From an early age, Mike Scully was hooked on hockey. If he and his friends weren’t skating on the frozen ponds near their western Massachusetts neighborhood during the late 1960s and early ‘70s, they were likely hanging out at nearby Eastern States Coliseum, home of the AHL’s Springfield Kings, begging for broken sticks and hunting down pucks that flew over the glass.
“I was incredibly average as a player,” Scully says. “But I was a rink rat.”
Seeing as it was minor-league hockey, at the dawn of the Broad Street Bullies era, there was plenty to soak up. Attending practice meant observing players “with a can of beer on the bench and a cigarette hanging out of their mouth” in between drills. “The arena held maybe 5,000 people, and there was one penalty box with no partition,” Scully says. “So fights on the ice would frequently continue there. One night it got wildly out of control and the cops wound up arresting players and escorting them to a squad car in handcuffs.
“As a kid, that was very appealing to me.”
Every so often, Scully would get a taste of the action thanks to the Springfield Kings’ longtime owner, who apparently hated losing equipment—even to memorabilia-seeking kids. “He would yell at the players if they gave us stuff,” Scully says. And so little Mike and his friends would find themselves racing late Hall of Fame defenseman Eddie Shore through the Coliseum for loose pucks, or getting kicked out of the arena by the septuagenarian altogether. “He was pretty scary,” Scully says. “Even if you won, you wouldn’t necessarily win. He wouldn’t give up.”
Decades later, these memories would help inspire Scully to bring his favorite sport to the fictional Springfield when he wrote the first (and still only) hockey-focused episode of The Simpsons, “Lisa on Ice,” which celebrates its 25th anniversary this week. There is the image of poor (definitely concussed) Milhouse, hands and legs bound to the net, huffing and puffing but failing to stop an oncoming shot. “That was a story we’d always heard about Eddie Shore,” says Scully. “He was trying to teach his goalies to stay in the crease, so he tied them to the posts.” The signature aggression of ex–Springfield Kings backstop Billy Smith, meanwhile, spawned Lisa Simpson’s most memorable line, which she growls from behind a netminder’s mask: “Hack the bone! Hack the bone!”
Originally airing on Nov. 13, 1994, the eighth episode of the sixth Simpsons season was far from the show’s first sports foray; the wildly popular “Lisa the Greek” and “Homer at the Bat” came out less than one month apart in season three. “Lisa on Ice” didn’t fare quite as well ratings-wise—11.6 via Nielsen, compared to 14.2 and 15.9, respectively—but there was an excuse. Whereas “Lisa the Greek,” in which Lisa helps Homer bet winners of NFL games, capitalized on a timeslot the week of Super Bowl XXVI, and “Homer the Bat” boasted a literal MLB all-star guest cast, the ‘94–95 NHL season was still on hiatus with its players on strike.
Even so, “Lisa on Ice” remains a classic for many reasons. The episode contained some lexiconic throwaway lines, from Ralph Wiggum exclaiming “Me fail English? That’s unpossible!” to Marge Simpson talking trash while playing “the basketball” with Bart: “Watch out for the Shaq attack!” And its dig at Apple technology—a Newton PDA botching the translation of “beat up Martin” as “eat up Martha”—evidently cut so deep that the incorrect phrase later became internal company code for the critical importance of creating a fully functional iPhone keyboard.
The broader themes of “Lisa on Ice” hold up well too. There is the timeless sibling rivalry between Bart and Lisa, borne out on competing peewee hockey teams. The “loudmouth sports dad” archetype embodied by Homer, as Scully puts it, still a scourge in youth sports today. The episode also hits hard—literally—on the physical side that Scully loved so much; according to director Bob Anderson, one of the episode’s deleted gags would’ve shown Bart checked into the glass boards with such force that his face momentarily changes into Charlie Brown.
“Then he goes, ‘Good grief,’” Anderson says.
It is all very typical Simpsons. Focused on a single family-oriented plot that leaves a lesson about American life but doesn’t feel preachy, the entire 22-or-so minute episode is pretty much condensed to just three locations around town: Springfield Elementary School, the family home on Evergreen Terrace, and Springfield Skating Rink. The only relevant characters are Simpsons mainstays as well—bench bosses Apu and Chief Wiggum, teammates Jimbo and Martin, anthem singer Krusty the Clown—though not for lack of effort. In his original draft of the episode, Scully had written cameos for two of his hockey idols: Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky.
“Maybe they were hanging out at the rink for some made-up reason, or a fantasy sequence, I don’t remember,” Scully says. “The script evolved throughout the process, then they wound up falling out of the story, because we had such a good story with the family.”
It makes perfect sense that Lisa Simpson became a goalie. Such is the fate of younger siblings across the hockey world. “Someone’s little brother, we’d just stick them in the goal,” Scully says. “Sometimes without skates. They’d just be on the ice in their sneakers or boots. They weren’t so much players as an obstacle. We could’ve put a traffic cone up there for the same effect.”
In fact, perhaps the only female netminder more famous than Lisa at the time had a similar origin story. “My two brothers needed a target to practice their shots,” says Manon Rhéaume, a two-time world champion for Canada who had appeared in two preseason games for the Tampa Bay Lightning in ‘92 and ’93, around the same time that “Lisa on Ice” began forming in Scully’s head. “That would be what Bart Simpson did to his sister.”
Shortly after Rhéaume blazed a trail through men’s hockey, going on to sign with several professional teams, Scully pitched the initial concept for “Lisa on Ice” at a season six story retreat in Santa Monica. It was only Scully’s second writing credit on the show. “So I was still very nervous and you just want to come up with an idea that they hadn’t done yet,” he says. “I knew that hockey was a fresh area.” A father of five daughters, Scully describes himself as a “sucker for Lisa episodes.” He also figured that her academic competitiveness would lend to laughs in an athletic environment. From there, it didn’t take long to figure out that Lisa would excel between the pipes—for the simple fact that she had learned to block Bart’s garbage.
Hockey had briefly appeared on The Simpsons before; in season three, Bart catfishes Ms. Krabappel with the aid of Gordie Howe’s headshot. “We had to clear the image,” producer Al Jean says. “We heard Gordie wasn’t sure if he should do it, but [his wife] Colleen said go ahead.” But besides Scully and Jean, a lifelong Red Wings diehard who witnessed their ‘97 Cup-clinching victory live at Joe Louis Arena, the crew contained few familiar with the sport.
“Probably if they were 10s, the rest of us were zeroes,” showrunner Dave Mirkin says.
“I had seen Slapshot way before I worked on this show,” Anderson says. “I never formally watched hockey prior.”
“I still don’t know anything about hockey,” says Yeardley Smith, who voices Lisa.
The lack of fandom wasn’t a problem, but capturing hockey’s unique movements did present some challenges. To better educate himself, Anderson ordered a batch of VHS highlight tapes, tuned into the NHL playoffs for the first time, and made several trips to scout youth games at nearby Pickwick Ice in Burbank, Ca., taking notes on how players looked stickhandling and shooting. One day Anderson even brought the entire crew to Pickwick during an extended lunch break. “So we could skate and get the idea of what skating was like,” he says. “I hope it helped.”
Similar attention to detail was paid when drawing the Springfield kids in their hockey gear. One storyboard panel specifies the ubiquitous “dark gray rubber” surrounding the local ice sheet. Production notes emphasize that Lisa is a right-handed netminder, and that Bart “is, has been, and always will be left-handed.” Accompanying diagrams compare the siblings’ heights to their wooden hockey sticks and note their relative size differences while on the ice: “As with Bart, we emphasize the same for Lisa,” one note reads. “Thicker in hockey gear.” A pair of gloves was obtained by the production crew and made available "for anyone interested in the real thing."
The result is an authentic hockey feel, down to the arena organ theme music that plays over the episode’s closing credits. The dasher boards display ads for local businesses: “Moe’s Bar: The ‘70s Are Back So Let’s Drink Like It.” Milhouse wears a Jacques Plante mask. Lisa uses the vintage tan, leather leg pads and gloves common among the earliest goalies. The referee has an orange NHL-style armband. All of the kids wrap their sticks in black tape.
In fact, there is only one detail that Scully regrets. Near the end of the episode, with four seconds remaining in a 3–3 tie game between Bart and Lisa’s teams—the Mighty Pigs and the Kwik-E-Mart Cougars, respectively—a tripping call awards Bart a penalty shot against his younger sister. “It’s your child versus mine,” Homer tells Marge. “The winner will be showered with praise. The loser will be taunted and booed until my throat is sore.”
As Bart takes the puck and starts stickhandling toward Lisa, two important things happen. First, the siblings share a heartwarming moment of reflection amid the heat of competition, ultimately realizing that family love triumphs above all, hugging, and accepting the tie.
Second, the game clock is inexplicably shown running on Bart’s penalty shot, ticking all the way down to zero.
“I was so afraid you were going to bring this up,” Scully says. “Yes, that was just one of those last-minute mistakes and we didn’t have time to correct it. I think I said, ‘People won’t care, it’s going to go by so fast.’ And it’s the one thing I’ve heard the most from real hockey fans about that episode. It haunts me a little bit, but it’s my fault. I really didn’t think people would notice.”
Two years after Lisa hit the ice, Mirkin attended the 1996 American Cinema Foundation awards ceremony to receive the honor for best comedy series on behalf of The Simpsons. Asked to send a video clip to play along with the announcement, Mirkin had chosen the end of “Lisa on Ice,” in which Bart and Lisa’s tender moment sparks an arena-wide riot.
“So I went to the ceremony,” Mirkin says. “And they play the clip I sent. and they have the hug, and they cut out the riot. They completely took away the whole point, the whole Simpson-y attitude of it, and tried to make it a much more average, uninteresting thing. When I accepted the award, I chastised them mightily about editing our intention.”
The riot, sparked by blood-thirsty adults (like bad-sports dad Homer) who are furious over a tie game, was one of Mirkin’s two major contributions. “I remember wanting to put in the darkness about how parents become really crazed, and how it affects the children,” he says. “It can just be so toxic to have this pressure on your child, based on their performance in sports.” The other was a gag where Marge brandishes Milhouse’s teeth—which had been knocked out by a whizzing puck—to the Simpsons children as a warning sign about hockey’s violence. “It was her dream come true,” Mirkin says. “She lives in perpetual fear of something going wrong. Now she has evidence of the danger that this sport presents.”
Credited as a consulting producer on the episode, Jean was only working part-time for The Simpsons in 1994 and therefore didn’t get to lend the full extent of his hockey expertise like Scully. “My main thing to tell you is a joke that I pitched was cut, but I thought it was a really good joke,” Jean says. “At the end, after they’re friendly again, I wanted Bart to kiss Lisa and somebody goes, ‘A tie? That’s like kissing your sister!’ But it survived without that joke.”
A quarter-century later, “Lisa on Ice” skates on. Anderson still has a novelty puck that FOX made to promote the episode. When Smith decided to decorate her guest bedroom walls with hand-painted Simpsons animation cels, three from the episode made the cut: One of a volleyball that has punctured on Lisa’s spiky hair; one of Bart mistakenly menacing Lisa with his decapitated stuffed animal, Mr. Honeybunny; and one of a stone-faced Lisa in net, resolute in her determination to snag an oncoming shot.
“I’m not a hockey fan, per se, but I’ve watched enough to know that goalie seems like an absurd position,” Smith says. “Like, how are you supposed to have one person cover any distance and block that tiny puck going at 100 miles an hour? So that Lisa Simpson would be good at that is kind of fantastic. It really speaks to this inherent grit and determination that has served her well throughout her Groundhog Day eight years.” In particular, Smith looks back with fondness on her character’s Billy Smith–inspired “hack the bone” line. “I remember asking, ‘Is that a legitimate thing in hockey?’” she says. “I do really love it when Lisa Simpson loses her s--- like that.”
As a regular at Staples Center in Los Angeles, where he has rooted on the NHL version of the Kings for the past 20 years, Scully is reminded of “Lisa on Ice” on a regular basis. “It is a kick for me to either be at a game, or watching a game on NHL Network, and suddenly Homer will pop up on the big screen going, ‘Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!’” Scully says.
In a similar vein, hockey references have occasionally popped up on The Simpsons since “Lisa on Ice.” According to DVD commentary from season nine, the show drew the NHL’s ire when Krusty chugged from—and subsequently puked into—the Stanley Cup. A wooden stick obtained at a local minor league game leads to a termite infestation at the Simpsons house in season 14. There have been Canadiens hats, Nordiques nostalgia, and the ‘76 Flyers. A thinly veiled (and extremely purple) nod to Gritty appeared in this year’s Halloween episode. Scully got his wish in December 2016 when Gretzky became the first hockey player to voice a Simpsons character. But, as Scully notes, “I still haven’t gotten Bobby Orr.”
Jean, meanwhile, is holding out hope that his beloved Red Wings, who sat near the bottom of the NHL standings at last check, will eventually get good enough to justify having a Detroit player on the show. Of course, that might mean dedicating another whole episode to hockey.
“It could happen, if we could come up with a good story about it,” Scully says. “I’d love to do another one.”