that his team is a perennial loser. As a traditional underdog tale, the team – who take on the name the “Ducks” – goes on to win the championship with, appropriately, a game-winning penalty shot.

The success of the film sparked two sequels, D2 and D3, which chronicle the team’s rise through international and high school competition and the growing pains that accompany them. It also inspired a science fiction cartoon series about a group of alien, hockey-playing ducks. Between sequels, spin-offs, and the overall commercial value of the brand, the Mighty Ducks had a strong grip on the mid-1990s media market.

In 1993, with the first Mighty Ducks movie in-hand, Disney was awarded an NHL expansion franchise for a team in California. In a move that might not seem so bold now, they named the team after the film franchise: The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. Disney had no history in professional sports, and of those available at the time, hockey seemed a far cry from their brand. Fights were (and are) commonplace, something Disney didn’t necessarily associate itself with. Despite this, though, the team was a huge success.

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California Hockey Explodes

Interest in California hockey spiked in the late 1980s with what’s known as “The Trade.” In 1988, just hours after winning the Stanley Cup with the Edmonton Oilers, Wayne Gretzky learned that he was being traded to the Los Angeles Kings. The move led to previously-unseen interest in hockey in California, with the once-struggling Kings seeing not only growth on the ice, but off, as they started selling out games. Couple this success with that of Disney’s movie franchise, and it’s no surprise that a second (and, eventually, third) California team was founded.

The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim first took the ice during the 1993 NHL season, one year after the original Mighty Ducks movie. According to then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner, the movie itself served as the franchise’s market research, and, due to its success, it was a win-win for everyone. Disney expanded its market reach, and the NHL had an experienced corporation helming one of its newest franchises in a budding market.

At the intersection of all of this was one of the most powerful cross-promotional efforts in the history of professional sports. Due to the existing Mighty Ducks brand, the hockey team lacked the identity crisis that new teams sometimes face. Furthermore, Disney’s involvement with the NHL led to increased possibilities on the film front, with NHL legends such as Paul Kariya (the captain of the NHL team), Chris Chelios, and Wayne Gretzky making cameos in D2 and D3. Disney coupled this with toys, the cartoon series, Disneyland attractions – the whole gamut, really – and, for a while, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim were near the top of the league in merchandise sold. Like many great things, though, this came to an end.

Anaheim Ducks – Failure and Rebirth

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Re-branded Anaheim Ducks Logo

Throughout the late 1990s, what began as commercial success soon became recognized as a corporate monster. Audiences grew bored of the cross-promotional strategies, fan interest in the team plummeted, and, eventually, Eisner was fired and the team was sold. Under new ownership, the team rebranded and thrived, swapping their teal and purple for orange, black, and gold, and eventually winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 2007.

This failure isn’t all on Disney and Eisner, however. The NHL struggled as a whole in the 1990s. Scoring reached an all-time low, something some suggest was a result of the talent pool being diluted because of so many teams being added to the league. The style of play – most notably, the neutral zone trap – led to a drop in offense, too, and fan interest dwindled as a result of it.

Whether the fall of the Mighty Ducks is on Disney or the market is up in the air. Despite this, though, the franchise’s impact can still be seen.

California Hockey Today

The history of the Anaheim Ducks franchise is one story, but its impact on California hockey is another. While Disney’s cross-promotional strategy ultimately failed, it – coupled with Gretzky’s time with the Los Angeles Kings – built interest in the sport where it previously didn’t exist. During this era, youth programs were established, giving kids not only a team to cheer for, but an avenue to start playing themselves.

In addition tDucks_2007_NHL_Championso the Ducks’ Stanley Cup win in 2007, the Kings won two of their own, the San Jose Sharks made a Stanley Cup Final appearance this year, and the NHL hosted one of its outdoor Stadium Series games at Dodger Stadium.

Most notable, though, is that the number of California-born players is continually on the rise, something hallmarked with two being taken in the first round of the 2010 entry draft.

While the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim might not have been a long-term success, its unique presence forever changed the game of hockey. It might be difficult to see it when the Ducks take the ice today, but the team’s founding, reach and impact, whether intentional or not, ultimately benefitted the game as a whole.

Contributing author: Adam Shaw

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