April 29, 2006
I remember one particular discussion with a fan about Ron Hextall. We were discussing how all the great goaltenders throughout history somehow revolutionized the art of goaltending. With Ron's incredible puck handling ability, this fan said "Hextall revolutionized the game with his puck handling ability. He took it to a new level and was like a third defenseman back there. Too bad he forgot how to stop the puck late in his career."
While his comments were tongue in cheek, they are kind of accurate.
Ron Hextall's career started out like gangbusters. As a rookie he challenged Grant Fuhr for top status as the games best goalie in the late 1980s. He was incredible and made the Flyers a true Stanley Cup threat. Over time Ron's play leveled off to the point where he continued to play solidly, but was a victim of his own early success. Ron was unable to duplicate or better his accomplishments as a youngster. In a game that demands that you take your play to a higher level every year, many fans soured on Hexy's abilities as a #1 goaltender. He became a favorite target of fans and reporters in the late 1990s as Ron developed a tendency to give up weak goals from time to time. The Flyers were supposed to be a great Cup threat, but goaltending, be it Hexy, Garth Snow or John Vanbiesbrouck, was considered to be the weak point of the team.
While many fans will remember Hextall for his late career tendency to give up soft goals, he should be remembered as one of the most exciting goalies to watch, at least during his early years. He excited fans in a way that Dominik Hasek or Tony Esposito did. Fans will also remember Hexy for his uncontrollable temper. He set an NHL record for goaltenders with 113 PIM in 1988-89. Memorable skirmishes with Edmonton's Kent Nilsson and Montreal's Chris Chelios always stick out in the minds of many hockey fans.
Hextall in a way revolutionized a game. He certainly wasn't the first goalie to handle the puck, but he was so good at handling and shooting the puck. Teams couldn't dump and chase against the Flyers because Hexy would roam behind the net to stop the puck and then lift it over everybody into the neutral zone where a quick Flyers forward like Brian Propp or Ilkka Sinisalo was waiting to pounce on a loose puck. Also, Hextall was the leader of strong Flyers teams of the late 1980s. The Flyers came oh so close to knocking off the might Edmonton Oilers. Hextall's fiery play definitely characterized that team, something which is extremely rare for a goaltender to do.
Ron of course comes from a famous hockey family. Ron's grandfather is Hall of Famer Bryan Hextall. Sr. Bryan Hextall Jr. was Ron's dad, who also played in the NHL, as did Ron's uncle Dennis Hextall.
But right from an early age Ron wanted to be a goaltender.
"I remember going to my dad's practices, sitting behind the glass and watching the goalie the whole time," said Hextall in Dick Irvin's great book "In The Crease." "I can't explain it, can't pinpoint it. I twasn't like I watched a certain guy one time and sai "I want to be a goalie like him." It was there from the start."
Although he and his brother were rink rats at the NHL practices, Ron never actually started playing hockey until he was 8 years old. At that point his hockey was played in Pittsburgh where his dad played for the NHL Penguins. Later Hextall would play low quality hockey in places like Atlanta and Detroit before his dad retired from hockey and returned to his native Brandon, Manitoba when Ron was 12.
The family bloodlines and the hanging out with NHLers must have made up for the lack of regular hockey training as Hextall made it to Major Junior hockey. The Brandon Wheat Kings were a pretty weak squad during Ron's tenure, which oddly enough Ron credits as a major reason for his development. A goaltender faces lots of shots while playing for a bad team, and can really develop. Where a goalie playing for strong team may have strong junior statistics, but isn't nearly as good a goalie or is behind in his development comparitively.
The Flyers selected Ron in the sixth round (119th overall) of the 1982 NHL Entry Draft, but it wasn't until 1986-87 when he made his NHL debut, playing in 66 games and posting a league-leading 37 wins, a career-high. He played in the 1987 All Star game, a rarity for a rookie. He was named to the NHL First All-Star Team and All-Rookie Team and won the Vezina Trophy as top goaltender. In the playoffs Ron's fiery play backstopped the Flyers to the '87 Cup Finals where he was named as the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as Most Valuable Player in the playoffs despite the fact that the Flyers lost to the Edmonton Oilers in a memorable 7 game series. Despite all this, somehow Hextall didn't win the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie, as a young Luc Robitaille notched 45 goals in his rookie campaign.
Hextall seemingly came out of nowhere to accomplish one of the greatest individual seasons in hockey history. He was surprised to even make the team. The Flyers had Bob Froese, who had been runner up for the Vezina Trophy the season before, and cagey veteran Chico Resch returning. Coach Mike Keenan played a bit of a hunch by starting with the rookie, and it obvioiusly paid off.
Despite playing just one NHL season, Hexy was named to Team Canada in the 1987 Canada Cup. Hexy and the Islanders Kelly Hrudey never played however as Grant Fuhr went the distance. But it was still a definite honor for the big goalie. In 1987-88, he again played in the NHL All-Star Game and was awarded his second Bobby Clarke Trophy as the Flyers' Most Valuable Player. Ron would win that award again in 1988-89 when he posted his third straight 30 win season.
1987-88 was also memorable because Ron fired the puck into an empty net to become the first goaltender in NHL history to actually shoot the puck to score a goal. Nearly 10 years earlier Billy Smith was credited with a goal when he was the last player to handle the puck before the Colorado Rockies accidentally put the puck into their own goal. Hexy's goal came against Boston on December 8th, 1987. On April 11, 1989, Hextall duplicated this feat by scoring the first goal by a goalie in the Stanley Cup Playoffs!
Hextall downplays the importance of the goals.
"Everybody wanted it more than I wanted it. As much as I thought, yeah, it would be great, it would be fun, this and that, I didn't think it was that big a deal when I actually scored the goal. It was a thrill and when I look back it will still be a thrill. But it won't be in my book of the greatest memories of my career. I doubt if either of my goals will be there."
1989-90 was not a good season for Ron. He appeared in only 8 games. He was forced to sit out the first 12 games of the season due to a suspension for an incident in the previous playoffs. Hextall charged Montreal's Chris Chelios in a memorable battle in game 6 of the Wales Conference Finals. Ron later was felled by nagging groin and hamstring injuries, resulting in his most disappointing season ever.
"It was an awful feeling for me to sit out," confessed Ron to Dick Irvin. "I remember thinking that there I was, 25 years old and my career might be finished. I'm not a real spiritual guy but I must admit I said a prayer or two just to play until I was 32. At that point I was scared, very scared, that I was finished."
Hexy returned in 1990-91 to play 36 games, but some say he was never quite the same after his battle with the injuries. The stats support that argument, as Hextall struggled for the next two seasons. But in all fairness the Flyers team had deteriorated to the point where they were no longer playoff contenders.
Hextall's life changed on June 20, 1992 when the Flyers and Quebec Nordiques shook the hockey world with perhaps the biggest trade ever. Hextall was traded to the Nordiques with Peter Forsberg, Steve Duchesne, Kerry Huffman, Mike Ricci, Chris Simon, first round picks in the 1993 and 1994 drafts, and $15 million in exchange for the rights to a young phenom named Eric Lindros.
Hextall had a good season in Quebec, He went 29-18-6 and played a big role in turning around the once sad-sack Nords and bringing them back to the playoffs.
"Until the playoffs we had a great year," said Hextall of his lone season in Quebec. "We had 104 points. I still don't know what the hell happened in the playoffs. I played good for 4 games and then the wheels fell off. But overall we had a fun year. I wouldn't trade it for anything."
However Hextall's stay in Quebec lasted exactly one year as on June 20, 1993, he was traded with Quebec's first-round draft pick in 1993 to the New York Islanders in exchange for Mark Fitzpatrick and a first round draft pick in 1993.
In 1993-94, Ron played 65 games for the Islanders, one game shy of his career high. He also compiled a career-high five shutouts with an impressive 27-26-6 record on an average Isles team.
On Sept. 22, 1994, Ron returned to city of brotherly love. He was traded with the Islanders' sixth round choice in the 1995 draft to Philadelphia in exchange for Tommy Soderstrom. Ron celebrated his return by posting a league and career-best 2.17 goals-against average in 1995-96. He also posted 31 wins that year, the second highest of his career.
Towards the end of his career, Ron played more of a backup role. He shared the nets with Garth Snow for a couple of years before becoming a true backup to John Vanbiesbrouck in 1998-99. At the end of 1999, Hextall was bought out of his contract by the Flyers. The Flyers were looking to make room for a younger goalie to be brought up in their system.
Ron played in 608 NHL contests with a decision record 296-214-69. He had 23 shutouts and career goals against average of 2.97. He led the NHL in wins once and in GAA once. He is also the most penalized goalie in hockey history with 584 minutes, plus another 115 in the playoffs. He even scored 2 goals!
All in all fiery Ron Hextall will be remembered as a great competitor and a very good and entertaining goalie. He epitomized Flyer's hockey.