One of my father’s unspoken regrets is that I never became the skater he was when he was younger. Growing up in the more rural parts of the Chicago suburbs, one of the winter pastimes for him and his peers was playing hockey. Anywhere there was enough solid ice (and sometimes not so solid), there they would be playing pick-up games. It was how my dad last the top row of his front teeth, and he wears false teeth to this day. When my sister and I were little, he tried to get us interested in skating. It never took, though my sister did get quite good on roller skates. For me, it was always baseball, and eventually my dad contented himself with that sport. I wish I had learned to skate better as a kid because I love hockey. I also love movies, obviously. There have been some decent films made about the winter sport, and the most recent I saw was Miracle (2004), about the 1980s United States Olympic team that shocked the world when it defeated global hockey powerhouse the Soviet Union. True sports fans like that one, but another that has a more broad appeal is The Mighty Ducks (1992).
The opening credits for The Mighty Ducks are interspersed with a young Gordon Bombay (Brock Pierce) as a member of the Minneapolis area elite peewee hockey team known as the Hawks. He is about to take a penalty shot, and his coach, Jack Reilly (Lane Smith), tells him that if he does not score to win the game with this shot, that the young man will be letting him down. When his attempt clangs off the goal post (a common occurrence), a crushed boy is left to suffer humiliation alone on the ice. The film then shifts to the present day, and the grown-up Gordon (Emilio Estevez) is now a lawyer with a reputation for winning at any cost. After another successful case, he celebrates a bit too much and is arrested for drunk driving. He is fined and given 500 hours of community service. His boss at his law firm, Gerald Ducksworth (Josef Sommer) sees this as an opportunity for his employee to take a break and learn the value of fair play. Hence, it is arranged that Gordon go and coach a local peewee hockey team, despite protesting that he hates the sport and kids. When he shows up in a limousine and drives it onto the ice, he encounters a group of misfits that seem to play hockey because what else is there to do in Minnesota in the winter? They are also more interested in making fun of his posh attire. What spurs Gordon to pay more attention to his new team are a few events. At their first game, they go up against the Hawks, who are still coached by Jack Reilly. Though the older coach feigns a warm welcome, the mocking way in which his kids dismantle Gordon’s team begins to bring out the younger coach’s competitive nature. Another factor is the disappointed way in which his players’ parents look at him after his disinterested handling of the game. The final piece is the appearance of Hans (Joss Ackland). When Gordon’s father died at a young age, Hans took in the boy and encouraged his love of hockey. A visit to Hans’ shop reminds Gordon of his former passion. Now motivated, Gordon gets his law firm to sponsor the team, which is how they come by the title name. They get new equipment and sweaters (the technical term for hockey jerseys) from Hans. Unfortunately, Gordon’s renewed enthusiasm is taken a step too far when he gets the league to enforce their districting rules, taking Adam Banks (Vincent LaRusso), one of the Hawks best players, off their team and onto his. This prompts Coach Reilly to complain to the league, and eventually Adam’s dad (Hal Fort Atkinson III), who is a friend of Gerald’s, takes the matter to Gordon’s boss. When Gordon remains obstinate, Gerald fires Gordon. Now fully committed to the team, Gordon is able to mold them into a competent group of skaters that make it into the playoffs. The players are led by their de facto team captain, Charlie Conway (Joshua Jackson), who Gordon takes personally under his tutelage. When the inevitable final showdown comes with the Hawks, Charlie is, of course, thrust into the same position as Gordon was at the beginning of the film. The message this time is different. Instead of putting all the pressure on the kid, Gordon tells Charlie that he is proud no matter what happens. Charlie then goes out and scores the game winning goal. After the celebrations die down, our film closes with Gordon boarding a bus to go play minor league hockey, the result of an invitation from legendary Minnesota North Stars’ (now Dallas Stars) defenseman Mike Modano.
Everything that happens in The Mighty Ducks a bit predictable, but no less sweet. I appreciated the relationship between Gordon and his dad. This also connects to my Faith in terms of the differences between Gordon’s dad and Coach Reilly. The latter places unfair expectations on the young Gordon. He says that if Gordon does not make the shot, he will be letting everyone down on the team. It is an enormous amount of pressure for a kid. Luckily, that is not how God operates. It takes Gordon remembering what his dad told him for him to come up with the best way to guide his boys, and to deliver the right message to Charlie. Recently, while going through a difficult time, I expressed to my father how he had always been a Christ-like figure for me. He dealt with some awful burdens while raising us, but all the while maintaining a positive attitude. He provides a wonderful representation of the unconditional love God has for us, even if he does not practice the Faith with which he grew up as I do. Thankfully, throughout the centuries the Church has had several others with the same commitment. As a result, it enjoyed a level of growth unmatched by any other Christian sect, in spite of threats like the Protestant movement. This success came because it preached love and acceptance rather than shame and guilt, Gordon and Charlie versus Coach Reilly’s approach, in other words. Fear can be a good motivator, and there is such a thing as Holy fear. However, there is no fear in God, only love, and it will ultimately be triumphant every time.
Yes, The Mighty Ducks is a sentimental sports movie. The good guys win and the bad guys lose. Unlike others of its ilk, it emphasizes the right message, one that can be applied beyond the player-coach relationship. When we treat people with love and support, better things will be the result. It is because of that lesson, and not so much its overall cheesiness, that gets the movie my recommendation.