After the titular Mighty Ducks hockey team cuts young Evan (Brady Noon) and he and his mother (Lauren Graham) put together a new team of their own, that rag-tag cast of characters takes the ice to declare its entrance into the league. Evan has had experience playing on a team before, but some of the characters are lacing up for the very first time, so it’s not just the Flying V they have to master but simply staying upright and not crashing into each other. And, in a case of art imitating life, that’s exactly the scenario “The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers” hockey coordinator and choreographer Dave Tomlinson faced when working on the new Disney Plus series.
“A lot of them had never skated before, so I had to break it down, teaching them the basics of what it’s like to be balanced on skates, from how to stride to how to stop,” says Tomlinson, who began playing ice hockey himself at age 4. “A lot of it was just speaking in terms they could understand. The way I break down what a skating stride is, it has to make sense to them, not to me.”
Tomlinson was brought onboard the project after the pilot was cast. In those early days, he had two weeks to meet the kids who would be starring in the show, assess their abilities and put them through the proper training to get them comfortable on the ice and coached up to the proper skill level for where their character starts in the show. Kiefer O’Reilly, for example, “is a better hockey player than his character indicates at the start,” Tomlinson says. Therefore, his training was more about “how you have to dumb it down” in the beginning, while Taegan Burns had figure skating experience but had to learn the game of hockey from scratch, and De’Jon Watts and Luke Islam had never been on a pair of skates in their lives.
Tomlinson also had to find adult doubles, with real hockey experience, for every one of the young actors. “In Canada [where the show was filmed], the rules within the stunt community are that you have to be 17-years or older to do a stunt,” he explains. “The situation with hockey is that in the regular course of play there is body contact, so we were constantly having to identify what is considered a normal run of course in a hockey game and what is considered a stunt.”
Tomlinson collaborated closely with stunt coordinators Paul Wu and Landon Jackle. And although technology has gotten to a point where an actor’s face can be digitally dropped onto a double’s body if needed, Tomlinson says the goal on the set of “The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers” was to focus on practical shooting. Camera angles and gear helped hide the fact that a double was being used for certain physical moments in the rink, but Tomlinson prides himself on “finding hockey players that absolutely look 100% like the actors.”
“That’s the most enjoyable part of my job: to see the actor and how they skate, what their body type is, to then be on the lookout for that exact match,” he says.
When the series was in production, Tomlinson — or “Coach Dave,” as the young cast came to call him — often found himself having only a bit of time in the morning to tell the actors what they’d be doing on the ice that day. Then they would have just a few takes to actually do it. While Tomlinson calls himself a “stickler” for details when it comes to hockey, the nature of the training — for a TV show about a group of kids still learning the sport themselves — meant that there was leeway concerning skating ability and how accurate a shot or pass needed to be. “The biggest thing was to stay within their character,” he says.
As the actors spent more time on the ice, though, “each week I’d see improvements,” Tomlinson notes. And as they got better and more comfortable, the scripts would reflect that; their characters would acquire new skills. The key for Tomlinson, who also worked with adult cast members Emilio Estevez and Graham, was communication. “Let me know when you feel it, check in with me,” he recalls telling the cast. “The last thing I want to do is push you guys too hard.”