How does one begin to explain being a teenage sports fan in a year like 1994 to somebody who doesn’t like sports? Is it possible to say that it was a year when fans of every major sport experienced the highest of highs, and in many cases, the absolute depths of suffering, without conjuring up clichés? The Knicks came close to winning their first championship since the 1970s in the very first year of the post-Michael Jordan era. Ken Griffey, Jr. locked in what could have been one of the greatest home run battles in baseball history with Frank Thomas and Albert Belle until the owners locked out the players. The World Cup took place in America. It was the 75th anniversary of the founding of the NFL. And, best of all, the one sports-related event that gripped people across the globe, fans or not, was the O.J. Simpson murder case.
You had all of these things, and then you had hockey. In March 1994, Wayne Gretzky would break Gordie Howe’s goal scoring record; by June, the New York Rangers would end a 54-year drought, when Mark Messier and his team raised the Stanley Cup over their heads after capping off one of the most thrilling championship runs in North American sports history. It was the high point of professional hockey in the United States, and for a kid who grew up living and breathing the sport that routinely wrestles with soccer to be the fourth most popular in the country, it was the culmination of what I thought was the ascension of the sport I loved, an upward climb that started on March 25, 1994, with the release of what I consider to be the one of the two greatest hockey films ever: D2: The Mighty Ducks.
Before you freak out, I will concede that, yes, 1977’s Slap Shot is a masterpiece of raunchy hockey mayhem, and maybe somewhere there’s a photo of me dressed up like a Hanson Brother. Yet while the films in the Mighty Ducks franchise are unabashedly Disney (the movies spawned the NHL team, now simply called the Anaheim Ducks after Disney sold the franchise in 2005) — in which misfits experience personal growth, the good guys win, the bad guys learn a valuable lesson, and plenty of wacky hijinks get sandwiched in the middle — Slap Shot is a cynical look at the Philadelphia Flyers’ brand of violence, which was overtaking the game in the late ’70s, set against the backdrop of a decaying Rust Belt town. If anything, despite all its macho, sexist humor, Slap Shot actually has a lot more to say than it has been given credit for.
There’s no denying Slap Shot’s importance as one of the finest pieces of hockey cinema ever produced (2011’s Goon gives it a run for its money) and a great example of a sports film mixing comedy with gritty realism that stands with other classics like Major League and Bull Durham, but D2: The Mighty Ducks is just as great a hockey film. It is incredibly unrealistic, and like any Disney film, it isn’t trying to really say anything. It ushered in what should have been a golden age for the sport; instead, the owners locked out the players until January 1995, thus slowing any momentum the movie may have created to a screeching halt.
That lack of realism is also what makes D2 so great. Baseball, boxing, football, basketball, and every other sport you can think of has some canon of fiction written about it, but hockey pretty much only has Don DeLillo’s novel-as-memoir, Amazons, which isn’t even in print anymore. D2 serves as hockey’s YA classic, while Slap Shot has earned its spot as the hockey masterpiece.
But the second Mighty Ducks movie was special because it made hockey a sport for everybody. It was improbable, sure, with Keenan Thompson’s character shooting something called a “Knucklepuck,” and Iceland sporting the most feared teenage hockey team in the world. The team includes two girl players, two black players, an Asian figure skater, a nerdy Jew, a fat Jew, and a speedy Hispanic skater whose only flaw is that he can’t stop. The Mighty Ducks might have been the most diverse sports team ever assembled on film, inviting kids from all different backgrounds to play a game that isn’t traditionally known for its diversity. It’s a totally Disney move, but two days after Gretzky’s 802nd goal, and three months before the Rangers fairytale run, hockey was preparing to make a grab — an ill-fated one — for more respectability in the American sports market. D2 was certainly a part of that campaign. And it’s still a really fun film to watch.