Who Says Pro Hockey Can't Be Cuddly?

Is this the future of professional hockey? Purists of the sport, who gave their heroes such nicknames as Boom Boom, Hatchet Man, and the Broad Street Bullies, no doubt will cringe at a team that plays in a place called The Pond. Or that is named after a kids' movie, The Mighty Ducks. But come Oct. 8, fans in Anaheim, Calif., will be cheering the National Hockey League's newest team, turned out in uniforms designed by the same costumers who dress Minnie and Mickey. What about high-sticking and savage cross-checks? To see such moves, fans will have to look beyond the ice-skating cheerleaders and the organist who flies on overhead wires like Peter Pan.

Only Hollywood--or more precisely, Disneyland--would try to make a blood- lusting game like hockey look cuddly. But Walt Disney Co., which this year won the rights to enter the NHL with its Mighty Ducks franchise, intends to turn hockey into family entertainment. An animated scoreboard will light up with flying ducks. Performers will cavort between periods. "It was a test to see if we're really as good at marketing as we think we are," says Disney Chairman Michael D. Eisner. "I mean, did we make Mickey Mouse so popular or did he make us?"

Hard to tell. But even before it takes the ice for its first official game, Disney's team is solidly profitable, Eisner says. Riding the region's pro hockey enthusiasm following the Stanley Cup appearance this spring of the Los Angeles Kings, the Mighty Ducks have sold an impressive 12,500 season tickets at up to $6,800 apiece. The team's first five games are already sold out at the 17,174-seat Pond, while corporate sponsors have paid $99,000 a pop to reserve 52 of the 84 specially outfitted skyboxes.

Where Disney is no doubt winning so far is in the synergism contest. To sell season tickets, the team culled lists of those buying group tickets to nearby Disneyland. Disney's KCAL-TV station in Los Angeles will air many of the games, and it is promoting the team with a special. The week before the first game, the team paraded through Disneyland. Meanwhile, Mighty Duck merchandise is selling briskly at Disney's 200 stores. The studio is also re-releasing the video of its 1992 movie The Mighty Ducks. And a sequel, shot at the Pond, arrives next year.

"Every owner in the league knows their future looks better with Disney generating that kind of interest in the game," says L.A. Kings owner Bruce McNall, chairman of the league's board of governors. Indeed, pro hockey, intent on sprucing up its image, has courted companies like Disney and Florida Panther owner Blockbuster Entertainment Corp. for their marketing savvy. Last year, the league got a boost with the San Jose Sharks, which used sophisticated marketing surveys for the first time to sell an estimated $100 million-plus in team merchandise and 11,000 season tickets. Pushing into Florida, California, and other populous Southern markets has improved television prospects, with ABC-TV and ESPN expanding coverage. That has already boosted the average value of oneof the 26 pro hockey teams to$75 million, from $35 million to $50 million, says Michael S. Megna, who appraises sports franchises for investors.

BEAT OUR GUEST. But the hockey mavens had to bend their rules to get Disney on board. To sell Duck merchandise at its Disney stores nationwide and at Disney World in Orlando, Disney won a waiver of NHL rules against selling products outside a 75-mile radius. Disney did pay the L.A. Kings $25 million of its $50 million franchise fee to invade the Kings' territory. But Eisner is also ruffling feathers by proposing changes to make the game more exciting, such as a shoot-off to settle ties, replacing the existing five-minute overtime rule. "Everyone in the league knows Michael has brilliant ideas," says McNall, "but there's a lot of tradition in hockey and making changes isn't easy."

These days, the only battle Disney's team is girding for is for the hearts of Anaheim. The team, mostly younger players and castoffs, will probably be mediocre, although it finished its exhibition season with a respectable 2-2-1 record. But even if the team lacks pizzazz, the show won't. For opening night in Anaheim, Disney has planned a musical extravaganza to the tune of Be Our Guest, from its film Beauty and the Beast. Somewhere, a hockey god must be wincing.