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Disney Wins OK to Form Hockey Team in Anaheim : Sports: The NHL club, perhaps to be called the Mighty Ducks, may begin play in October, officials say.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The Walt Disney Co., venturing into professional sports for the first time, won conditional approval Thursday to establish a National Hockey League franchise in Anaheim, perhaps as early as next fall.

Unanimously approved by the NHL Board of Governors, the new franchise depends on Disney finding an arena and selling enough season seats to satisfy hockey league officials.

Disney executives confidently announced that their team, tentatively to be called the Mighty Ducks, will begin playing as early as October and no later than fall of 1994.

Fred Comrie, managing general partner of the San Diego Gulls of the International Hockey League, said Anaheim’s entry into hockey will benefit his long-range plans to bring his team into the NHL.

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“I think it’s fabulous,” he said late Thursday night. “Everything Disney has touched lately has been phenomenal. They are outstanding marketers, and if they can start drawing and start getting people interested in hockey, it’s a major plus for us. All of a sudden hockey is the ‘in’ thing.”

Comrie reiterated that the timing is not yet right for the Gulls to join the NHL.

“I first want to spend a full year to try to draw and see what we can do,” he said. He purchased the team toward the end of the 1991-92 season.

Comrie also brushed aside the idea that the NHL will be satisfied with its representation in Southern California and forget about San Diego.

“It would be a natural for the NHL to have six West Coast teams,” Comrie said. With Anaheim, the NHL now has four teams along the Pacific. “For the NHL to be really, really successful, it’s going to need a lot more (Western) cities so it can sell itself better to ESPN and the networks.”

Developer Ron Hahn, who bought control of the existing San Diego Sports Arena to facilitate construction of a state-of-the-art facility, did not return phone calls Thursday. Hahn has said, however, that he will not build a new arena without assurances from at least one franchise, be it from the NHL or the National Basketball Assn.

Walt Disney Co. Chairman Michael Eisner, a longtime hockey fan, said pairing the global entertainment giant with a professional sports franchise will create a certain “synergy” to help promote professional hockey and Anaheim’s role as a tourist destination.

The company’s top executives were quietly pursuing the idea for only the past several weeks, a Disney spokesman said.

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“Getting accepted (by the NHL) was like getting into a fraternity. We could sign an agreement next month. I’m confident we can build a successful franchise,” Eisner said.

Disney’s move into hockey could bail the city of Anaheim out of a $1-million payment it must make to owners of a new $103-million arena under construction unless a hockey team arrives by the end of 1993. City officials had been scrambling to find professional basketball and hockey teams to play in Anaheim Arena.

“We couldn’t be more pleased,” said Anaheim Mayor Tom Daly. “Everything Disney does is first-class. Let’s hope they bring some of their magic into the new team as well as the NHL. This is an early Christmas present. It’s wonderful.”

The timing may also be to Disney’s benefit because the City Council must soon consider whether to allow a $3-billion expansion of Disneyland to move forward. But Disney officials said the two projects will be independent in any negotiations that require city participation.

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“This wasn’t done to solve a problem. This was done because this is our home,” Eisner said. “They have this (arena) you can see from the top of the Matterhorn. To me, it’s synergistic.”

Business analysts say Walt Disney Co., with its promotional skills, universal grasp of entertainment and reputation for quality, could bring a much-needed boost to the sport of hockey, the less-appreciated cousin of the big three of football, baseball and basketball.

“They bring an awful lot of marketing know-how and things that the NHL thinks it can exploit,” said Chip Campbell, marketing director of International Sports and Entertainment Strategies, a New York-based firm.

Disney must pay about $25 million to the NHL for rights to operate the new franchise and $25 million to Bruce McNall, owner of the Los Angeles Kings, for territorial rights in Southern California. Company spokesman Tom Deegan called the $50-million investment “not particularly large” for the $7.5-billion conglomerate.

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Whether the team begins playing next year depends on how quickly Disney can close pending deals and meet other conditions.

The working nickname for the team, Mighty Ducks, is the title of a recently released movie that is Disney’s only other venture into hockey. The hit movie has grossed $50 million.

“Ducks are what we are going to call it unless I hear otherwise,” said Eisner, who showed up at Thursday’s NHL board meeting in Palm Beach, Fla., in a bright green, purple and yellow Mighty Ducks jersey. “The (movie) was our market research.”

He confessed that the name could open up the team to ridicule.

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“Whenever I suggest the title Mighty Ducks, six people tell me no hockey player will play for that team,” he said. “The trouble is, if we don’t win in three or four years, we might be called the Unmighty Ducks--or worse.”

By Thursday afternoon, jokes were circulating among hockey fans about potential mascots for the new team--perhaps Goofy, a Mouseketeer or Donald Puck--and whether the players would wear helmets shaped like Mickey Mouse ears.

Disney would not be the first entertainment conglomerate to own an NHL team; Paramount Communications owns the New York Rangers.

Disney’s Los Angeles television station, KCAL, could benefit by broadcasting the hockey games. KCAL carries Los Angeles Lakers games.

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Expanding the league to 26 teams, the NHL board Thursday also granted a conditional franchise agreement for a team to play in south Florida. The team, to be owned by Blockbuster Entertainment chief and Florida Marlins baseball team owner H. Wayne Huizenga, will probably play in Miami Arena.

“We’re thrilled to announce that both of these companies known throughout the world for their marketing expertise, image and family values came and sought to join the NHL,” Stein said.

Times staff writers Lisa Dillman, Kevin Johnson, Matt Lait, Chris Woodyard and John Geis also contributed to this report.


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