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Cash Registers Ringing Praises of Mighty Ducks : Marketing: Shoppers across U.S. snap up items depicting NHL’s newest team, which debuts tonight.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Donald should be so popular.

From coast to coast people are clamoring for shirts, hats and key chains depicting the Mighty Ducks--the National Hockey League’s new bird on the block. And that’s even before the team skates onto the ice for its long-anticipated season debut tonight.

“People love these Ducks,” said James McFarland, a salesman at Gerry Cosby’s sporting goods store next to Madison Square Garden in New York City. “I can’t keep any Duck merchandise on the shelf. Who cares if they can skate or not?”

Locally, the Duck phenomenon has soared to even greater heights as the Walt Disney Co., the team’s owner, flexes its marketing muscle to make the team a winner financially, if not athletically.

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“The Ducks are our No. 1 seller in the league right now,” said Fred Scalera, NHL vice president of licensing. “And it doesn’t stop in this country; they’re popular in Canada and popular in Europe.”

In fact, Duck merchandise is currently selling better than that of any professional team in baseball, football or basketball.

Since June, the team’s teal, magenta and white logo of a scowling duck mask and two crossed hockey sticks--reminiscent of a skull and crossbones--has been advertised everywhere. Special promotions have been held at Disneyland. Flashy Ducks commercials are shown frequently on Disney’s local television channel, KCAL. And Duck merchandise appears in nearly every sporting goods store in Southern California.

“If the team actually wins, there would really be a boost in sales,” said Jason Park, manager of Slap Shot, a hockey store in Santa Ana. “But nobody’s expecting that.”

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Victories notwithstanding, the Ducks have already made a big splash in the league.

In typical Disney fashion, the team has set a number of NHL firsts: first to have figure skaters cum cheerleaders (called the Decoys) and first to market duck quackers (for fans to honk after Duck goals).

And don’t forget the parade. No Disney venture would be complete without a celebration down Main Street U.S.A. in Disneyland.

Some of the players, however, are getting weary of the Disney marketing blitz.

“I felt pretty much like a fool,” said Bill Houlder, Ducks defenseman who rode in Thursday’s Disneyland parade. “You’re waving at the little kids but they’re looking right past you toward the Disney characters.”

It’s on this link to children that Disney and the NHL officials say they hope to capitalize.

“They’re broadening our audience enormously,” said Bernadette Mansur, an NHL spokeswoman. “We think it’s great.”

Much of the Duck merchandise, unlike that of other teams, is being aimed at young children. There are Duck sleeping bags, backpacks and colorful watches. The backside of the Duck tickets even carry an advertisement for Disneyland--"Visit Mickey’s Toontown,” some say. And judging from the youngsters’ response during Disneyland’s parade Thursday, the campaign is working.

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“We came today especially because of the Mighty Ducks,” said Grace Babcock, whose boys Adam, 8, and Andrew, 5, sported their Duck T-shirts along the parade route. “It’s our Duck day.”

Even those at Disneyland who didn’t understand what all the hoopla was about nevertheless were swept up by the Duck fanfare.

“I prefer cricket,” said Florence Major, visiting from England. “I don’t really know that much about hockey, but this was a lovely parade. Very exciting.”

For $5.95, Pat and Joy Rafael of Hawaii purchased a yellow, duckbill-shaped duck caller for their 2-year-old son, Bryson, after seeing many other kids at the park honking them.

“It’s not driving us crazy yet,” said Pat Rafael as his son happily tooted away. “But it probably will on the plane.”

Marketing experts are impressed by Disney’s early merchandising successes.

“I’ve heard them called the Almighty Ducks,” said Jim deYong, executive vice president of dGWB, an Irvine advertising agency. “They’ve just become a marketing machine.”

“It’s a very sophisticated marketing department over there” at the Disney Co., said John Good, publisher of the Newport Beach-based magazine California AdNews. “And obviously Disney doesn’t do anything unless they believe it will be profitable. I just didn’t think hockey was that popular in Orange County.”

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Ducks mania has reached into the world of fast food as well.

Del Taco, the Costa Mesa-based hamburger and taco chain, said Thursday that it will offer a “Macho” 44-oz. Mighty Ducks soft drink cup this fall to commemorate the team’s opening season.

Later this month, Del Taco plans to introduce a “Mighty Meal,” a burrito packaged in a special Ducks bag. The company, which is struggling through a bankruptcy reorganization, says it will buy television and radio time to promote the Mighty Ducks cup and burrito.

The entrepreneurial spirit is not limited to big businesses, either.

Casey O’Leary, 21, of Orange is hoping to cash in on the Ducks craze with his own T-shirt, which he plans to sell at tonight’s game at the Anaheim Arena, dubbed The Pond at Anaheim by Disney. The logo on O’Leary’s $15 shirt: “Pond Scum.”

“It’s not a shirt for the fans who eat sushi and drink wine at the games,” explained O’Leary. “It’s for real Duck fans who want to see a fight, drink a beer and yell at the ref.”

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Times staff writer Anne Michaud contributed to this report.


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