Hollywood and HockeyLife After Hockey

For East of Eli, ‘It all started with Mighty Ducks 2’

Nathan West
(Photo by J. Merritt/FilmMagic via Getty Images)

Long before he played through a bruise on the leg as Rob McClanahan, goaltending prodigy Nathan West launched his acting endeavors by taking a bruise on the palm. Before he fought a rival-turned-teammate in character as McClanahan, he briefly brawled with Ken Wu. And before he reenacted an historic Olympic gold-medal clincher, he surrendered a scripted Goodwill Games shootout decider.

Nathan West entered the pristine, palm tree-flanked mansion and felt right at home.

The aroma of Anaheim Arena’s untouched ice resembled that of his home rink in Alaska. The unseen machinery sustaining the surface made for a comfortable cold snap. The state-of-the-art (by 1993 standards) scoreboard hovered with an infectious aura of professionalism.

And the open space and free time left limitless roaming and running possibilities until it was time to get the work. The eventual influx of seat holders signaled that time. The time for the cast of D2: The Mighty Ducks to christen the rink of the soon-to-be-renamed Arrowhead Pond.

“It was crazy to see people walking in that building, and we had been all over,” West recalled to Pucks and Recreation. “It was our playground.”

At age 14, going on 15 by that summer’s end, West and his castmates were about to feel a fever of fun spread to the ceiling. Audiences reportedly exceeding 12,000 flocked with free admission to the July and August shooting sessions of D2’s gold-medal game scenes.

For West, it did not matter a single ice chip that he was playing an anonymous foil. He had an uncredited part as the goaltender for the villainous Iceland squad.

Anyone remotely fascinated with hockey goalies is bound to learn the late Hall of Famer Jacques Plante’s old saying. “How would you like a job where, every time you make a mistake, a big red light goes on and 18,000 people boo?”

Being a movie, D2 was a somewhat different dynamic. Its championship segment packed the majority of the Mighty Ducks trilogy’s Harlem Globetrotter-type antics. Yet it was faithful to the sport with repeat jokes at the expense of the netminder for its Washington Generals. (Or should we say Reykjavik Hershöfðingjar?)

“I don’t think you understand how much it means to those young kids to get on that ice between periods at a National Hockey League game. We all find it to be adorable, but for those kids, that is something that is engrained in your mind. It will never leave you, it’s going to be there for the rest of your life.” – Nathan West

As part of his job, West has his character’s shutout spoiled by a pint-sized converted figure skater late in the second period. He then confronts the scorer after being taunted, only to lose the fast fight upon getting the stick-gloves-shirt treatment.

Iceland proceeds to blow a 4-1 lead in the third period en route to a 5-5 regulation tie and eventual shootout loss. Along the way, West is snowed by USA Ducks speedster Luis Mendoza. He is mentally handcuffed by Russ Tyler’s equalizer on a preposterous “knucklepuck” shot from the other attacking zone. In the ensuing shootout, he is struck by Fulton’s famous slap shot with such force, he falls flat on his back with his head across the line and the puck trickling in after it.

By his own account, the audience ate it all up.

“Everyone was abuzz in that building,” West recalled. And he could not have relished the energy more.

The mixture of athletes, actors and observers were crossing into various forms of virgin territory. For the spectators, this was a free tune-up for when world-class professionals stepped onto the Pond’s ice in the same uniforms as the film stars. For the actors, this was a riveting replica of an athlete’s big-game experience.

And for the athletes, West included, this was an opportunity that never promises to duplicate itself. Here he was, a high-school hockey player with big-league dreams, taking time 2,400 miles away from home to inaugurate what many would come to liken to a Taj Mahal of sports facilities. One of those writers, Orange Coast Magazine’s Tom Singer, added that “Sports open the doors for international prominence.”

“We skated on that ice before the NHL Ducks even did,” West marveled.

“I don’t think you understand how much it means to those young kids to get on that ice between periods at a National Hockey League game,” he continued. “We all find it to be adorable, but for those kids, that is something that is engrained in your mind. It will never leave you, it’s going to be there for the rest of your life.”

Almost a quarter-century later, the afterglow of the opportunity still manifests itself across West’s life. Everything he has done on the ice, in other camera-laden settings, in a recording studio or even at home, he can trace back to D2.

Singularly scouted
The Nathan West of the ’90s was Nathan West, hockey prospect. Goaltending was his natural position, and the first scout with Mighty Ducks ties noticed.

Jack White, a Canadian-born animator by trade, was mixing Hollywood with hockey as early as the mid-’70s. With the help of Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr, just to name two, he started introducing the sport to novice skaters in the Los Angeles area.

His skills clinics grew rapidly in age range, and his roster of clients eventually included movie stars who needed to learn the game for a role. His earliest credits included Michael Keaton’s Touch and Go and Rob Lowe’s Youngblood.

When Disney got in on the game, it lured White out to Minnesota, where he served as the hockey technical advisor for The Mighty Ducks. He also portrayed the referee in several ice scenes.

The icebreaking movie hit theaters on Oct. 2, 1992. Within five months, the company had its own NHL franchise in Anaheim, and the choice of nickname was natural.

To go with that offshoot, a sequel was already in the works, and it would follow White back home. The protagonists of The Mighty Ducks were going global in a fictitious Junior Goodwill Games tournament, shot on location in and around L.A.

Coming down from another direction and another prototypically puck-friendly state, West and his team had a real weekend tournament. By that point, Mighty Ducks of Anaheim merchandise was permeating the pro shops, and a Jr. Mighty Ducks youth hockey program was seeing action.

The local players from that program would make convenient recruits as extras and skating doubles. But White wanted more bodies to fill the rosters of the USA Ducks’ opponents. He found one in a visiting goalie from Alaska who turned in a tournament MVP performance.

West was not even a novice actor at that point. He had never thought about acting. Yet he remembers White pulling him aside after the final game of his visit. “All of a sudden, he’s like, ‘Hey, my name is Jack. Do you want to me in my movie?’” he recalled.

As it happened, West’s father was living in Southern California at the time. That connection was a pivotal blessing the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal lacked two years prior. (Gyllenhaal, a lifelong L.A. resident, had been cast as Charlie Conway in The Mighty Ducks. But his parents reportedly withdrew the 11-year-old from consideration, as the role would have entailed spending two months two time zones away.)

And so West spent two-and-a-half more months in the fledgling hockey market, where his assets were maximized, and his weaknesses muffled. Iceland, which supplanted Russia as the villain due to the then-recently ended Cold War going banal, was meant to spook with its superior size and skill.

For that, West had the physical maturity and the positional proficiency White and company needed. That, in turn, earned him the privilege of making his self-proclaimed “playground” out of the Pond.

But all playgrounds are bound to witness the occasional injury and upset. For the Hollywood neophyte, who hardly foresaw his future roles in Miracle and numerous non-hockey projects, the growing pains typified that reality.

Appropriately, West’s only “line” to make the final cut in D2 was a reaction to a relatively mild ailment. During Iceland’s 12-1 romp of Team USA in a round-robin game, Fulton is ordered to unleash his searing slapper in hopes of getting his club on the board and generating momentum.

Instead, West snuffs the shot with a deflating snare. Famed play-by-play announcer Bob Miller conveys the immediate letdown to the U.S. faithful, then speculates that the impact of the grab would leave a mark.

Sure enough, on cue, West doffs his trapper and lets out a pained grunt as he unveils a puck-shaped bruise on his left palm.

The goalie did have more to say, West recalls, but “I think I was so bad they had to just cut it all out.”

With that being said, “that really kicked off my acting career without my even knowing that I wanted to be an actor.”

The following fall, West returned to Anchorage and tended the nets for another three years at Robert Service High School. The Service Cougars hockey program, which later produced Brandon Dubinsky, is a big enough deal to have its own cheerleading squad. And West’s own overall popularity among his peers got him the title of 1996 prom king.

Nathan West Robert Esche OHL Detroit Whalers

Robert Esche beat out West for the starting job with the Detroit Whalers junior team. But within a year, West landed on his feet as an actor. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Afterward, he ventured back to the Lower 48 to pursue major-junior hockey rather than college. Undrafted but undaunted, he landed a roster spot with the OHL’s Detroit Whalers, where Robert Esche was the incumbent starter. Esche entered the 1996-97 campaign as the Phoenix Coyotes’ sixth-round selection, and the difference in the two stoppers’ ceilings translated to the stats.

Esche, who went on to play 11 seasons in the pros, saw action in 58 of Detroit’s 66 regular-season games. West managed 16 credited appearances, posting a 2-3-2 record, .841 save percentage and 5.31 goals-against average.

The 1997 Whalers sank before Sault Ste. Marie in the first round of the OHL playoffs. The Greyhounds, led by soon-to-be No. 1 NHL draft pick Joe Thornton, doubled them up in five games by a cumulative score of 22-11. With the scorchers on Esche, West made one relief appearance, which turned out to be his last formal hockey shift.

But to his pleasant surprise, there were still talent-seekers at his games who wanted to hear from him. Through Whalers bench boss Peter DeBoer, West received a card from a Michigan-based casting agent.

As his melting ice and dripping blue paint grew more readily apparent, he trusted the confidence of the entertainment scouts. Despite some previous frustrations at acting workshops, he decided to dabble in it again. He patiently paddled through the rapids of tough-love coaching and directing, and the dividends surfaced in the form of his first three acting credits in the autumn of 1998.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “I look back now and think, ‘Gosh, it’s been an incredible career,’ and it all started with Mighty Ducks 2.

“Here was this Disney move that offered me this opportunity that opened a door to a whole world that I never thought was there.”

Esche, who capped his junior career as an OHL all-star in 1998, made the American League’s all-rookie team in 1998-99. West did not fare too shabbily for himself in the concomitant television season. He made two appearances on The Practice and one on The Adventures of A.R.K. In the subsequent spring, he guest starred on ER and Smart Guy.

His career change would only look smarter after the change in millennium.

Forward thinking
The Nathan West of the ’00s was Nathan West, actor, newlywed and new parent once, twice and thrice over. Of those titles, the latter two were only true because of the first.

“My wife, who I love with all my heart,” he said, “I met her in an audition.”

Chyler Leigh, of Grey’s Anatomy and Supergirl fame, had also been acting since adolescence. Their paths crossed in 1999 on the set of an upstart series, Saving Graces, which never saw action on the screen. But the next fall, they co-starred as guests on 7th Heaven, and they were both cast in 2001’s Not Another Teen Movie.

While filming that flick — Leigh’s first and West’s third after Bring It On — he popped the question in a manner initially disguised as a standard scene shot. The moment lives on as part of the DVD extras.

They were wed in Anchorage in the summer of 2002, a time when another Disney hockey movie was brewing. It would be West’s chance to live a portion of yet another, though distinctly different, stretch of the studio’s sports output.

When he was a teen thinking he would be a one-off actor, Disney lived off kid-oriented comedic fiction for its athletic accounts. D2 came amidst the Mighty Ducks trilogy, plus Angels in the Outfield, The Big Green and two Air Bud projects.

The pattern had changed to living legends by the time West was perpetually pursuing new roles. When movies were his staple, Remember the Titans, The Rookie and Invincible defined Disney’s sports-movie output.

Between the second and third of those, the company conceived a film that would retell the story of the 1980 Olympic team. West was between agents when casting calls went out for it. But Leigh’s agent, whose husband was an avid recreational skater and hockey fan, made sure the word got to him.

Upon obtaining the script from Leigh, he recalls, “I read it, and I was, like, ‘I have to be a part of this.’” He went so far as to tell director Gavin O’Connor, “there’s no way in hell they’re making the film without me.”

The basic common threads with his first film a decade prior were not lost on West. In fact, he said, the connections were “100 percent” apparent. While he took nothing for granted, he knew that the prior Disney association, which came about specifically on account of his hockey skills, would be a plus.

Nathan West Chyler Leigh

When they were newlyweds in 2002, Chyler Leigh brought the Miracle screenplay to West’s attention through her agent. (Photo by Barry King/Getty Images)

But in stark, though ultimately favorable contrast to D2, West was no longer an outnumbered novice actor. O’Connor wanted proficient pucksters for every role, and, with the exception of retired NHL netminder Bill Ranford, no stunt skaters.

“His approach was genius,” West said, “because we’re telling a true story.”

Eddie Cahill, for whom Ranford doubled behind the mask as Jim Craig, and Kenneth Mitchell (Ralph Cox) would be West’s only company of seasoned actors portraying the players. Of the 20 young men who comprised the Olympic team, 10 have logged zero Internet Movie Database credits before and since Miracle.

And only West went in knowing what it was like to be on the ice with cameras and clapboards everywhere.

Nonetheless, he found one more way to stray from his comfort zone. He eschewed his familiar goalie pads and tried out as a skater, landing the part of first-line forward Rob McClanahan.

With McClanahan’s most famous contributions to the 1980 narrative, West was on a smooth path to some intriguing hockey movie motifs. Where the Iceland goalie shakes off the bruise to his palm, McClanahan resolves to “play on one leg!” when the opposite limb brooks a contusion.

“I never really thought about that,” he admitted. “Really interesting.”

But he should know as well as any ex-athlete that those bumps, bruises and scars are the investments for glory. And as an actor portraying an athlete, West scored the privilege of being involved in the last onscreen goal of D2 and Miracle alike.

In the U.S.-Iceland rematch at the Pond, the deciding shootout is deadlocked, 3-3, entering the fifth and final inning. In the top half, Adam Banks — who has his own laundry list of past ailments — looks to give the Ducks the lead. He does so by pinballing a close-range wrister in off the back of West’s right leg. Gunnar Stahl’s subsequent stubbornness to shoot into Julie Gaffney’s glove means Banks’ goal stands as the clincher.

West scored the privilege of being involved in the last onscreen goal of D2 and Miracle alike.

In the last game of 1980 Olympics, none other than McClanahan snapped a 2-2 deadlock for Team USA’s first and permanent lead with 13:55 to spare in regulation. The cast’s reenactment of that goal was the only highlight of the Finland game to make the Miracle cut. West can be seen burying the biscuit through the five-hole in slow motion as Kurt Russell, in character as Herb Brooks, narrates.

West is as good as Hollywood hockey’s answer to Edgar Renteria. Just as the Major League shortstop hit a walkoff base hit to clinch the 1997 World Series and grounded into the final out to lose the 2004 title, he got to be on both sides of a gold-medal goal.

When reminded of that distinction, he was practically as speechless as McClanahan would have been in the real moment.

“I guess I feel kind of honored to have been a part of those moments,” he said. “They come at a moment in each of these films that are so pivotal to telling the story. Whether it’s nonfictional or fictional, it doesn’t matter.”

West also has the honor of being doubly featured in fan-fiction crossovers. On Jan. 11, 2009, a clever YouTube user by the pseudonym “mmattuc” uploaded a “preview” for D2: The Minnesota Miracle. The mashup takes the audio from Miracle’s trailer and replaces the accompanying footage with clips from D2.

“I did not see that,” West admitted, sounding intrigued. “I should probably check it out.”

To instill interest among the indifferent-to-hockey majority of the American populace, Disney unquestionably needed a flare of compelling intensity in its Miracle trailer. The film’s reenactment of Brooks’ confrontation with the injured McClanahan was a natural fit.

For the Duck-oriented rendering, mmattuc interspersed clips of Gordon Bombay protesting Dean Portman’s abrupt ejection from the first Iceland game and Portman’s ensuing locker-room tantrum. But naturally, viewers only hear Russell and West dubbed over.

Other highlights in the creation include three of the USA Ducks’ shootout goals against Iceland. This means West and only West has both his voice and likeness (albeit masked) in the teaser. Because West and only West had the pleasure of performing in both of Disney’s full-length films about international hockey.

That also makes him an authority for establishing the comparisons and contrasts between each project. Both, he says, are important to keep in mind, especially when it comes to comparing the experience of making each.

“(It would be) interesting to somehow bring those two films together, maybe not,” he said. “They’re both hockey films, they’re both very special. But the stories are so different, they each kind of stand on their own.”

“There’s no way to compare those two experiences,” he added. “They’re very special experiences in their own way.”

A decade after the Pond, a smaller arena in Vancouver posed as the Lake Placid rink and served as a whole new playground for the twentysomething West and company. For the U.S.-Russia game that spawned the movie’s title, the Canadian crowd was more out of its element than anyone.

Of the big D2 shoot in 1993, Len Hall reported in the Los Angeles Times, “The crowd, many of whom had seen the first movie, needed little prompting to start the “U.S.A., U.S.A.” chant.” (This is to say nothing of the more audible “We Will Quack You!” segment.)

Getting the audience in British Columbia to do the same was a more important prerequisite for Miracle. But as West remembers it, the crew had to yank the bystanders’ nationalistic fangs.

This was a place where the presence of a red maple leaf more than matched that of the Mighty Ducks crest around Anaheim. Even pretending to root for the rival to the south was an apparent affront.

“Imagine,” West said, “putting them in this arena and then telling them to chant ‘U-S-A.’ That combination was unreal, because they wouldn’t do it.”

At first, O’Connor openly pleaded through a megaphone to no avail. But two bystanders had the cure. They unfurled a strikingly large Canadian flag and draped it from the upper seating bowl.

That elicited the thundering din the filmmakers needed. And the locals eventually started to play along and act like they bled blue in addition to their natural red and white. The chant came late, but better late than never.

“(Both) unique moments in time for me,” West said, “and things I have great stories from.”

Loving life with Leigh
The Nathan West of the ’10s is East of Eli, singer and guitarist, at least professionally. Personally, he is Nathan West, devoted husband and doting father. His son, Noah, was on the way when Miracle was in the works. Now Noah is almost as old as Nathan was at the tournament that led him to D2.

Meanwhile, West’s youngest daughter, eight-year-old Anniston Kae, is taking up hockey this season. “So it’s still a huge part of my life,” he says.

Family business is somewhat bigger, though. With East of Eli, West and Leigh have more control over their opportunities to creatively collaborate. Sometimes known as WestLeigh, they have warmed North American and European audiences through 2015’s “Love Lit The Sky” and 2017’s “Nowhere.” Their duets, and East of Eli’s recent work in general, are expressly about appreciating one another and the family they have formed.

At times, when he performs, West’s facial hair, shirt and hat make him look like an American Aldous Snow impersonator. He is anything but that, and WestLeigh is anything but the building-up-letting-down power couples people are accustomed to following. They stay out of the tabloids the same way start-to-finish smooth flights stay off the national news.

Of the concept of “Nowhere,” West told People magazine, “There’s a lot of times right now with our careers where there’s a lot missed opportunities to be together…that’s what I was thinking about. While I was thinking of her she was thinking of me. It’s special because love knows no boundaries.”

In the same People interview, Leigh offered, “We thought this would be a great opportunity for us to not be working together playing somebody else, but working together being ourselves.”

The only ponds the resultant straight-from-the-heart melody evokes are the kinds that uneventfully ripple before an impeccable sun-and-shade ratio. But West remains unequivocally grateful for his shift on the artist formerly known as the Arrowhead Pond.

“I did get to be a pro hockey player…not as a professional athlete, but as an actor.” – Nathan West

After all, it did, in effect, lead him to Leigh. And he can claim membership on one of the same all-time rosters as Ranford and Ken Dryden (both of Miracle). Ditto Chris Chelios, Cam Neely, Luc Robitaille and Wayne Gretzky, who all appeared in D2.

“I’ve had a very unique hockey career,” West told Pucks and Rec. “I did get to be a pro hockey player…not as a professional athlete, but as an actor.”

Per his IMDB page, West has not logged an acting credit since 2010’s Alleged. But one year before that, he elicited his hockey background once more to land a guest spot on the puck-themed episode of Bones, “Fire in the Ice.” As it happened, Robitaille also cameoed in that episode as himself, just as he had done in D2.

Robitaille has appeared in two movies and on seven scripted TV shows, be they dramas, primetime sitcoms or even cartoons. The current president of the L.A. Kings typically goes no more than four years between entertainment spots.

In a way, that pattern could extend Robitaille’s status as “someone I always looked up to” in West’s playing days. As West was wrapping up his chat with Pucks and Rec, he supposed that another as-yet-unforeseen, but ultimately enticing hockey/acting project could always emerge.

He has a point. The speculation may never stop as to a potential D4 film. That is unless it actually happens, in which case it could pursue a two-time Disney veteran with ample rink knowledge.

Or perhaps in another couple of decades, the 1998 gold-medalist U.S. women’s Olympic team will be made into movie material. Or maybe the to-be-determined fate of the 2017-18 women’s national team will become film fodder. And maybe by then, the likes of Anniston Kae West will be in a prime position to portray a player.

Or maybe she will just have a fun, innocent youth playing career while Dad kicks back as a spectator. Even that could come with an intermission twirl at L.A.’s Staples Center or Anaheim’s Honda Center. At least in that scenario, Anniston’s father would handle her moment in the sun with an informed perspective.

Either way, it would be sound symmetry for Nathan West, who is where he is and has what he has because he manned the crease so deftly in the winter of 1993.

“This whole door opened kind of by accident, but man, Jack White had started it,” he said. “Without that, I don’t know that I would have my three kids. Kind of funny to look at it from that perspective.”

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