America's most famous youth hockey team couldn't return to the ice without Minnesota.

In "The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers," the first live-action TV series in the franchise's 29-year history, the coach of a new ragtag team favors University of Minnesota sweatshirts. A bar bears more than a passing resemblance to Nye's Polonaise Room. Paul Westerberg's "Runaway Wind" plays during a pivotal scene.

But unlike the three films that came before it, not a single scene in the 10-part dramedy, debuting Friday on Disney Plus, was shot in the state.

"Don't get me started," said Emilio Estevez, who returns as Gordon Bombay, his first high-profile acting role in 15 years. "It was a bummer we weren't there."

The actor has a long, fruitful relationship with Minnesota, dating back to 1985's "That Was Then ... This Is Now," for which he was both the star and the screenwriter.

"I remember sunrise, sitting on the steps of the St. Paul Cathedral, after a full night of shooting, probably with an illegal beverage," he said during a virtual interview from his home this month. "That Minnesota vibe, there's nothing like it."

Estevez, who also served as an executive producer, and Steven Brill, who came up with the original concept, cited a lack of tax rebates as the primary reason production was moved to Vancouver. Brill couldn't even persuade Disney to film exterior shots in the States, let alone scenes akin to the romantic walk through the St. Paul Winter Carnival in the 1992 original film, or skaters wreaking havoc at the Mall of America in the sequel.

"When we started planning the show, I hoped and prayed we'd shoot in Minnesota. I wrote it with that in mind," Brill said. "It just wasn't possible."

But the state was never far from Brill's mind.

In his first stab at a new script, the action revolved around a waitress who inherits Mickey's Diner. The season would follow her as she tried to salvage both the restaurant and a local hockey team. That idea was eventually scrapped.

Brill had also considered ending each episode with a different song from one of his many favorite Minnesota artists, a list that includes Polara, Morris Day and Soul Asylum. In the end, he was only able to shoehorn in a song from an ex-Replacement.

"I did get my Westerberg in," he said. "When I wrote the first movie, I was listening to him."


In the late 1980s, Brill was a struggling actor in Los Angeles. To pass the time, he and his roommate Peter Berg, a Macalester College grad who would go on to direct movies such as "Friday Night Lights," would scrounge up enough money for cheap seats at L.A. Kings games.

Those outings inspired the idea of incorporating hockey into a family-friendly movie. Even though he grew up in upstate New York, he knew the story had to be set in the Upper Midwest.

"The Minnesota high school tournament was a big inspiration," said Brill, who lived in the Twin Cities for several months while researching the original film. "What basketball is to Indiana, hockey is to Minnesota."

"The Mighty Ducks" would go on to make more than $50 million at the box office and spawn two sequels and an animated series. It even inspired the name of the NHL's Anaheim Ducks, winners of the Stanley Cup in 2007. Even though it has been 25 years since the third movie, "D3," hit the big screen, the films continue to inspire youngsters.

"I went through a phase in the fifth grade where everything in my life was 'The Mighty Ducks,' " said 15-year-old Brady Noon, who plays a character in "Game Changers" who's similar to one that future "Dawson's Creek" resident Joshua Jackson portrayed in the first film. "I had the posters up in my room."

Sway Bhatia, who plays Noon's teammate in the TV series, thinks the concept still holds up.

"It's not just about hockey," the 12-year-old said. "It's about coming out of your shell. If you have something you're passionate about, you should go after it and find your voice. That's super important."

On-set parents

Aware of the franchise's enduring popularity, Brill, who has spent much of the past two decades working with Adam Sandler, started thinking about ways to continue the story.

At one point, he pitched the idea of turning it into a Broadway musical. Eventually he decided that a streaming series was the way to go, one in which the coach would be a woman.

Enter Lauren Graham.

The actor, best known for "Gilmore Girls," didn't have much experience with hockey or skating when she signed on to play Alex, a mom who decides to launch a new team of misfits after her son is kicked off the Ducks, a squad that's become too big for its breezers.

But Graham did know a few things about Minnesota thanks to her longtime partner, Twin Cities native Peter Krause, with whom she started a relationship when they were both starring on "Parenthood."

"It's helpful to know the people there," said Graham, who has fond memories of hanging out with Krause's family at swim meets in Farmington and at local Dairy Queens. "When we were filming, I had things I could picture in my head, like the lakes."

One thing you won't hear from Graham in the series is a heavy accent.

"The people I know there hardly have one, although Peter's mom had a strong accent," she said. "But if you do that, you run the risk of seeming like you're poking fun. It becomes associated with 'Fargo.' "

When Graham signed on, Estevez's participation wasn't a done deal. After a cameo in "Mission: Impossible," he had put his acting career on hold while he concentrated on directing and writing independent films. But during trips to his part-time home in Cincinnati, he kept hearing from fans: Whatever happened to Coach Bombay?

Estevez liked the answer.

In "Game Changers," the character has become disenchanted with hockey, wasting his days operating a rundown ice rink where he sleeps on the office couch and eats cake leftover from skating parties.

"He's a bit of a curmudgeon," he said. "It's sort of an homage to Walter Matthau in 'Bad News Bears.' "

But Estevez was far from ornery on the set. The young stars praised him and Graham for serving as on-set parents during the Canadian shoot that mostly took place under quarantine conditions.

"They were great mentors, always there with a smile," said 14-year-old cast member Maxwell Simkins. "They cared more about us than themselves. It means a lot when big celebrities go out of their way to make sure every single one of us are OK."

Sounds a lot like Minnesota Nice.

"That saying is not a euphemism for anything. That's true," Brill said. "I think we've always tried to capture that."

The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers

When: Streaming Friday.

Where: Disney Plus.