Mystery Hockey Theatre: Defenders of the Pond (1994)

There was once a time in sports where season ticket holders were sent promotional VHS tapes or DVDs as free gifts, only to watch them approximately once or twice before leaving them in a drawer or on a high shelf to gather dust. Where leagues would produce documentaries and highlight packs for nearly every occasion, make a few bucks selling them in team stores and a bunch more from kids begging their parents to rent them at Blockbuster.

A lot of these videos were never officially digitized, making them “lost media” in today’s era of DVDs and, more importantly, streaming. Luckily for us, a few people had the foresight to hang on to their old tapes until the advent of digitizing hardware, and as sites like YouTube started gaining traction, they began to upload them for the rest of the hockey world to enjoy. And as someone who spends a lot of his time in front of his computer, I’ve watched quite a few of them over the years.

All of these movies are essentially the same. Super serious narration, unnecessarily added sound effects for hits, cheesy editing and some minimalist looks at players lives away from the rink. But they also provide a great look into how the NHL marketed itself, its teams and its players in the past and how it fed into the marketing culture of the game today.

So I thought, let’s turn my apartment background noise into a new type of content where we look at the profiled teams, players and people, see where the future went for all of them and of course, poke fun at the overall production in a new segment I’m calling Mystery Hockey Theatre. And yes, it is named after a certain other movie review show.

Today, we’re journeying back to mid-90s Anaheim, where the Walt Disney Company has taken their master plan for the future Disneyland Resort to the next level; an ice level, to be precise. Let’s watch Defenders of the Pond: The Story of the Mighty Ducks’ Inaugural Season.

Our Feature Presentation

This video, uploaded by YouTube user “AnaheimMightyDucks.com” (no, not official) was produced by Ross Sports Productions, a company that I could not find any additional information about. But a number of other NHL season videos from this era were made by the same company, so we’ll see them again later.

The documentary opens with an ad for the video’s sponsor, FHP Health Care, featuring a doctor who’s come down with a case of “very low energy”. This is in stark contrast to the real intro to the video; a loud, in your face highlight pack of Mighty Ducks memories to the tune of the team’s official song, “Rock the Pond” by John Bisaha. Kicking things off with an Anaheim version of the end credits song from “D2: The Mighty Ducks” was a stroke of genius, and it’s such a shame the team doesn’t make more use of it nowadays.

From there, the show breezes through the initial construction of the franchise, such as the hiring of first team president Tony Tavares and GM Jack Ferreira, the introduction of the team’s rookie head coach Ron Wilson, the unveiling of the amazing Mighty Ducks branding and the team’s first draft choice, a University of Maine product named Paul Kariya.

Without any true big name stars to draw attention to, the movie goes all-in on showcasing the contrast between the franchise’s cartoony identity and the heavily built, hard hitting roster. One minute you’re watching Lumiere, the candlestick from Beauty and the Beast, introduce a wild opening night ceremony filled with figure skating routines and fireworks. The next you’re shown a montage of the team’s most bone crunching hits, including a bunch that would likely get a player suspended in today’s NHL.

The film does make an effort to showcase the players’ lives away from the rink, from the late Todd Ewen’s skills at playing the piano and making hockey tape art, to Stu Grimson’s parental work raising his two daughters (Which later inspired one of those good moral Ad Council commercials). But most of the doc centers around the atmosphere Disney put together for Ducks home games at the Pond and the surprising amount of success Anaheim had in their first season.

The team’s 33 wins set an NHL expansion team record, a mark that would surely never be broken. Especially not by an even more entertaining franchise from Nevada.

Heroes of the Movie

Tony Cipriano and Fred Tio, the Mighty Ducks logo designers
Tony Cipriano and Fred Tio are absolute heroes. According to Chris Creamer and Todd Radom’s brand new book Fabric of the Game: The Stories Behind the NHL’s Names, Logos, and Uniforms, Cipriano and Tio won the design contest among Disney’s endless supply of creatives with their flawless “angry duck goalie mask” logo. Throw in the eggplant and jade uniforms, duck calls and the peak era of Mitchell & Ness snapbacks, and you get the best selling merchandise of any North American sports franchise in 1993-94.

And now that all those 90s kids have grown up, we get to see the Ducks fully re-embrace the weird in the 2020s. More, please.

Michael Eisner
If you know anything about Disney history, seeing Michael Eisner in this section is probably confusing to you. The roller coaster ride that was Eisner’s time in charge of the Magic Kingdom could fill several books, but this endeavor was one of his last major strokes of genius as CEO; what better way to get Canadians to extend their Disneyland trip than by putting a pro hockey team just 10 minutes down the road?

Eisner’s hands-on approach to the entertainment business paid off. 27 years later, the Ducks are still here and thriving in Orange County, and that theme park next door seems to be doing alright, too. Does Disneyland have the Mighty Ducks to thank for all its success since? Who’s to say!

Guy Hebert
It’s pretty common in the NHL expansion era for a new team’s goalies to become the first fan favourites, and the Ducks’ starting netminder wasn’t just preventing the team from blowouts every night. Guy Hebert was a true MVP for Anaheim in 1993-94, routinely stealing games against the NHL’s best, including two shutouts against the Canadiens and Canucks and a shocking win against the future Stanley Cup champion Rangers on Madison Square Garden ice.

Hebert’s 20 wins pushed the Ducks to ninth in the Western Conference, putting them 11 points behind eight place San Jose for the final playoff spot. Their expansion cousins, the Florida Panthers, may have finished just one point behind the East’s last postseason team, but the Ducks wouldn’t have come close without Hebert’s work in net.

Embed from Getty Images

The Oracle

Obviously the people making this documentary video had no way of knowing what the Ducks’ future held, but we sure do. Here are some of the more interesting future developments from this story.

  • Of all the Mighty Ducks original members, the two who got the most screen time in this documentary were leading point getter Terry Yake and tough guy Stu Grimson. But by the end of the 1994-95 season, Yake had been traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs and Grimson had become a Red Wing.
  • The opening shots of the video features a showcase of the then brand new Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim. Fast forward 25 years and a name change later, the Honda Center is now the fourth oldest arena in the NHL, and with the Islanders and Flames both slated to get new buildings within the next five years, it’ll be second only to New York’s Madison Square Garden by 2024. But in the same way the Rangers breathed new life into MSG with a mid-2010s renovation, the Ducks are currently planning a massive sports and entertainment district on the site of the arena parking lot called ocV!BE, which is expected to be completed by 2028.
  • Going with a rookie NHL head coach for your expansion team is usually a risky move, but that didn’t stop Anaheim from hiring Ron Wilson as the team’s first bench boss. Wilson only coached the Ducks for four seasons, amassing a record of 120-145-31 while also leading them to their first playoff series win in 1996-97. Despite the regular improvement, Anaheim fired Wilson that offseason, freeing him up to take a vacant coaching job with the Washington Capitals. Wilson and the Caps would go all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in 1998, while the Ducks wouldn’t even win another playoff series until 2003.
  • Speaking of 2003, by the time the Mighty Ducks made up for all their previous missed opportunities by going to their first Cup Final in 2002-03, no one from Anaheim’s original roster was still on the team. But thanks to the 1994 Entry Draft being held before the Expansion Draft, the Ducks’ first official player was; 4th overall pick Paul Kariya.

Final Thoughts

Over a quarter century since this movie was made and quite a lot’s changed. Disney sold the franchise to the Samueli family in 2005, eggplant and teal made way for orange and sand and everything “Mighty” had disappeared from the franchise by the time the Ducks won their first Stanley Cup in 2007.

But for a movie all about a team owned by The Mouse, Defenders of the Pond was a pretty serious, somewhat bland look at a first year team that changed the look of in-game entertainment. It would’ve made a lot more sense to have a few of ownership’s thousands of creative employees put this together instead, but of course, that kind of Mighty Ducks content is still sitting behind the walls of a bright pink castle.


Thanks for reading! What hockey documentary should I watch next? Leave your suggestions in the comments below or by tweeting at me with #MysteryHockeyTheatre!

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