How Iceland Became The Mighty Ducks' No. 1 VillainPlay
Kevin Cullen has never been to Iceland, but he grew up with a pretty clear impression of the country’s people.
"I pictured Iceland as these big bullies," he says.
If you were also raised in the 90s, you probably know why.
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"D2," the second (and obviously the best) movie in Disney's Mighty Ducks trilogy, was released in 1994, and it pitted the lovable Ducks against Team Iceland.
"Iceland — when you grew up in the '90s — all you think of is the Mighty Ducks," says Tommy Magelssen, who, along with Cullen and Mike Florek, co-hosts "The Quack Attack Podcast: the Definitive Mighty Ducks Podcast." (Yes, it's a real thing.)
For those unfamiliar with the film, Team Iceland boasts talented hockey players — they trounce the Ducks 12-1 in their first meeting — and they’re scary. They’ve got a huge Viking logo on their black jerseys. They take cheap shots. And in one particularly dark scene, Iceland's head coach comes upon the Ducks playing around with a beach ball.
"[The Iceland coach] picks up the beach ball," Magelssen explains. "He's got this weird, smarmy look on his face. He maintains eye contact with the Ducks — and just crushes it."
"Literally crushes that childish dream," Cullen says.
But here's the thing that Kevin, Tommy and most other Mighty Ducks fans didn't know when they first loaded "D2" into their VCRs: not only is the real Iceland home to at least a few good people, hockey is not popular in the country.
At the time "D2" came out, Iceland had just joined the International Ice Hockey Federation. There were only two rinks in the entire country – and neither had roofs.
Which all leads to one big question: Why was Iceland picked to be the villain?
'A Pretty Substantial Hit For Disney'
That story begins with a man named Steve Brill.
After graduating from college in the mid-80s, Steve moved to L.A. hoping to make it as a writer. He got some acting roles.
"Nothing of note, but you could see me and miss me in many big movies throughout the 80s and 90s," he says.
Back then, Steve lived in a dingy apartment in Culver City. He calls it a "hovel."
"I was literally the guy looking for quarters in the sofa to go down to the 7-Eleven and get ramen noodles," he says.
"Iceland -- when you grew up in the '90s -- all you think of is the Mighty Ducks."Tommy Magelssen
Steve didn't have too much going on — so he spent a lot of time skating at a local ice rink. And he got the idea to write a screenplay about a pee-wee hockey team from Minnesota.
This would, of course, become the first Mighty Ducks movie.
"I was just thrilled to have a movie that my parents could go see in New York and my grandmother would see it in Miami," Steve says. "I thought that was the coolest thing. And then it became a pretty substantial hit for Disney."
Steve was called in for a meeting with Disney CEO Michael Eisner.
"He said, 'I need another Mighty Ducks movie immediately,' " Brill recalls. "And I was like, 'Oh, that shouldn't be hard. I can do it over the summer. I’ll probably get it done in six months. And then we can shoot it.' And he was, like, 'No, no. I need it in two weeks.' And I remember being smart enough to not say 'That's insane.' But thinking, 'You can't write a script in two weeks.' But I didn't say that, and I walked out."
"I don't remember the meeting to be exactly that," Mighty Ducks producer Jordan Kerner tells me. "Steve's memory, being that he's much younger, may be sharper than mine."
"Is that pretty quick turnaround?" I ask.
"That would be extremely quick, which is why I'm being very polite about it," Jordan says.
So maybe it was a little more than two weeks — but regardless, the pressure was on to deliver a worthy sequel.
In the first movie (and apologies for giving away the surprise), the ragtag Ducks manage to take down their No. 1 rival — the Hawks — a team of rich, suburban kids. For the second movie, the stakes had to be higher: In "D2," the Ducks were going to represent Team USA at the fictional Junior Goodwill Games — and they needed an international rival.
Scanning The Globe
The obvious choice was Russia.
"Although Russia had just gone through Glasnost, and it was a thawing in relationship," Steve says.
"Things may have changed politically a little since then, but they weren't a villain, and we certainly didn't want to encourage anybody looking at them as a villain," Jordan says.
So Russia was out.
"So I scanned the globe in my head, and my first thought would be, of course, the villains would be the Germans," Steve says with a laugh. "Because the Germans are just the go-to, from 'Die Hard' to everywhere.
"But after further review and careful consideration and I can't remember what else — except maybe because it was so obvious and I didn't want to pick on the Germans — I put them aside," Steve says. "And then I thought, well, what if we could create another entity that people don't know that much about? And, therefore, I could have the latitude to create them any way I wanted."
So Steve and Jordan were on the hunt for a cold-weather country that people wouldn't know much about.
Which brings us to a daytime soap opera.
Around the same time that Steve was asked to write the second Ducks movie, a TV show called "Santa Barbara" was finishing a nine-season run.
Jordan had become friends with a talented young actress on the show. Her name was Maria Ellingsen — and she was from Iceland.
On the soap, Maria played an East German.
"A very innocent German girl who was surprised at seeing bananas, wondering where they grew — just being so blue eyed," Maria says.
"I was sort of tired of being the angelic, blonde Icelandic woman," she continues.
So just when Steve and Jordan were looking for the Ducks' next rival, Maria Ellingsen — from Iceland — was ready for a heel turn.
The fates seemed to be aligning.
"I remember probably jumping up and down, like, 'Iceland! Of course! They're from Iceland, get it? Ice-Land!' " Steve recalls.
Except there were some issues: Steve didn't know much about Iceland. He'd never been.
"Nope. This was back in the 90s. I don't think they had airplanes there. I don't think there was a way to get there," Steve says with a laugh.
"So I'm sure in your early research you figured out that Iceland was, in fact, not a hockey powerhouse," I say. "Did you worry that people might call you out on that?"
"Oh, yeah. That's the other thing — that's so funny," Steve says. "I just had to cast that annoying fact aside."
'Good Work, Captain Duck'
So it was settled. Iceland — population 260,000, no countryman to ever reach the NHL — would be the team to beat. And Maria Ellingsen would join the team's contemptible coaching staff.
Steve shut himself up in his new apartment — thanks to the success of Ducks 1, he had moved out of the hovel — and he wrote.
Steve says he met his deadline with minutes to spare. And the movie went into production.
The next task: turning a bunch of young American actors into Icelandic goons.
"We all had to dye our hair blond," says Scott Whyte, who was cast to play Team Iceland's star player, Gunner Stahl.
Scott and the rest of the faux Icelanders were given simple instructions.
"Look very serious," he says. "Just give menacing looks."
But Scott also had some lines. Luckily, Maria was there on set to help with his Icelandic accent.
And for a while, that arrangement worked. Here's Scott in an early scene:
But, toward the end of filming, when they were shooting some of the most important scenes, Scott was given some new lines that he hadn't been able to practice. Maria wasn't there.
"And so it got to that moment where we had to shoot those scenes," Scott recalls. "And it was like, 'All right, Scott. Let's do this!' And so I just sorta went for it. And those lines just sound like I'm completely Russian or something else.
"And I'm, like, 'Good work, Captain Duck.' And it became, like, 'Wait a second. Is he Icelandic or Russian?' And I think at that time, if you'd said, 'Hey, here's a map. Just point out where Russia is and point out where Iceland is,' I think I would've thought maybe they were just right next to each other. I'm not quite sure. I'm not in any way saying that I deserve an Academy Award for that performance."
Maybe not. But, still, the co-hosts of the Quack Attack Podcast say Team Iceland is one of the best parts of the Ducks trilogy.
"I mean, it also gave us an excuse to learn a little bit more about Iceland," Kevin says. "If this movie hadn't happened, could you give me one fact about Iceland?"
"Yeah, I'm really curious as to, how did 'D2' go over in Iceland?" Tommy asks.
"That's a great question," Mike says.
'This Is Not Us! We Don't Do This!'
Helgi Páll Þórisson, from Reykjavík, Iceland, is the vice president of the Icelandic hockey federation. He played on Iceland's national hockey team for 10 years.
But when "D2: Mighty Ducks" came out in 1994, Helgi was 16 years old.
He says his entire junior team — 25 guys — decided to see the movie in theaters after practice one Friday. They'd heard Iceland was featured.
"And I was, like, super excited," Helgi says. "I knew that we were going to be, like, the bad guys in the movie, of a sort. I didn't realize it was going to be portrayed like we crushing the young guys on the other team."
"We were, like, you know, a little bit disappointed on seeing the Iceland team with just goons beating the Mighty Ducks up," Helgi says with a laugh. "And, of course, the poor Icelandic. We said, 'This is not us! We don't do this!' "
Helgi says that after "D2" came out, all his friends asked him if hockey was really like that — with guys just beating each other up,
Helgi says he told them no — there were more rules in real life. But even so, Helgi says more Icelandic kids started putting on hockey skates.
Maria Ellingsen — the actress who played one of Team Iceland's coaches — saw her own niece pick up the sport.
She says no one asked her to help coach.
"No," she says with a laugh. "I guess my reputation had been ruined."
A Message To The American People
Soccer, handball and basketball are still Iceland’s most popular sports. But since "D2" came out, Iceland got a third ice rink — and the original two got roofs.
And, just for the record, Helgi — the vice president of Iceland's hockey federation — says he's never crushed an opponent's beach ball.
I asked him if he wanted to say anything to all the Americans who might've grown up with the wrong impression of Icelanders.
"Well, my message to the American people is, basically: pack your hockey gear and come over here. And play a couple of games with us," he says.
"And can you promise that you guys will be kinder to the Americans than the Team Iceland in the movie?" I ask.
"No, I cannot," he says with a laugh. "I'm just kidding. We treat people nice here. It will be fun. I promise you."
Mighty Ducks screenwriter Steve Brill says he's in.
"And I will bring a beach ball," he says. "And we'll see what happens, man. Then we'll see what happens."
This segment aired on April 21, 2018.