It started with the pond.
Not the pond, lowercase, which is where hockey dreams used to start: a sheet of ice in the Saskatchewan prairie where sons of farmers played hockey using road apples as pucks.
The Pond, uppercase, is a $103 million marble and glass arena being built in Anaheim two miles from Disneyland. Of course, when all this started, it wasn't The Pond yet. It was just a shell of the lavish building it is today, "a whimsical, gaudy arena" in the words of The New York Times, its coral-colored exterior offset by green archways.
Michael Eisner, the chairman of The Walt Disney Company, would pass this arresting structure on his way to one official function or another and wonder, Who's going to play there?
No one was going to play there. A $103 million building the city of Anaheim was constructing for...no one. "It was sitting there like a field of dreams," Eisner says. If you build it, they will come....
In the fall of '92, at one of those celebrity-studded L.A. galas, Eisner ran into Bruce McNall, the owner of the Los Angeles Kings and chairman of the NHL's board of governors. He asked McNall who was going to play in the eye-stopping arena that was going up across from Anaheim Stadium. "Not a hockey team," McNall assured him. "I own the NHL rights to this area."
Basketball, then. Maybe the L.A. Clippers.
It so happened that Disney's movie about a kids' hockey team, The Mighty Ducks, became a hit about that time, grossing over $50 million. Eisner had been the driving force behind that film, which was kind of The Bad News Bears on ice. His wife, Jane, had bugged him for years to do a hockey movie. The Eisners have three sons—Breck, Eric and Anders—who had played youth hockey in L.A., and recalling the 6 a.m. games on Saturday mornings, Eisner says knowingly, "Parents and kids involved in youth hockey are such a unique group." Unique as in: dementedly, lovably dedicated. Cinema fodder. Over the years Eisner had become, in his way, a hockey dad.
Eventually McNall gave Eisner a call. "Bruce said to me, 'Do you want to have a hockey team?' " Eisner recalls. The cost of an expansion franchise was $50 million, half of which would go directly to McNall as compensation for agreeing to give up exclusivity to the L.A. market. "I kind of wanted to do it for myself," says Eisner, who grew up in New York City and had never played hockey or been an avid NHL fan, "but for all the wrong reasons. Owners of professional sports teams tend to have huge egos, which is what drives them into the business. The richer the boy, the bigger the toy. I work for a public corporation, and I thought it would be very bad for The Walt Disney Company."
Nevertheless, Eisner hired an outside consultant to study the idea. Meanwhile another corporate heavy hitter, Wayne Huizenga, chairman of Blockbuster Entertainment and owner of baseball's Florida Marlins, came to L.A. to inspect a private jet that McNall had put up for sale. Huizenga, who parlayed a single garbage-truck route into Waste Management Inc. and whose net worth is in the hundreds of millions of dollars, had been quoted in the past as saying that hockey would do well in South Florida. With a wintertime population of some six million people in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area, many of whom were "snowbirds" from the north-east and Canada, Huizenga figured a hockey club needed to attract the interest of only one quarter of one percent of those folks to sell out the 14,250-seat Miami Arena. If a partnership were ever formed, he told McNall, he would be glad to chip in.