Nearly 30 years later, it’s difficult to fathom just how huge that first Mighty Ducks movie was. Sure, plenty of film franchises have made more money. Or inspired spinoffs and sequels and all the attendant merch. But when you’re talking about cultural impact, pound for pound? All due respect to the GOAT, but Space Jam never inspired its own expansion team.
Steven Brill’s feel-good comedy about a high-powered attorney court-ordered into coaching a Peewee hockey team full of misfits following a DUI charge—way to get dark, Disney!—was a surprise hit when it came out in 1992, going on to generate two sequels. An animated series starring Ian Ziering as the leader of a team of hockey-obsessed alien duckmen. (For real.) An entire subgenre of ’90s kids’ sports comedies. Oh yeah, and a real-life NHL team.
Which is why, for a hockey-loving kid growing up in B.C. in the ’90s like Dylan Playfair, putting on that Ducks jacket is a childhood dream come true. The son of former NHLer/current Oilers associate coach Jim Playfair and best known for playing a fast-talking, impeccably-coiffed hockey bro on Letterkenny, Playfair now stars as the new Ducks head coach in The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers, the new Disney+ streaming series from original Ducks creator Steven Brill.
Only, well, the 2021 Ducks aren’t the same Ducks you remember. After three decades, the team has morphed from scrappy, lovable underdogs into a cutthroat scholarship factory driven by helicopter parents who make Hockey Dads look quaint. In other words, Game Changers takes the Cobra Kai approach, recasting the franchise’s former heroes as the new series’ main antagonists, as Emilio Estevez returns as Gordon Bombay to, once again, reluctantly guide a new crop of misfits to Peewee hockey glory.
We got on a Zoom call with Playfair to talk to the B.C. native about living out his childhood dreams in the new Disney+ series, what it was like going up against Coach Bombay, and the unintentional comedy of grown men who think youth hockey is their ticket to the NHL. Ferda!
I went down such a rabbit hole prepping for this interview. I’d totally forgotten there was an animated spinoff about anthropomorphic duck superheroes.
Shooting the pucks out of their giant hockey gloves.
And they had hockey stick launchers and stuff. Oh, I watched the animated series. I know what you’re talking about.
I feel like it’s hard to overstate just how huge that first movie was. Like, I can’t think of another sports movie that inspired the creation of a real team.
An actual NHL hockey team, I know. I remember saying that to Steve [Brill] on set. I was like, “Dude, that’s crazy. So you did the first one, you were like 28 years old, and then shortly thereafter, there was an actual NHL team created based on The Mighty Ducks, which was an idea that you had.” He’s like, “I know. It’s crazy.” [Laughs.] It’s a trip.
I’m assuming this franchise was big for you, growing up in Canada playing hockey, with a dad who’s an NHL coach. What does it mean for you to be part of it now, acting alongside Emilio Estevez, wearing the Ducks jacket?
Aw man. You don’t want to use cliches too often, but there are moments where it feels appropriate. And I think, for this particular series, there were a lot of pinch-myself, is-this-real moments. One of them, I looked down the bench and there was Emilio Estevez, Coach Bombay. He and I had this scene that was very throwback to the [second] movie, where Coach Bombay is having a staredown with the coach from Iceland. And it was really a throwback to that shot. Moments like that, where you’re reliving these childhood memories… They were incredible, and there were lots of them. Being able to work with the original Mighty Ducks, and then obviously a bunch of scenes with Emilio.
And then now as a filmmaker myself and as an actor, having the chance to speak with Steve Brill, who—I mean, when you’re a kid, you’re watching the movie, you’re not thinking about the producer, director, right? You’re like, “Charlie Conway!” But for me, to now go back and talk with those guys and find out about their journeys and their stories, it was very, very cool. I’m very grateful to have been a part of it.
“There’s something quite hilarious about playing for a 28-year-old coach who believes that his group of 12-year-olds is going to be his in to the NHL. And I’ve played for those guys. They exist. They’re real.”
Although I’m guessing growing up, if you ever imagined yourself on the Ducks, you probably weren’t imagining them as the bad guys. And you as the dude responsible for crushing a 12-year-old’s hockey dreams…
Yeah, I mean, it’s an interesting evolution. But hey man, you don’t pass up an opportunity to be a Mighty Duck. Regardless of what they’ve become since the early ’90s.
It’s a cool twist, though. Because there’s more going on here than just the nostalgia thing. This is a show that’s got something to say about the current state of youth sports.
Definitely. It’s super topical, and I think it’s really important that people start this conversation, because playing sports is not just about making money as a professional athlete. It’s about developing people and members of the community that contribute to a greater good, and understand their place in a team, and understanding that you can still get these incredible, positive lessons out of recreational league hockey. You don’t have to be on your way to the NHL for hockey, or any sport, to really positively impact your life.
I know, for me, so many of the things that I use in my professional career, I learned because of playing hockey. And being around teams, and positive mentors, and having difficult moments and overcoming those through sport. I feel like it’s an important series. And it’s part of a linear progression. So it’s not an entirely new version of the Mighty Ducks. It’s the same story that’s been happening since the third movie wrapped. I really believe it does justice to the Mighty Ducks trilogy.
Have you met guys like Coach T? Who treat youth hockey like it’s the show?
I have played for guys just like Coach T. I have played for coaches that are using youth hockey to get to professional hockey. These are the guys who believe that they might have missed the boat as a player, so this is their in. Youth hockey. And for me, there’s something quite hilarious about playing for a 28-year-old coach who believes that his group of 12-year-olds is going to be his in to the NHL. And I’ve played for those guys. They exist. They’re real.
I think my dad embodied a lot more of the positive, Bombay-esque life lessons. And then Coach T was a lot of those head-shaking ride homes, telling my dad some of the things I’d heard in the dressing room from the coaches. He’d be like, “Man, these guys are out to lunch. They’re not going to the NHL! They’re not gonna make it!” [Laughs.]
You’ve become pretty well-known for your hockey slang, thanks to Letterkenny. Do you get to bust any of that out here, or do you have to stop yourself from accidentally slipping into Reilly out there on the ice?
It’s funny. So much of Reilly is from the actual experiences that I had playing hockey. Which is a bit of a gift and a curse. Because now, it’s like, OK, make sure I’m not playing Reilly in this scene, you know? There were a lot of moments to ad lib in The Mighty Ducks, but it was obviously tailored for a Disney audience, which is slightly different than a Letterkenny audience. [Laughs.] As far as the language you can use.
That being said, when you live in a hockey rink for as long as I have… As a kid, I spent so much time around hockey and hockey players and hockey coaches that tailoring that vernacular for Disney was pretty second nature for me. I felt really confident in doing ad libs and responding truthfully to those beats.
I was going to ask you if any NHLers show up for cameos, but I guess COVID kind of shut that down. You guys and the NHL got put on pause pretty much right around the same time.
Yeah, I mean, we were really fortunate to be able to keep filming. And credit to Brightlight out here in Vancouver and to Disney, they were able to create a safe working environment where we could go back to work on Mighty Ducks and get the series finished in time. It was tight, and it was intense, but we got it done.
And it was kind of wild, because at the same time that we were trying to go through the process of how do we get back to filming, my dad was obviously in the NHL going through the same exact sets of questions. Going through the testing every day, and all that kind of stuff. But we got it done, and of course there were people that I think we would’ve liked to have had on the show, but I believe that it was done really well, and I don’t think that there’s anything that leaves the audience wanting anything else. It’s a really beautifully done series, and we’re really proud of the work we did.
We saw Schitt’s Creek take the States by storm in its final season, sweeping the Emmys. Letterkenny has become super beloved south of the border as well. What is it about the Canadian comedy scene right now? Canada’s supposed to be the Ducks. We’re supposed to be the underdogs.
Hey man, that’s the beauty of being an underdog. You get your day and it’s that much sweeter. I’m really, really proud of the Canadian comedy scene. I think it’s good that we’re finally claiming our own, and proudly creating shows that are Canadian. Like, Schitt’s Creek, it’s Canadian. And Letterkenny’s Canadian and it proudly claims that. We’ve got some really, really talented filmmakers and great talent up here, so I’m glad we’re getting a shake.