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STANLEY CUP FINALS

Ducks Live Up to Everything but the Ending

Screenwriter marvels at how an idea for a feel-good story about wanting to belong could be the impetus for naming an NHL team.

June 10, 2003|Steven Brill | Special to The Times

Surreal moment. Standing with Michael Eisner in the still-under-construction Pond of Anaheim. We were in what would eventually be the Ducks' locker room. Outside, on the concrete slabs that would be the seating, hundreds of reporters milled while waiting for Mr. Eisner to unveil the name for the new Disney-owned hockey team.

"The Mighty Ducks" was an original screenplay I wrote in 1988. I was living in a run-down Culver City apartment with guacamole-colored carpet and a sparkly asbestos ceiling. I had been in Los Angeles for about four years and was still struggling to make rent money.

To relieve the constant anxiety and persistent fear of failure, I would go to a nearby ice rink and skate during the day. It was only $2.50 for admission and a perfect way for an unemployed screenwriter/director to while away the day. Although I must admit, sometimes I felt as if I were in that scene in "Midnight Express" with the prisoners going around in a circle in a Turkish prison.

But every afternoon around 3, the local PeeWee hockey kids would filter in and hit the ice. They were in full gear. Awkward and unbalanced, they looked like little ducks out there slipping and sliding, but they played the game with sloppy abandon and a joy. I would sip a hot chocolate and watch them scrimmage and practice. I would watch the dynamics of them with their teammates and with the coach. It touched me, sending me back to the time of my own youth in upstate New York, skating on ponds and playing hockey.

But the thing I remembered most watching them was that feeling of belonging to a team. I hadn't belonged to anything in a long time. I was a solitary, struggling screenwriter, and what I wouldn't have done to be part of something.

I remembered the PeeWee hockey team that I played on was by far the worst team in the league. We were hopeless, a collection of misfits and problem children right out of a movie. Hmmm. I was not a good skater. My ankles bent so badly inward that they nearly grazed the ice as I skated. Our goalie was afraid of the puck. One kid would skate over the ice like a distracted gnat ignoring the puck completely. Everyone gave up on us, even our coach. We had no chance of winning a game. We really had no business being on the ice. But we were a team, and we stuck together through bad times.

And guess what happened?

We lost every game that season and were disbanded.

But as I sat there in Culver City 20 years later, I thought about putting a better ending on that story. I thought, "What if we had pulled together and become winners? What if the team no one believed in believed enough it itself to go all the way. What if we got a coach who understood us and was able to harness every ounce of our marginal talent and turn it into something great?"

Individually we would still be lousy, but together, magically, we became a force. I got the image of ducks flying in that V formation. The duck. On its own: disrespected, toothless, kind of goofy. But flying together in that V, ducks are strong, beautiful, fearless ... mighty.

"So come on, Michael, before you tell the world, tell me what you're going to name 'em," I said.

Eisner smiled.

"The Mighty Ducks," he said.

Lights, sound, color, perspective receded away for a brief surreal moment. I regained perspective. "No way, you're kidding," I said.

"No kidding," Eisner said, then he was called out onto the floor to tell the rest of the world.

My head was spinning. What did it all mean? Was I just responsible for naming a team that would play in the NHL? Would I be eating my Cap'n Crunch in the morning reading the sports page and seeing the Mighty Ducks right there in black and white next to the Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers? Then crazy thoughts whirled around.

Would Mr. Eisner let me play center for a few shifts in one game?

And what if this team went on to win the Stanley Cup?

I looked at Jordan Kerner, the producer of all three movies. He was beaming. He just patted me on the shoulder and said, "Just soak it all in." So I did. And so I have been.

And here we are 10 years later, soaking in this incredible team and an incredible run. They're not quite misfits, or castoffs, and they don't skate with their ankles grazing the ice. But they are a team no one really believed in. No one, that is, except themselves. They are a team that might not be filled with dazzling superstars, but they are a team that proves that when you fly together, anything is possible.

The movie I wrote was about belonging. Belonging to a family. Belonging to a team that sticks together no matter what and believes in itself. We believe in the Ducks because we are all Ducks, wanting to be a part of something great. And now, every night at the Pond, when our boys take the ice, we are.

So it has come full circle. The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim didn't win the Stanley Cup, but they have put a better end on my childhood. They've made us believe in the underdog again.

This is sports at its best. This is life at its best.

Brill is the writer/creator of "The Mighty Ducks" "D2: The Mighty Ducks" and "D3: The Mighty Ducks."

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