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COMMENTARY : When Disney Makes Pitch, League Has to Be All Ears


When you dance with Disney, you dance with Mickey, Minnie and Pluto, too.

If Gary Bettman and Bruce McNall didn't fully comprehend the concept before, it might have dawned on them Monday as they stood on a stage covered with red, white and blue Mickey Mouse balloons, dwarfed by Goofy and the genie from "Aladdin," waiting for Michael Eisner to lead them in a mass quack.

"Now I'd like Gary and Bruce . . . to join me in a new Mighty Ducks tradition," Eisner announced, holding up the newest piece of Disney merchandise, an official wooden Mighty Ducks duck call.

"Blow on the big side, not the small side," Eisner instructed the commissioner of the National Hockey League and the chairman of the National Hockey League's board of governors.

So blow they did.

Hoops were unavailable at Monday's news conference, meaning that Bettman and McNall wouldn't be required to do any jumping. But quack like a duck? In front of television cameras, Orange County politicos and various community dignitaries?

No problem.

Anything else we can do for you, Mr. Eisner?

As a matter of fact, there was. Since buying his way into the NHL last December and offering to lend Disney's marketing jackhammer to a league that couldn't sell mittens to an Eskimo, Eisner has had the run of the place. So he wants to name his hockey team "the Mighty Ducks." Great, splendid idea, Michael. And he wants to name his hockey arena--and, yes, this is for real--"The Pond in Anaheim." Brilliant, Michael. The man's a genius.

On this somewhat sobering day for Canadians and New Englanders who grew up with the sport, Bettman and McNall saw professional hockey future--and its name is Donald Duck. Eisner, a man who won't rest until the Constitution reads "The United States of Disney," makes no bones about it: He's in it for the bucks, rather than the pucks, but if a "synergetic" relationship between the two can be forged, everybody's happy, right?

Ostensibly, Disney called this news conference to announce the name of its hockey team and its start-up date--October, 1993, in time for next season.

But Eisner managed to squeeze in plugs for Disney's local TV station, the Disney Channel, Westcot Center, Disneyland, the "Mighty Ducks" movie sequel and the rock group Queen, which, Eisner noted, "is a Disney Co. recording group. So every time Bruce McNall plays 'We Will Rock You' at the Forum, he's paying us royalties.

"So keep it up, Bruce."

"We Will Rock You" played again, booming across the sound system inside what used to be known, in quiet dignity, as Anaheim Arena. Now it's The Pond and people in duck suits were everywhere, gleefully bobbing and bouncing alongside Chip and Dale, while Disney cheerleaders in heavy makeup flashed toothy grins as they ushered in 50 peewee pucksters, who clacked their hockey sticks on the concrete floor in rhythm to Brian May's thundering guitar.

"Unbelievable" said a red-faced McNall when finally given permission to speak.

"I don't think I've ever been to a press conference like this," said Bettman, gazing in awe at the still-to-be-dropped confetti-filled balloons hanging from the rafters.

"I can never stop selling," Eisner said at one point.

At another, he declared that "We are proud to say we are the only sports team playing in Anaheim that will have 'Anaheim' in its name. We think that's good business, good politics . . . and it may be good for Westcot."

At another, he announced that the Disney Channel "will do some specials on hockey," that Disney stores "will have Mighty Ducks merchandise," and "I also assume we'll have a few parades down Main Street after we win 38 or 39 games our first season."

Finally, when the full-on huckstering elicited groans from a Ducked-out audience, Eisner stopped in mid-sentence.

"It's Disney--what can I do?" Eisner said with a shrug. "If we were Paramount, we'd be called the Rangers. But we're not."

Canada's worst fear has come to life. One day it's free trade; the next, the national pastime is being sold down "The Pirates of the Caribbean."

"Part of the thing with hockey," McNall tried to reason, "is that it's traditionally been confined to a small area--Canada and the northeast. It's a great sport, one of the greatest exports Canada has ever had, but we need to expose more people to it."

Beginning, presumably, in their diapers.

Bettman, a dapper, generally distinguished gentleman, stood knee-deep in mouse-earred balloons and insisted that he had no problem with an NHL franchise--and, thus, potential Stanley Cup champion--named "the Mighty Ducks."

"There used to be a hockey team in Long Island named the Long Island Ducks," Bettman said. "This is not the first time 'Ducks' has been used."

Sure, but the Long Island Ducks were minor league.

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