Co-authored by Jamie Ryan and Brett Pardy
The Mighty Ducks and D2: The Mighty Ducks are arguably two of the most recognizable hockey stories in popular culture, largely due to Disney’s marketing push for their brief foray into men’s professional sports in the 1990s. The new television show, The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers, had big skates to fill, and truthfully, neither of us had high expectations going into the series. Disney’s current “content” strategy attempts to recycle old properties in an attempt to capitalize on childhood nostalgia (an attempt that, honestly, we were easy marks for). The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers is certainly a cash grab, but it is also a surprisingly enjoyable show and a strong addition to The Mighty Ducks series. At its worst, there are tensions between Game Changers nods to adult viewer’s nostalgia and attempts to fit in with modern pre-teen sitcoms. At its best, instead of repeating the original trilogy’s loud silliness, Game Changers has its own brand of often awkward and endearing humour.
Game Changers is a new story with mostly new characters, but at the same time feels quite familiar because it recycles some of the storylines from the original Mighty Ducks films. Coach Bombay repeats his storyline from the first film, rediscovering his passion for hockey, just stretched out over five hours rather than 90 minutes while Alex Morrow (the creator and coach of The Don’t Bothers) has an arc that lasts a few episodes, similar to Bombay’s storyline in D2.
We each had different experiences watching the show, which shaped how we experienced it.
Brett: I watched the show mostly on a weekly basis (sometimes bi-weekly). While I always looked forward to watching the next episode, it also felt to me like the middle part dragged. It was clear where the formula was taking the story, but the series was detouring through characters (except for the two Czech brothers, and as Jamie covers below, Sam) rather than continuing the world building or explaining the team’s rather sudden jump from being abysmal on-ice to quite good. I was ready for some forward momentum. But as we outlined, this is, or at least should be, a series primarily aimed at kids and I feel like I’m to wrong person to evaluate the character development.
Jamie: I had been bingeing a lot of older sports movies for my studies, when I decided to watch The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers and these circumstances definitely made me appreciate The Mighty Ducks more than I normally would. A lot of sports movies, particularly older ones, are sexist, racist, and generally quite regressive, so I remember being relieved to watch a sports narrative that wasn’t so in-your-face problematic. Game Changers certainly has its problems (it’s an example of Disney’s neoliberal performative politics) but these problems are often more subtextual than central parts of character’s stories. Put simply, it was a welcome change (although perhaps not a game changer).
With the news of the show being renewed for a second season, there are things we hope the second season addresses (but since it is a Disney show, we doubt these issues will be addressed).
For the past few years, Disney’s shows and films have tended to focus on feminism (albeit a very liberal watered down performative feminism) to make up for their historically less than progressive depictions of women; the Disney princess seems to have been replaced by the Disney “girlboss.” However, in doing so Disney has failed to reckon with its history of racism and most of its latest stories to be post-racial. This is especially apparent in Game Changers as the show’s attempts to be post-racial ignore the rampant racism and white privilege of hockey culture. Thus, one of the characters whose story I hope is improved in season two is Adib ‘Sam’ Samitar. Sam is the only Black player on the team, and he is one of the most prominent players in the first few episodes of the show but then seems to almost disappear from the story. However, the aspect of Sam’s character that I find more troubling is his willingness to put his body on the line. Sam is a thrill seeker and likes doing stunts off the ice, but on the ice, Sam is shown throwing his body in front of pucks to block shots, which we don’t really see other players doing. Blocking shots is a part of high level hockey, but the framing of the sole Black player in an overwhelmingly white sport being the only one to block shots and the most willing to do so alludes to racist and ongoing histories of Black people being treated as expendable and aligned with their bodies rather than minds (especially in sports). This racist ideology has been in the news lately with the NFL’s “race norming” of concussion settlements to Black players, which I strongly recommend you read more about. In the second season of Game Changers, I hope Sam is given more of a storyline and I hope he is given a character trait/quirk besides blocking shots – Jamie Ryan
Continue to Critique Parents
The biggest change to the world of The Mighty Ducks in Game Changers is the role of the parents. The Mighty Ducks films have an uncanny lack of parental involvement, which was even anachronistic for the early 90s, and viewing now feels like a complete fantasy world, where kids travel to compete in the Junior Goodwill games without their parents seemingly going along, much less politicking for more icetime. It’s not a big insight to point out The Mighty Ducks franchise has never been overly interested in hockey. Game Changers may actually be the entry most attuned to the hockey world. Game Changers gestures in two episodes at critiquing parental obsession, but largely draws this critique back during the season. The parents on the Ducks discuss private coaching, physio, and nutritionists for their 12 year olds. I also liked the addition of Coach T, played by Dylan Playfair (son of former NHL coach Jim Playfair). He is the type of guy who is a loser who thinks he’s all about winning. A type of guy, unfortunately, all too common around hockey rinks.
The series does demonstrate how the league’s financial interest is tied with parental obsession, as Stephanie (who has two kids on the Ducks and is Alex’s boss), devotes a lot of time to fundraising for the team. The parents shown as being most over-invested in the early episodes are the characters the series ultimately has the most sympathy for. Sofi’s parents are shown to, deep down, want their daughter to be happy over having team success. Stephanie is revealed to be going through a divorce and throwing herself into the team to cope. She ultimately becomes closer to her employee, Alex, and in the final shows integrity and respect for the Don’t Bothers by honouring an agreement Coach T attempts to back out of. On one hand, it’s nice these characters turn out to be decent people, but it weakens the critique – Brett Pardy
Game Changers abandons the class consciousness of the films to instead present a rather shallow critique of children’s sports. Don’t get me wrong, I understand Game Changers is a children’s show and so I don’t expect it to make a complex political statement, but at the same time, in being mostly apolitical, the show erases a key aspect of the original films. The original Mighty Ducks is a surprisingly, albeit understated, political movie that deals with class conflict between the lower-class and racialized Mighty Ducks and the upper-class white Hawks. However, the new television show abandons the class critique of the first film to instead focus the over-emphasis on winning in children’s sport. The show essentially ignores the reality of hockey being a cost prohibitive sport through quick and easy solutions. For instance, ice time is expensive but this problem is instantly solved because Alex Morrow found ‘City Surplus for Youth Hockey’ that will cover the costs. And kids playing at the Hendrix Hockey Pavillion have evidently lost thousands of dollars worth of hockey equipment (including a full set of goalie gear), which the Don’t Bothers could sneak out unnoticed.
It’s not really surprising that a Disney series in 2021 wouldn’t be critical of capitalism and largely dance around the questions of class and cost that pervade hockey, but in doing so the show is disingenuous and also loses something that made the original film quite special. In the original film, the Ducks come from a very poor neighbourhood, but in the new series most of the players seem to come from middle to upper class families (we are only shown four players homes (Evan, Nick, Logan, and ‘Koob’) and they are all two-story homes in the suburbs). Thus, in the original film, the hockey team’s lower class status along with their lack of skill made them underdogs, but in the new series it is the player’s misfit social status along with their lack of skill that makes them underdogs. Thus, Game Changers is a bit of a misnomer for the show; yes, the show challenges prioritizing winning over fun, but this isn’t really game changing in the same way that the original film presented a challenge to class structure and psychological effects of lower class and racialized children being told they are ‘losers.’ In other words, any radical possibility that lay in a class-conscious film is stripped away for a soft neoliberal television show that tells you to try your best and have fun – Jaime Ryan
Despite our critiques, The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers is an enjoyable show and is certainly not as problematic as a lot of other hockey media. More importantly, it’s a show that its target audience (kids and young adults) will love. We enjoyed watching Game Changers and if there is a second season, we will watch it as well. The new characters are fun and funny, and there are some really great moments that capture the awkwardness and uncertainty of being a young adult. Another season is also a great chance to continue to explore some of the critical threads introduced, but not given in-depth attention, in the first season. Game Changers is solid entertainment, even if it’s not solid in its politics, and is certainly one of the better hockey stories to come out in recent years.