It started with the pond.
Not the pond, lowercase, which is where hockey dreams used to start: a sheet of ice in the Saskatchewan prairie where sons of farmers played hockey using road apples as pucks.
The Pond, uppercase, is a $103 million marble and glass arena being built in Anaheim two miles from Disneyland. Of course, when all this started, it wasn't The Pond yet. It was just a shell of the lavish building it is today, "a whimsical, gaudy arena" in the words of The New York Times, its coral-colored exterior offset by green archways.
Michael Eisner, the chairman of The Walt Disney Company, would pass this arresting structure on his way to one official function or another and wonder, Who's going to play there?
No one was going to play there. A $103 million building the city of Anaheim was constructing for...no one. "It was sitting there like a field of dreams," Eisner says. If you build it, they will come....
In the fall of '92, at one of those celebrity-studded L.A. galas, Eisner ran into Bruce McNall, the owner of the Los Angeles Kings and chairman of the NHL's board of governors. He asked McNall who was going to play in the eye-stopping arena that was going up across from Anaheim Stadium. "Not a hockey team," McNall assured him. "I own the NHL rights to this area."
Basketball, then. Maybe the L.A. Clippers.
It so happened that Disney's movie about a kids' hockey team, The Mighty Ducks, became a hit about that time, grossing over $50 million. Eisner had been the driving force behind that film, which was kind of The Bad News Bears on ice. His wife, Jane, had bugged him for years to do a hockey movie. The Eisners have three sons—Breck, Eric and Anders—who had played youth hockey in L.A., and recalling the 6 a.m. games on Saturday mornings, Eisner says knowingly, "Parents and kids involved in youth hockey are such a unique group." Unique as in: dementedly, lovably dedicated. Cinema fodder. Over the years Eisner had become, in his way, a hockey dad.
Eventually McNall gave Eisner a call. "Bruce said to me, 'Do you want to have a hockey team?' " Eisner recalls. The cost of an expansion franchise was $50 million, half of which would go directly to McNall as compensation for agreeing to give up exclusivity to the L.A. market. "I kind of wanted to do it for myself," says Eisner, who grew up in New York City and had never played hockey or been an avid NHL fan, "but for all the wrong reasons. Owners of professional sports teams tend to have huge egos, which is what drives them into the business. The richer the boy, the bigger the toy. I work for a public corporation, and I thought it would be very bad for The Walt Disney Company."
Nevertheless, Eisner hired an outside consultant to study the idea. Meanwhile another corporate heavy hitter, Wayne Huizenga, chairman of Blockbuster Entertainment and owner of baseball's Florida Marlins, came to L.A. to inspect a private jet that McNall had put up for sale. Huizenga, who parlayed a single garbage-truck route into Waste Management Inc. and whose net worth is in the hundreds of millions of dollars, had been quoted in the past as saying that hockey would do well in South Florida. With a wintertime population of some six million people in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area, many of whom were "snowbirds" from the north-east and Canada, Huizenga figured a hockey club needed to attract the interest of only one quarter of one percent of those folks to sell out the 14,250-seat Miami Arena. If a partnership were ever formed, he told McNall, he would be glad to chip in.
"But I didn't want to be general partner or anything like that," Huizenga says. His expansion Marlins had yet to play their first game, for heaven's sake. And Huizenga already owned 15% of the Miami Dolphins and 50% of Joe Robbie Stadium. A man can have only so many irons in the fire.
But McNall saw an opening, and the prospect of attracting big-name players like Huizenga and Eisner into the NHL was irresistible. "He said if I were serious about wanting a team in South Florida, something would probably be happening at the next owners' meeting," Huizenga recalls. "He said that Disney was in [in fact, it wasn't yet]. It all happened so quickly—five weeks—there wasn't time to put a partnership together. I was afraid if I didn't move, Miami would be sitting here in five years waiting for a hockey team. It was grab your ass and go."
Eisner, in reality, was still on the fence. At one point he even called Huizenga to ask how he figured to make a profit on a $50 million hockey team. Eisner remembers the exact moment, sometime after that call, when he decided Snow White-pure Disney would take the leap into the sometimes violent world of the NHL. He was taking a shower when—eureka!—he hit upon a way to swing the deal with a minimum of risk to Disney's stockholders. (That epiphany eventually came to light when it was announced that Ogden Entertainment Services, which manages The Pond, had agreed to put up $12.5 million of Disney's $50 million expansion fee if the hockey team began playing in the 1993-94 season.) He phoned McNall, and on Dec. 9, 1992, the NHL made the startling announcement that The Walt Disney Company and Huizenga, two of the world's most successful marketers, were joining the bumbling, backward NHL family. The princess was bending over to kiss the frog.
Trust us on this: That was one lip-lock the frog won't ever forget. "We want to break the mold," says the 55-year-old Huizenga, who can count on two hands the number of hockey games he has seen in his adult life. "I told our people, 'No traditional thinking.' We want this arena to be a happening place when the Panthers are playing, a place to see and be seen. We've got to get people here for all the wrong reasons, then turn them into hockey fans so they'll come back for the right reasons."
Here are some of the wrong reasons to go to a Panther game this season.
1) To listen to La Bamba during the warmups.
2) To follow the Panther Patrol, wandering cheerleaders in funny hats, modeled after the Marlins' Bleacher Brigade.
3) To see "dueling Zambonis" resurface the ice in three minutes, giving the Panthers more time for between-period high jinks like...puck-stacking contests. How many pucks can three randomly selected fans stack in 30 seconds?
4) To jot down the toll-free number for Save the Florida Panther, Inc. (1-800-5-FLA-CAT), advertised on the sideboards.
5) To get out of the heat.
6) To get Huizenga's autograph. He sits in the stands like a regular guy and will gladly shake your hand and sign your Panther T-shirt or hat. Huizenga is more famous and more popular in South Florida than any Panther player and will most likely remain so for the near future.
Which is not to say the Panthers won't be good one day. Huizenga has hired Bill Torrey, architect of the New York Islander championship teams of the early 1980s, as club president. Bob Clarke, a respected hockey man, is the general manager. They are smart and patient, which they will need to be, and Huizenga is smart enough not to meddle.
Huizenga's task, meanwhile, is to sell hockey to a community that hasn't hosted a pro hockey team, minor or major league, since 1939. Huizenga is convinced he can turn Miami's large Hispanic population into hockey fans. "We have to educate them, but they like exciting, fast-paced sports," he says. "They like hitting. I think they'll take to hockey big time."
The Panthers invited 2,000 members of Miami's Latin American Chamber of Commerce to a preseason game and will broadcast all home games on Spanish-language radio. "It's too big a market to ignore," says Torrey, who is hoping to have Panther players put on a series of roller hockey exhibitions in city parking lots. Additionally, Blockbuster Video outlets are renting out videotapes that explain hockey's rules and strategies for 50 cents, the proceeds of which will go to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, earmarked to help save the Florida panther.
Season ticket sales to date are stalled at about 8,500, but Huizenga professes to be unconcerned. "If we're going to create hockey fans in southern Florida, we've got to have game-day seats available," he says, estimating he'll lose some $2 million a year until he moves into his own building, which he hopes to have completed in 1997.
The puck has already started rolling on that project. Blockbuster has bought 1,300 acres in Broward and Dade counties, midway between Miami and Fort Lauderdale, on which Huizenga plans to build a sports and entertainment village that is mind-boggling in scale. "We keep expanding and expanding," Huizenga says. "It's at least a 20-year project."
The twin centerpieces of this sports-fantasy land—sometimes referred to as Wayne's World—will be a state-of-the-art hockey arena for the Panthers and a new baseball stadium for the Marlins, replete with retractable roof.
But that's just the start. Huizenga's grand scheme also calls for a championship golf course that will host a PGA Tour event, a Little League park, a practice hockey rink, public driving ranges and batting cages, a miniature-golf course, restaurants, a sports museum, sports memorabilia stores, bowling alleys, roller coasters, movie theaters and interactive-video-game rooms. Since Blockbuster also owns a controlling interest in Spelling Entertainment Inc., which produces such television shows as Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210, Huizenga plans to have a working television studio in his village, plus a movie set and a radio station.
Huizenga does not think small, which puts him in stark contrast to NHL owners of the past. But if the league has a Panther by the tail in Florida, it has got a bird in California who's guaranteed to send traditionalists ducking for cover. (Get used to those duck puns. The Disney folks have a million of them.)
You just knew there was something different about Eisner when he got McNall and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to quack madly on duck calls at the March 1 press conference announcing that the Mighty Ducks would commence play in 1993-94. Eisner's quirky, marketing-oriented touches are evident throughout the organization. It was he who insisted on the Mighty Ducks' name. "I was totally derided for that," he says. "Someone from the league called and tried to talk me out of it, and I said, 'Look, you can tell me anything you want about hockey, but this is an area we know something about.' "
The team's marketing folks are having some fun with the Mighty Ducks. Fans can purchase duck calls in The Pond for $10 and quack to their hearts' content every time their team scores a goal. Eisner also personally selected the team's logo one night with his wife, picking from more than 200 entries submitted by Disney employees. Their son Anders is a goalie, so Eisner chose a "sort of Goofy-ized version of Jason," the goalie-mask-wearing psychopath of horror-film fame.
That logo, the unique team colors—purple and teal—and Disney's marketing clout have made Mighty Duck apparel the No. 1 seller in the sports industry. Duck T-shirts adorned with quacky slogans like THESE DUCKS SHOOT BACK have been flying off the shelves.
"The response has been exceptional, in the millions of dollars," says Marty Jacobson, the president of Nutmeg Mills, which manufactures trademark clothing for pro sports teams. "The logo just seemed to catch the fancy of people of all ages."
Of course, it doesn't hurt that Disney has been selling Mighty Duck apparel at high-volume, nontraditional outlets like Disney World, one of many synergistic benefits that Eisner has taken advantage of. Don't be surprised, for instance, to see characters on Disney's hit TV series, Home Improvement, wearing Mighty Duck hats and T-shirts.
Disney's costume designers have created a feathered mascot for the team, which before every home game will fly down to center ice on a wire strung from the rafters, "like Tinker Bell," says Eisner. Instead of a traditional organist, someone called the Iceman will roam through the crowd playing a wireless synthesizer that will transmit through the P.A. system. The scoreboard animations were created by the staff of cartoonists who brought us Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.
While filming D2 The Champions, the sequel to The Mighty Ducks—which will be released in the spring—Eisner had the studio film a couple of scenes expressly for The Pond's scoreboard, showing pucks bursting through the back of the net and such. And Disney on Ice choreographers helped create routines for the lovely Decoys, who will be the NHL's first skating cheerleaders.
Eisner is aware that there is a certain disparity between The Walt Disney Company's image and the NHL's. "Hockey's image hasn't been presented well," he says. But it will be at The Pond. By contract, ushers and vendors there must be clean-shaven, as are all employees at Disney's theme parks. When interviewing Duck general manager Jack Ferreira, who has a reputation as a fine judge of young talent, Eisner made it clear he wasn't interested in assembling a goon team.
Eisner had Ferreira look into the possibility of having the players wear Plexiglas helmets so they could be seen better and thus more easily promoted. Nothing could be done in time for this season, but it's an example of how Eisner's creative, nontraditional thinking could have a big impact on the league. Eisner also wanted to know why the coach couldn't stand in front of the players on the bench like a basketball coach, so he, too, would be more visible. (Coach Ron Wilson tried it but found himself either unable to talk to a player without turning his back on the action or in the way of someone trying to change on the fly.)
The Pond, too, will use two Zambonis to speed resurfacing. And Eisner's a big fan of the shoot-out—alternating penalty shots—which he hopes the owners will vote to use in the regular season to decide ties. He has also charged Disney's TV production people with finding ways to improve hockey's appeal on television. "Someone has to do for hockey what Roone Arledge did for the NFL [with Monday Night Football]," Eisner says, sounding very much like that certain someone. "There's no creative reason we can't make hockey as interesting as basketball on TV. I'd also like to see players shake hands, either before or after every game, to show the kids in the stands it's still a sport."
A sport that, if two can-do guys like Huizenga and Eisner have anything to say about it, could become the boom sport of the '90s—or maybe just a heckuva lot more fun.