The Mighty Ducks have been portrayed as having skated straight out of Fantasyland, a Disney movie come to life under that company’s ownership. But the reality is, they were first Bruce McNall’s fantasy, a vehicle for easing his dire financial problems.
If it weren’t for the former King owner, there probably wouldn’t be an NHL team called the Ducks, nor Stanley Cup finals at the Arrowhead Pond this weekend, nor, perhaps, pro hockey franchises stretched across the Sun Belt.
And although that is no consolation to investors who lost millions to him, or those who pleaded guilty to crimes committed under his direction, it did earn him a phone call from Disney chairman Michael Eisner, inviting him to Anaheim to see the Ducks play in the finals.
To Eisner, owning a hockey team called the Ducks was a logical extension of his entertainment empire. To McNall, sinking fast toward the bottom of a financial quagmire, the idea was a temporary $25-million lifeline from creditors he owed about 10 times that amount.
By letting an NHL expansion team share his territory, that’s how much McNall stood to gain from any deal.
“I figured any money I could get would stem the bloodletting,” said McNall, now a movie executive with Fine Arts Entertainment after serving four years in prison for bank fraud. “And I thought, if we could get Disney in our league, what a coup that would be. What a huge coup.”
Former King superstar Wayne Gretzky, who has remained close to McNall, credits him for looking out for hockey’s best interests above all. “Bruce really wanted to grow the sport,” Gretzky said. “It was kind of gutsy on Bruce’s part. Just a few years earlier the Kings were drawing only 7,000-8,000 a game and some of their fans were coming from Orange County, which was only an hour’s drive away. If the Ducks came into being, people might say, ‘Why drive an hour when we can support our own team and still see NHL hockey?’ Bruce, to his credit, saw what was best for the NHL.”
Eisner declined to be interviewed for this story, but during their phone call, McNall said Eisner told him, “You thought of the idea of the Ducks. It was your concept. You were the father of the whole idea.”
McNall dismisses that theory.
“I think I’m getting more credit than I deserve,” he said. “A lot of things just came together.”
But he smiles at the mention of the phone call. Actually, almost everything makes McNall smile these days.
At 53, he feels he has found the happiness that eluded him in the early 1990s when he seemed to have it all as owner of the Kings, racehorses, rare coins and the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. He was chairman of the NHL’s Board of Governors, Gretzky’s best buddy, and hobnobber with the likes of President Reagan, John Candy, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell.
Whether ice-side at the Forum watching his team skate to the 1993 Stanley Cup finals, on board his private 727 headed for the next game, locked in a back room negotiating a multimillion-dollar deal or seated in a viewing room screening his newest movie, McNall was a man in motion.
Few knew that he was heading for a big crash. He was fraudulently obtaining loans to finance his various enterprises. His collateral included phony coins, coins borrowed from others, even dead horses.
“I thought I was omnipotent,” McNall said. “I always thought I would find a way to fix everything. Borrowing here, borrowing there, illegally, it would all work out. It was stupid. It was a mess.”
McNall continued looking for ways out. He considered selling the Kings to Sony Corp. But around the same time, the Arrowhead Pond, then to be known as Anaheim Arena, was taking shape.
The Ogden Corp. agreed to underwrite the arena’s financing, and company chairman Richard Ablon asked McNall to help him find tenants.
Clipper owner Donald Sterling was approached but declined.
McNall thought about filling the hockey dates himself, with the Kings. “It was a viable option,” he said.
Except he had a lease with Jerry Buss to play at the Forum.
“If I was Al Davis,” McNall said, “I would have just moved and let Jerry sue me. But I considered Jerry a friend. He was the one who got me into hockey in the first place. Breaking the lease would have been morally wrong. Here I was, falsifying bank statements, and that was OK, but breaking a lease was wrong. How crazy was that?
“I could have declared bankruptcy. That would have wiped out the lease. It would have been the right move. But then, I’d be admitting to myself and others that I couldn’t fix the problems, that I couldn’t keep the ship afloat.”
Then along came Norm Green. The owner of the Minnesota North Stars wanted to move his team to Anaheim for the 1993-94 season. McNall was overjoyed. The $25-million indemnification fee was in his sights. Green toured the Pond construction site and was sold.
“All of us felt it was very close to reality,” said Pond General Manager Tim Ryan, who was then assistant GM. “Norm Green made a number of trips to the facility and he was very serious right down to the last minute.”
Green even had a spot picked out for his office. What he didn’t know is that he had a rival.
Disney had produced a movie called “The Mighty Ducks” and Eisner’s sons played youth hockey. And he was an acquaintance of McNall.
“Michael knew about kids’ hockey,” McNall said, “but he didn’t know much about the NHL.”
Figuring that $25 million was $25 million -- whether it came from Green or Eisner -- and anticipating the NHL would embrace the marketing talent of Disney, McNall began selling Eisner on the virtues of the league.
But it was late in 1992 and, with the arena set to open the next year, Pond officials focused on Green even after learning of Eisner’s interest.
As negotiations proceeded, Eisner’s naivete shone through, McNall said. To wit: Eisner asked how much the league would be willing to pay to have Disney join.
Uh, you’ve got this backward, McNall said he told Eisner. You have to pay them. The expansion fee was $50 million, plus the $25-million territorial fee.
No way, Eisner said.
McNall eventually negotiated a total fee of $50 million -- $25 million to the league and $25 million to him. The owners were placated because McNall got Wayne Huizenga, head of Blockbuster Video, to also come in as owner of a new Florida franchise.
“Bruce warned us at the last minute,” said Brad Mayne, who was then the Pond’s general manager, “that he had another opportunity. He put us on notice that, if an agreement with Norm Green was not in place, he wanted to make a move. We wanted to sign with Norm because he had been the one we had been working with.”
And what about Green?
“Bruce told him, sorry, Norm, but the league has a chance to get two teams in a package deal,” Mayne said. “He told Norm there were certain cities he couldn’t move to, Anaheim being one of them, and then he gave him a list of cities he could go to, Dallas being one of those.”
Which is how Green’s team wound up as the Dallas Stars.
Once it became official Disney was going to be the Anaheim arena’s first tenant, Mayne was thrilled.
“They are not only a major part of the community,” Mayne said, “but they had all the resources to create all sorts of synergy with their park right down the street from our facility.”
When Eisner informed McNall he planned to name the team after the movie, McNall had his doubts.
“I thought, this is going to fly right in the face of tradition,” McNall said. “It was too wild. I was starting to think Disney getting involved in pro sports was too far off the beaten path for them. But Eisner was 100% right.”
Right for Disney, but not for McNall, who in the end overplayed his hand. While he would have gotten the $25 million he so desperately needed from Green, Eisner informed McNall that he would be getting only half, the other $12.5 million to be paid with a promissory note.
That didn’t go over well with McNall’s creditors.
Out of options and time, McNall pleaded guilty to four criminal counts of bank fraud totaling $236 million and was sent to prison in 1997.
He was still a man in motion, but not the kind he enjoyed. He was moved to seven prison sites, from California to Arizona to Michigan to Oklahoma and once spent six months in solitary confinement. His wife, Jane Cody, divorced him.
But many of his high-profile friends stayed in touch. Gretzky was a regular prison visitor, as were Hawn, Russell, former Kings Luc Robitaille and Rob Blake, and sportscaster Stu Nahan.
“In life, nobody’s perfect,” Gretzky said. “Bruce was punished for the things he did wrong, but he did a lot of things right too. Ask any player who ever played for the Kings.
“It’s easy to be friends with somebody when they’re on top. At the end of the day, Bruce has a big heart and I wanted to stay by his side.”
After spending six months in a halfway house, McNall became a free man two years ago.
Today, he looks out over Hollywood from a corner penthouse office, walls and shelves filled with pictures and plaques from his hockey days. He reviews scripts for Fine Arts and meets with actors and agents, but stays away from the company’s money matters.
“I don’t talk to banks,” he said. “I don’t handle anything financial. I want nothing to do with that.”
He has a book coming out on his life, “Fun While It Lasted,” to be published by Hyperion, a Disney company. There is also talk of a movie. Half of McNall’s salary goes toward paying off the $5 million he owes in restitution.
His personal life has also turned around. McNall lives in Studio City with Dyna Hester, a court reporter 20 years his junior, and her three children. He also spends more time with his own two children, Katie, 20, and P.J., 18, than he did when he was king of the Kings.
When McNall looks back on his days in hockey, he says that, outside of bringing Gretzky to Los Angeles from Edmonton in 1988, the creation of the Ducks and Florida Panthers was his greatest accomplishment.
“Bruce was the key figure in the whole process,” Ryan said. “He made an immense contribution to hockey in Southern California.”
Said McNall: “I really feel proudest of that.”
Of much of the rest of his past, he’s not proud.
“I believed the end justified the means as long as everything comes out OK at the end of the day and I was totally wrong,” he said. “I would tell myself the victims were just banks or institutions. It’s not like I was ripping off old ladies. But banks are run by people and they were hurt because I made bad decisions. There is no way to justify what I did.
“It was almost a relief when it came crashing down. I was living so long in a complicated web and I didn’t have the courage to pull the plug. I could have made the decision to stop everything. I was the only person responsible. Nobody else.
“It was like watching my own funeral at times.”