Sunday

Ron Hextall


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.

8 comments:

Anonymous,  10:46 PM  

Ron Hextall Rocks! Also, to anyone who ever thought he forgot how to stop pucks late in his career, name me one goaltender who hasn't let up fluke goals from time to time. Brodeur, Hasek, Roy, etc... they have all given up fluke goals. As Rick Tocchet once said on Hextall: "He could go months without giving up a fluke goal and then he would give one up, and all of a sudden he was a bum." The Flyers main problem was they platooned goalies too often. Leting the team punk out and blame the goalie instead of looking at their lack of defensive speed etc. For instance, Ron Hextall posted 2.17 goals against averages twice late in his career. The Second of which, 97-98, he was replaced by Sean Burke for the playoffs. Burke posted a 1-4 record, 3.60 g.a.a, and a .860 save percentage loosing to an inferior Sabres team. Hextall clearly could of done better than that. The Following season was Hextall's last as he backed up Vanbiesbrouck. The problem was never his ability to stop pucks, just peoples harsh judgment of him. Yes, It was hard to keep the early success he had going. Though, if he had been given the chance to play more often his wins late in his career would have been up there with his early success. Hextall was clearly one of the best goalies of his generation, and deserves serious consideration to the Hall of fame... along with his number 27 being retired by the Philadelphia Flyers. Especially his number being retired, because not was Hextall a great goalie, but he bled Orange and Black. I feel it is about time that people looked at his numbers and put him up there with the better goalies of his time.

Anonymous,  5:48 PM  

I grew up in Hextall's era of hockey. There were great tenders then. Great Grant in Edmonton, Pansy Patrick in Montreal, are two examples of the competition that Ron had to stand up to. I believe that he was a fantastic net-minder. The zest with which he plated the game should not be questioned. Those who say that he was a bad goalie must not be able to read statistics, Hextall's speak for themselves. When I thinks of goalies of the era that let in soft goals I think of every goalie the Leafs had, Palmeteer, Bester, etc. Hextall was a great goalie and deserves all of the praise he can be given!

Anonymous,  10:36 PM  

I'VE BEEN A FLYERS FAN FOR 32 YEARS, AND I THINK RON HEXTALL WAS A FINE GOALTENDER....HALL OF FAME...NO, NUMBER RETIRED...NO. BUT I RANK HIM #2 ALL TIME FLYERS GOALIE BEHIND THE MAGNIFICENT BERNIE PARENT. NO DISRESPECT TO PELLE LINDBERGH OR DOUG FAVELL...BUT HEXTALL WAS SIMPLY BETTER. GRANTED IF NOT FOR PELLE'S UNTIMELY DEATH, THERE MIGHT NOT HAVE BEEN A RON HEXTALL IN PHILLY. AND WHEN HE WAS GIVEN HIS CHANCE IN 1986-87,HE SHINED...BOY DID HE SHINE. HIS AGRESSIVE AND ENTHUSIASTIC STYLE OF PLAY MADE HIM FUN TO WATCH. HE WAS AN OLD SCHOOL GOALIE WITH THE HEART OF A LION. NO ONE CAN DENY(EXCEPT MAYBE LA KINGS FANS)THAT RON WAS RIPPED OFF FOR THE (CALDER TROPHY)ROOKIE OF YEAR IN 86-87.AS FOR THE LATER YEARS, HIS AGGRESSIVE NATURE ALONG WITH SOME REOCCURRING INJURIES MIGHT HAVE GOTTEN THE BETTER OF HIM TOWARDS THE END , BUT THAT NEVER AFFECTED HIS ABILITY TO STOP THE PUCK. HAVING PLAYED THE POSTION OF GOALIE MYSELF, WE ALL KNOW HOW EASILY A GOALIE CAN BE MADE THE SCAPEGOAT IN LOSING SITUATIONS...I.E. WAYNE STEPHENSON, HEXTALL, AND ROMAN CECHMANEK. SO HEXTALL DEFINATELY GETS MY #2 VOTE BEHIND BERNIE PARENT... A FINE GOALIE INDEED

chris 12:14 AM  

Hextall was the man and the reason I played goal when I played hockey as a kid. Watching the fire with which he played game made my friends and I hockey (and Flyers fans) for life. I hope that eventually he will get the nod for Hall of Fame as he most certainly has the stats and the credentials to warrant getting in. Also how can not like a so willing to mix it up and carry on the Broad Street Bully mentality.

JKidd 12:55 PM  

My personal favorite, when it comes to 'tenders. Not because he was the best, far from it, honestly. He was tougher than most in the game today, and was never afraid to show it. Whether it was the paddle on the ankles, if you're trying to come in front of the net. A blocker to the head for standing too close, or a flat out fight because he was pissed off... Hexy was just an entertaining guy to watch.

Joe Pelletier 10:36 PM  

JKIDD

Awesome job posting your memories on many of the players found here at GreatestHockeyLegends.com - Thank you for your contribution as it is reader-provided memories that really make this site special.

Joe
http://www.greatesthockeylegends.com

Bart Morgan,  5:51 PM  

It's funny how the article mentions that he wanted to be a goaltender from the start. I remember when the Hextall's lived in Pittsburgh and he and his brother Rodney went to Foxcroft grade school in the Chartiers Valley school district. We used to play gym hockey with the plastic puck and Ron was always a goalie even then. I'd say he was about 8 or 9 years old.

Anonymous,  8:55 AM  

Nobody seems to ever remember, Gretzky called Hextall the greatest player he ever played against. Just sayin.

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