Nostalgia Or Nostalg-ugh? The Mighty Ducks


From 1992-1994, every elementary school student in America went through a street hockey phase.  Kids who previously spent their playground time shooting hoops or playing tag were picking up sticks and pads and strapping on rollerblades.  Why?  The Mighty Ducks.  The film was far from a classic, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone age 23-30 who doesn’t have fond memories of the Disney film that spawned an actual NHL team.  I recently revisited The Mighty Ducks to see whether it stands the test of time.  Here’s what I found:

The film’s premise is even more absurd than I remembered.  Gordon Bombay (played by Emilio Estevez) is a smug, unlikeable lawyer who is court-ordered to coach a youth hockey team to fulfill a community service obligation.  But what crime did he commit to earn this sentence?  Was he littering?  Playing his Huey Lewis & The News cassettes too loud?  Nope!  He was caught driving drunk.  Yes, that’s for real.  The penalty for drunk driving was being put in charge of a team of children.

A couple of things about that, for starters…

Number 1: The name Gordon Bombay was wasted on a lawyer/youth hockey coach.  With a name like that, he should be Indiana Jones’s nemesis or at least a commercial pilot.  Nope.  Local youth-hockey has-been.

Number 2 (the more pressing matter): The sentence for a DUI should never, ever include being put in charge of a group of children.  Not ever.  What is the logic there?  Well, this guy is making dangerous, reckless decisions.  We need to make him the role model for a group of children with absent or inadequate father figures.

When I played little league baseball, one of the coaches got caught drunk driving during the season.  Our local judiciary did the sensible thing and made him stop coaching.  That’s the correct progression, there.

Regardless of what forced him into coaching, he did a good job with the team.  When he took charge of the Ducks, he didn’t want to be there at all.  By the end of the season, however, he was hooking up with the mother of one of the players.  So that shows he learned a lesson, right?  Nope.  It does not.  I think that legally it violates some sort of Coach/MILF confidentiality agreement.  As a kid, I remembered this relationship evolving naturally.  As an adult, it’s a little awkward.

Anyway, to give credit where credit is due, Gordon Bombay buckles down and gets the job done.  And he had his work cut out for him.  His goalie was terrified of hockey pucks.  Two other players only had figure skating training.  One kid is a monosyllabic brute who just devastates the opposing players with vicious checks.  I imagine they cut a scene out of the movie where he is strapped into a chair, eyelids propped open and forced to watch videos of his own hits over and over.  The best player, Charlie Conway, lives with his single mom and has the same amount of daddy issues as your average girl named Amethyst who works as a “dancer” to “get through nursing school.”  What are these kids even doing on the same hockey team?  Were they also court-ordered to be there?  Still, they’re a colorful bunch of kids, and I’m always partial to a diverse gang of miscreants coming together for a common goal.  It explains how charmed I am by Ocean’s 11 and the 2004 Boston Red Sox.

The other team, the Hawks (a far more vicious and athletic bird, compared to a duck) is an efficient, hockey-playing machine. Coached by (plot twist!) Gordon Bombay’s old youth hockey mentor, they wear black and represent pure evil.  Jack Reilly, the coach, even points out to Bombay that he (Bombay) is worse than a has-been, he’s a “never was.”  That’s a pretty sick burn, Coach Reilly, but you’re like sixty-five, and your claim to fame is excellence at coaching Evil Youth Hockey.  Bravo, you weirdo.  The Hawks have to be portrayed as evil, though.  Otherwise we would remember that we’re rooting for a grown man with a recent felony conviction to outwit a group of children at a game.  To keep us on Bombay’s side, the other team needs to be a bunch of hulking, mustachioed, Scandinavian holocaust deniers.  (Maybe I’m thinking of the team from Mighty Ducks 2, here.)

Coach Bombay ends up taking a liking to his team by the end of the movie.  They’re pretty scrappy, how could you not?  In fact, he sides with The Ducks over his boss at the law firm, which gets him fired.  What?  Yep.  It happens.  In the moment, it seems heartwarming, not shortsighted.

In the finals, Charlie Conway has to take a penalty shot with the league title at stake.  This is the situation that Bombay found himself in on that fateful day where he lost his youth hockey championship, which destroyed his confidence for the rest of his life, until he became a lawyer.  Charlie makes the shot using the “triple deke” technique he learned from Bombay/Estevez.  Redemption for all!  We are the champions, my friends!

(Strangely, the UK and Australian release of the movie was actually titled Champions, which at that point, you should just go ahead and call it Spoiler Alert: The Good Guys Win in the End…No Duh.)

So does the movie hold up after nearly twenty years?  Yes and no.  Yes, it’s still the same feel-good story I remember from my childhood.  Good triumphs over evil.  Heart wins out over greed.  On the other hand, there are a few wrinkles that I’d forgotten over the years that mar the feel-good message of the film.  The drunk driving.  The Gordon-Charlie’s Mom relationship.  A reexamination of The Mighty Ducks doesn’t diminish my fond childhood memories of it, but it doesn’t really add any new enjoyment.  Maybe, like my New Kids On The Block cassingles, my Mighty Ducks VHS is an heirloom better left tucked in moth balls, where it can age gracefully and without scrutiny.

Sure, my own attempts at the triple deke and other means of hockey glory ended in playground mediocrity, but that just added to the mystique of the film.  There was something magical and just barely unattainable about that team’s chemistry that kept me and my friends practicing our skating and stick-handling in parking lots all over the metro-Boston area.

So thank you for everything, Gordon Bombay.  Just stay away from my mom.

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image – Amazon