That sound you hear is every millennial quacking. Twenty-nine years after “The Mighty Ducks” skated into our hearts, introduced the Flying V and the Triple Deke, and launched not just two sequels, 1994’s “D2: The Mighty Ducks” and 1996’s “D3: The Mighty Ducks,” but an actual NHL team, the Mighty Ducks are flying again in Disney+’s new series “The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers,” premiering Friday, March 26. Except this flock has a new name altogether.
Developed by Steve Brill, the original creator of the trilogy, Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa, the 10-episode sequel series picks up in present-day Minneapolis and flips the script, a la “Cobra Kai,” as the Mighty Ducks are now the dominant force in youth hockey. After Coach T (Dylan Playfair) cuts her 12-year-old son, Evan Morrow (Brady Noon), from the Ducks, Alex (Lauren Graham) forms a new team of underdogs. Their name? The Don’t Bothers, taken from Coach T’s dismissive “At this stage, if you can’t be great at hockey, don’t bother.” Along the way, the Don’t Bothers get some help from the Minnesota Miracle Man himself, Gordon Bombay, with Emilio Estevez reprising his iconic role as everyone’s favorite hockey coach.
The former Brat Packer had seldom acted since “D3,” in which he had a reduced role, having shifted to directing. “A lot of people say, ‘Well, we love you onscreen. Where have you been? If you ever were to come back, we’d love to see you in two roles: One is Gordon Bombay in ‘The Mighty Ducks’ and the other is Billy the Kid in ‘Young Guns,’” Estevez said during the show’s virtual panel at the Television Critics Association winter press tour last month. “And so I’ve got one of those. We’ve ticked one of those boxes.”
Before you tune in Friday, here are seven things to know about “Game Changers.”
1. This ain’t your ’90s Ducks
As Harvey Dent would say, “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Part of the appeal of the Ducks is that they were never the GOAT team on the ice, but they won with heart and some maverick, if questionable, Duck tricks. The modern Ducks are definitely not anything like the scrappy underdogs who upset the Hawks for the peewee state title, edged out Iceland in a nail-biting shootout at the Junior Goodwill Games and overcame the varsity squad while simultaneously extinguishing Eden Hall Academy’s Warriors mascot. They’ve morphed into a hockey powerhouse with a record 10 state championships and a cutthroat win-at-all-costs ‘tude. Basically, they’re the Hawks of the ’90s. Total cake eaters. That would make Coach T the Coach Reilly (Lane Smith) in this analogy (Playfair’s “Letterkenny” character is named Reilly), except he’s a lot younger and doesn’t have a penchant for popping his collar, at least not in the first three episodes made available to press. He also doesn’t have a catchy motto like Reilly’s “It’s not worth winning if you can’t win big” (that we know of), but Coach T accepts nothing less than massive double-digit shutouts.
“The logical extension of where we left [the Ducks] after the three movies … they got better, stronger, faster, bigger,” Brill explained. “They got tied into the sports culture which seemed to get more and more out of control. And it seemed logical to us on the creative team that we would make them the behemoth and the team that might have gotten too corporate and too into hockey.”
2. Grumpy ol’ Gordon
In “D3,” Coach Bombay took a job as director of player personnel with the Junior Goodwill Games. These days, he runs the Ice Palace, an unassuming ice rink that looks stuck in time, and is serving huge “get off my lawn” energy. He spends his days fixing the Zamboni, napping and eating leftover birthday cakes from children’s parties at the rink. Yes, he’s a literal cake eater. Oh, and he’s banned hockey at the Ice Palace. Curmudgeonly Bombay is not without reason. He’s dismayed at what the Ducks have become — “we decided he wouldn’t have stayed with the team, so we spun him off into his own journey,” Brill stated — and has been burned by hockey yet again. Eagle-eyed fans have no doubt read the partial article featured in the trailer about Bombay’s departure as coach of a college team. The details of his post-“D3” life are revealed in the third episode.
Of course, Bombay’s current misgivings about hockey doesn’t mean he still doesn’t love the game. “Over the course of the show, obviously he comes out of his shell,” Estevez said. “We see him getting reengaged thanks to not only the kids training there but also through Lauren’s character drawing him out, drawing some truth out of him, drawing him out of his shell. So, for me, it was an adjustment to play a guy that was hiding out, but I think it works and I think that we get a full arc for this character throughout the course of the 10 episodes.”
3. Meet the Don’t Bothers
Like the crew formerly known as District 5, the Don’t Bothers are your ragtag team of misfits who are far from being hockey prodigies. Evan is your de facto Charlie Conway (Joshua Jackson) and spends the first episode recruiting team members. Nick (Maxwell Simkins), his neighbor, is his first teammate, a former peewee player who now hosts the Wraparound, the No. 2 youth hockey podcast in Southeastern Minnesota. Unclear what’s No. 1. Nick, who has more of a “podcast body,” is based on the Quack Attack Podcast, a real podcast devoted to the Mighty Ducks (full disclosure: I have been on this podcast).
The other Don’t Bothers are Logan (Kiefer O’Reilly), a new student from Toronto whose luscious blond locks rival those of Junior Floyd; Koob (Luke Islam), the goalie and a video game addict who’s a cross between Goldberg (Shaun Weiss) and Julie “The Cat” Gaffney (Colombe Jacobsen); Sam (De’Jon Watts), a skateboarder who lives for dares; Lauren (Bella Higginbotham), a cape-donning nunchucks owner with “an inner rage that really needs an outlet”; and Maya (Taegen Burns), who defects from the popular girls.
There’s also Sofi (Swayam Bhatia), Evan’s friend/crush and the star player of the Ducks. In case you weren’t sure she’s the best player, her jersey bears the number 9, Bombay and Adam Banks’ (Vincent A. LaRusso) old number on the Hawks. Evan desperately wants his pal to join the Don’t Bothers. If only they redrew the district lines.
4. Pressure is not always a privilege
Besides providing nostalgia and hockey hijinks, “Game Changers” is also an indictment of sorts on the pressure cooker that child athletes are in these days and the highly competitive culture that pulls more trainers, nutritionists and sports psychologists into their orbits than they have friends. Think a billion Phil Bankses to the extreme — as in Banks’ dad, not Uncle Phil. Goldsmith and Yuspa, the husband-and-wife duo who wrote “13 Going on 30” (2004) and were writer-producers on “The King of Queens,” had some firsthand experience witnessing their kids’ teammates being turned into “mini pros.”
“We would sit at games or practices and watch parents scream at their kids. And these kids these days, they have trainers. They specialize. They eat salads. They get flexor injuries very early in their sports careers,” Goldsmith said. “And we would look at ourselves and look at everyone and say, why are we living like this? Like, no one here is going to go on and play professional sports. Maybe somebody will, but the odds are very small. So can’t we just have a good time? And how important is winning?”
Alex’s goal with the Don’t Bothers is to let kids to be kids and just have fun playing hockey without the pressure to win –- something Bombay needed to be reminded of from Hans (Joss Ackland) and Jan (Jan Rubeš) in the films. “They’ve set [Bombay] up as being a truth-teller in terms of how he relates to not only the parents but also the kids,” Estevez added. “That it is unlikely that you’re going to be a professional hockey player. The chances are a million to one. You have a better shot of winning the lottery. And so he’s tasked with … giving that harsh reality to them. And we know that that’s a fact, that how often do these kids actually go on and play professional sports? So he — I think he helps them sort of understand the reality of that.”
5. Bombay + Alex = ?
Like Charlie’s mom Casey (Heidi Kling), Alex is a single mom. Bombay and Casey had a little thing going on in “D1,” awkwardly encouraged by Charlie, but that was over when it was revealed she had remarried in “D2.” In true will they/won’t they fashion, any romance between Bombay and Alex, a paralegal, will be a “slow burn,” according to Graham. “Having been a part of slow, romantic, complicated, will they/won’t they, I think the most fun is when whatever it’s going to be develops really slowly. And there’s many levels on which these two are connecting and not connecting,” she said. “And Alex, first and foremost, is trying to be a good coach and a good mom. And then, as she gets to know Gordon more and more, she’s curious about him personally. And I really love the way it evolved and I loved getting to work with Emilio.”
6. OG Ducks fly together again
Obviously the question on everyone’s mind besides “Did Bombay ever launch the Air Bombay loafer for kids who want to coach?” is “Will any Ducks from the films return?” The answer is yes, but you’ll have to wait until the sixth episode, dropping April 30, which will see the return of Banks, Fulton Reed (Elden Henson), Lester Averman (Matt Doherty), Ken Wu (Justin Wong), and Connie Moreau (Marguerite Moreau) and Guy Germaine (Garette Henson) — the first couple of the Ducks who are now married with three kids. They’re in town for a Ducks gala and are also alarmed to discover what has happened to the Ducks.
The trilogy’s most famous alums, Jackson and Kenan Thompson, aka Russ Tyler, are conspicuously absent from this list. Brill chalks it up to their busy schedules, but things are also frosty between Charlie and Bombay right now. “We don’t know where Charlie is, unfortunately,” Brill told Entertainment Weekly. “He’s going to come back somewhere but him and Gordon aren’t necessarily talking right now, they’re in a down period.”
However, Brill told the Quack Attack in December that he brought seven Ducks back in the episode he directed. If you don’t want to scroll back up to count, that’s only six announced Ducks. Did he misspeak (or miscount)? If not, then there’s one more appearance in the offing.
7. Easter (Duck?) eggs galore
As with any sequel series worth its salt, “Game Changers” is chock full of Easter eggs, nods and callbacks to the trilogy that will make any longtime fan giddy. Some are in your face and obvious, like the Ducks’ home rink being Hendrix Hockey Pavilion (fingers crossed Michael Tucker’s Don Tibbles at least gets name-checked this season), the kids attending District 5 Middle School or Bombay spitting his famous “I hate hockey and I don’t like kids” line again. Others are more sly. Fans will for sure recognize the Ducks’ non-Hawks peewee foes, like the Flames, Hornets and Huskies, but listen closely and you’ll hear the Cardinals introduced as the Coon Rapids Cardinals. “Coon Rapids” was never uttered in “D1,” but it was emblazoned on the walls of the Cardinals’ home rink. A+ for continuity details. Pro tip: Watch the end credits of the first episode to find out the very notable last name of Alex’s boss.
New episodes of “The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers” are released Fridays on Disney+.
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