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Watching 'The Mighty Ducks' for first time, 30 years after release

The Minnesota-made hockey movie is a time capsule from 1992 — especially if you're one of the few locals who's never seen it before.

Home video release poster for "The Mighty Ducks," featuring image of Emilio Estevez holding a hockey stick in front of a large crowd of child hockey players pressed against plexiglass.
Detail from a poster advertising the home video release of "The Mighty Ducks."
Contributed / Disney

DULUTH — At the beginning of "The Mighty Ducks," Gordon Bombay proudly declares that he's 30 and 0. Until this week, so was I.

In the film, Bombay (Emilio Estevez) is bragging about his record as a criminal defense attorney. In my case, the number counted years I'd gone without seeing the movie. That's right, until Monday I'd somehow managed to make it three full decades as an ostensibly proud Minnesota movie fan without ever once watching "The Mighty Ducks."

When the movie was initially released, in October 1992, I was a teenage film snob. I was more concerned with finding "Gates of Heaven" and "Koyaanisqatsi" on VHS than with catching Disney's latest live-action sports movie. So what if it was filmed in Minnesota? At that point in my life, I was ready to get out of this state as soon as humanly possible.

I was at college in Boston when "D2" (1994) and "D3" (1996) were released, and then somehow there was an actual NHL team called the Mighty Ducks, and I gave up hope of ever understanding how this peculiar intellectual property worked. I was still scarred from seeing "Howard the Duck."

By the time "D1" turned 30 this year, I was back in Minnesota and living in the city where Bombay heads via Greyhound at the end of the film, planning to try out for a minor league hockey team. I'd co-hosted a "Fargo" podcast; I'd visited the "Purple Rain" house; I'd seen "Merry Kiss Cam" shoot a scene at Duluth's Radisson Hotel. It was time to end my estrangement from "The Mighty Ducks."


As I watched the movie for the first time, I took notes. "Jussie Smollett is in this?" I wrote. "Joshua Jackson is in this?" I made note of the Minneapolis Police inexplicably showing up in downtown St. Paul. I noted the references to the Richmeister, "The Karate Kid" and Grand Funk Railroad.

Prince, whose high school band Grand Central had a name inspired by Grand Funk, would have approved of that reference. What Prince made of the movie's take on the South Minneapolis neighborhood where he was born (literally across the street from the film's pond hockey park) has to my knowledge not been recorded. As a frequenter of the Chanhassen multiplex, though, Prince likely did see "The Mighty Ducks."

A couple quick Google searches revealed that I'm certainly not the first person to find some uneasy tensions in "The Mighty Ducks."

Much of the movie is as broad as the side of a Zamboni: One scene is comically sped up, while another is dramatically slowed down. At the same time, the on-ice banter dips into casual sexism, homophobia and body shaming. The climactic game features a figure-skating fake-out, and a shot seen from the puck's point of view ... and, also, a racist taunt repurposed as a point of pride for the diverse Ducks.

That's a lot to unpack for a movie full of spit takes and soft-focus flashbacks. The movie has a core of such sincerity, though, that it sells its story of comeback kids and a coach who sheds his cynicism. The scene where Estevez walks away from his legal career while flapping his arms and quacking deserves some sort of special citation for committing to the bit.

No wonder this movie has a special place in Minnesotans' hearts. Director Stephen Herek frames as many shots as possible to include the Minneapolis skyline. There are real-life North Star cameos, there's a scene at Mickey's Diner and there's even a storybook smooch in Rice Park during, wait for it, the St. Paul Winter Carnival.

Does that kiss create a conflict of interest when Gordon's picking his player for a climactic penalty shot, and his girlfriend's son is among the options? As my dad used to say about local politics, "No conflict? No interest."

"The Mighty Ducks" didn't make me nostalgic for the era of car phones, faxes and Carson Pirie Scott, but I wouldn't mind taking a time machine back to the Gaviidae Common food court and its fountains of leaping water. Apparently, you could even wear your Rollerblades there, maybe because they were made by a company that started in Minnesota.


Despite the movie's flights of fantasy, it has moments that did take me back to my own younger sporting days — and not just the bullying scenes.

When the Ducks hit the ice with improvised shin pads, I remembered high school golf matches where my team's garage-sale club sets were pitted against players who carried Ping Eye 2 irons in bags with embroidered school logos.

When the movie's Coach Bombay tied a goalie to a net for training, I recalled that during my brief stint as a golf coach, I did in fact once rely on dowels and Saran Wrap to keep a kid's arm straight as she swung.

When the Mighty Ducks were at their most rambunctious, inspiring Gordon to utter words he later regretted, I remembered Cub Scout meetings in the multipurpose room of Duluth's Holy Rosary Cathedral. At least one of our volunteer parent leaders, as I recall, choose some PG-13 language to describe our behavior.

Watching the movie, I also realized why I was so surprised when the coaches in the "Hockeyland" documentary took such pains to care for their players' mental health. Although I hadn't seen "The Mighty Ducks" until this week, I've seen plenty of sports movies like it, where the coaches are the least mature members of the team.

In the end, "The Mighty Ducks" strikes a moving note when the coach realizes that the most important lesson he can teach his players is to "have fun out there." The ideal, of course, is to have fun while also winning. This is Minnesota, after all, and we are talking about hockey.

I was only left with one question, but it's a big one. Are you really allowed to bring raw eggs onto an ice rink?

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; he's also a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the Minnesota Film Critics Alliance. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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