Marking Orange County's entry into big-time hockey and the Walt Disney Co.'s daring venture into professional sports, the Mighty Ducks took to the ice Friday night in their first official National Hockey League game before 17,174 cheering fans at the Anaheim Arena.
The Detroit Red Wings spoiled opening night by beating the Ducks, 7-2.
As the team skated out for the opening faceoff with the Red Wings, a deafening roar rose from the capacity crowd which, just moments before, had watched one of the most elaborate pregame events in professional sports.
"It feels like opening night at the best show in town," said Anaheim Mayor Tom Daly. "Everything's done in first-class, Disney style with all the special flourishes."
Disney's extravagant pregame show cost at least $450,000. The 20-minute theatrical production included elaborate indoor fireworks displays, a flying entrance by the Ducks' mascot and a grand finale with 100 costumed skaters on ice, including the Decoys, the team's cheerleading squad.
Borrowing from other Disney entertainment product, the show opened with a spotlight at center ice on Lumiere, the friendly cartoon character from "Beauty and the Beast."
"This is something I'll be able to tell my grandkids about 50 years from now--how I was at the first Mighty Ducks game," said Assemblyman Tom Umberg (D-Garden Grove). "That will be when they'll be the class of the league and will be winning their 20th Stanley Cup."
No detail was spared on this night. Inside each luxury box, the team placed a gift basket of candy and bottled water, along with a chocolate goaltender's mask shaped like the Mighty Duck logo.
As fans entered the arena, the staff handed out free duck calls, and a Dixieland band played "When the Ducks Come Marching In." Soon, the crowd was squawking in tune with the band.
Imitating the marketing tactics of Jerry Buss, owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, Disney also invited a host of celebrities for the season opener. Among those on the guest list were actress Michelle Pfieffer, singer Paula Abdul and her husband, actor Emilio Estevez, who played the coach in "The Mighty Ducks," the Disney film from which the team's name is taken.
"Ice skating and hockey is the last thing you would expect in Southern California--that is why it is so cool," said Jackson Crowly, 20, of Orange, as he posed for a photo holding up his Duck tickets. "I think it will be the hottest thing around even if the Ducks don't play well at first."
The Anaheim Arena could not handle parking for all the fans, but the city and Disney increased shuttle service to satellite lots, tapped into Anaheim Stadium parking, and encouraged local businesses to lease their employee parking spaces. The Orange County Transportation Agency also operated a bus line to the game from seven locations.
Outside the arena, autograph-seekers swarmed Mighty Duck players as they arrived to head into the locker room. Most fans said they did not know the players by sight, but if a person looked like a Duck player and walked like a Duck player, he was assumed to be a Duck and was promptly surrounded.
"The players have all been very nice," said Tina Applewhite, a computer salesperson from Laguna Beach whose Duck jersey was signed by left wing Tim Sweeney. "They don't have to take the time to do this."
The large turnout was partly because of the Disney marketing operation. Company executives are aiming to expand the traditional hockey audience to include youngsters, and have linked the team through advertising to Disney's popular attractions.
Mighty Duck merchandise already accounts for about 75% of all souvenirs and memorabilia sold by all NHL franchises. Teal blue jerseys, duck calls, stickers and T-shirts bearing the Duck logo have been sold across the United States, Canada and Europe.
During Friday night's game, the frenzy for Mighty Duck merchandise continued. Vendors proclaimed the opening of "duck season."
"The Ducks are for real," said Bruce McNall, owner of the Los Angeles Kings, who came to get a look at the competition. "The Ducks are great for the Kings. Hopefully, the Kings will be good for the Ducks."
* RELATED STORIES: C1, C10