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Disney and NHL Hope Young Fans Will Be Drawn to Hockey Via Animated Series

April 10, 1996|STEVEN LOWERY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There was a time when hockey was a simpler matter, hardly more complicated than lacing one's skates, removing one's teeth and being versed in terms such as "icing," "high-sticking" and "mild contusion."

Things change, of course, and hockey is no different. It's as likely to be played on a cul-de-sac as on a frozen pond these days; witness the sport's popularity here in Orange County, an area better known for ocean breezes than winter freezes.

The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, which joined the league in the 1993-94 season, when the league expanded to 26 teams, have had a lot to do with that popularity. Now production is underway on a new TV series that the NHL hopes will make the Mighty Ducks and Orange County the greatest agents of growth to the sport since Wayne Gretzky hit Southern California in 1988.

So a drumroll for "Mighty Ducks." That's "Mighty Ducks" the animated Disney series about superhero hockey players, not the Disney-owned Mighty Ducks NHL franchise, which got its name from a 1992 Disney movie about a kids' hockey team.

The NHL team is made up of grown men; the cartoon series features grown ducks, though not all of them are male. They're not mere ducks but aliens--which is not to say they're French-Canadian, as are many National Hockey League players, but rather ducks from another galaxy who play hockey by day and fight crime by night.

Got that?

You will if Disney has anything to say about it, and they always do. And what that could mean besides even more Mighty Ducks gear hitting the street is yet another mighty bump to the popularity of hockey in Orange County and nationally.

"It started with Gretzky coming to Southern California and then the Mighty Ducks and now, with this Disney show, well, when it comes to marketing, you don't get any better than Disney," said Neal Miller, a hockey youth league coach for 20 years and coach of the hockey team at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa.

There was only one ice rink in Orange County less than 10 years ago, Miller points out; now there are five. Each has youth leagues that use the facility as well as hockey programs run by the rink. Add to that the number of kids who play on in-line skates or who have simply become viewing fans and you've got a revolution on your hands.

Disney and the NHL are banking on it. The revolution gets exported this fall when "Mighty Ducks" hits the airwaves twice a week. The show, featuring the voices of Ian Ziering ("Beverly Hills, 90210"), Jim Belushi and Tim Curry, will have Orange County's fingerprints all over it. The characters play and fight crime in Anaheim and live under the Pond, which means that one of the NHL's newest and, some would say, most unlikely cities could become its most influential in recruiting new fans.

"Part of our marketing effort has been to avoid generalization that hockey is a cold-weathered, Canadian or northeastern sport," said Rick Dudley, who heads the NHL's marketing arm. "I think if [the cartoon series] helps people identify hockey with playing it under palm trees, that's a tremendous asset for us. We're really very excited about this."

Bryan Hinson, 12, is part of the revolution. Bryan, who was out recently wearing a Mighty Ducks cap and shopping for a new stick at a Santa Ana sporting goods store, is an avid street hockey player who started three years ago. He had enjoyed playing soccer and basketball, but when the Mighty Ducks appeared things changed.

"He tried it out and got hooked," said his mother, Carla Hinson of Costa Mesa. "I thought it was just a phase, but he's still totally into it. It's amazing."

While Bryan says it's the speed that keeps him interested in the game, Carla says it's the engine called Disney that got him hooked.

"I think they do a great job of making sports fun again," she said. "You know, so much of sports today is money and all that. [Disney] does a great job of making sports fun, something that's supposed to be enjoyed by kids. This cartoon sounds like the same kind of thing. I think when you present things as fun, you're bound to attract kids."

It's the potential to reach such kids as Bryan that interests the NHL the most. Actually, it's the ability to reach very young kids who wouldn't know Tim Curry from New York Ranger Jari Kurri that make NHL mouths water.

These kids are still making up their minds as to what sports they'll play, and, the NHL's Dudley notes, an amateur player is likely to become a fan of the professional sport. The earlier you can get to that person (say, through a kid's cartoon), the better for your side. Dudley says you need only look at how well and how fast hockey took off in an area such as Orange County to realize how quickly the sport can catch on if correctly presented.

"This," he said, "is a great opportunity."

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