Flyer Goaltender great
If ever a hockey player was born to play for a franchise, it was Ron Hextall for the Philadelphia Flyers.
The big, skinny kid from Manitoba entered the NHL with a swagger and anger that reminded everyone of the Broad Street Bullies. He was a goalie who wasn’t afraid to pick fights, nor slash at the legs trying to block his view, nor skate into the corner after a loose puck.
He was also immensely talented. By the time Ron Hextall retired – after two stints with the Flyers – he owned the franchise goaltender records for regular-season games (489) and wins (240), as well as post-season games (84) and wins (45). If only God saves more than Bernie Parent, then only Bernie ranks ahead of Hexy among Philadelphia netminders.
Who can forget how he entered the scene as a 22-year-old in 1986, joining a franchise that was still reeling from the death a year earlier of Pelle Lindbergh? It was a tough spot, aiming to replace a legend, but Hextall was excellent from the start. He played in 66 games as a rookie, winning 37, and finished the regular season with a 3.00 goals-against average, third-best in the league.
His better work came in that year’s post-season. Hextall led a battered Flyers team to Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Final against the Edmonton Oilers, the greatest offensive force in NHL history. He was incredible that spring of 1987, stoning Oilers on breakaways, turning back slapshots in heavy traffic, inspiring teammates 10 years his senior. When it was over, Oilers captain Wayne Gretzky called Hextall’s performance, “the greatest goaltending I’ve ever seen.”
Hextall won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP, only the third time a member of a losing team had taken home that trophy. He was named 1st Team All-Rookie and also named 1st Team NHL All-Star at season’s end. Hextall was also the recipient of the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top netminder for the 1986-87 season.
And he became one of this city’s most popular athletes, a title he never relinquished. Throughout the streets of the Delaware Valley, aspiring goaltenders (often in sneakers) mimicked his style – clanging their stick against the goalposts, hurling long outlet passes that would do any Sixer proud, moving w-a-a-ay out of the crease to help out their defenseman. No one had ever played the position like this before.
Sometimes Hextall’s unique approach got him in trouble. His habit at whacking at opponents crowding his net earned him an eight-game suspension in 1987. A few years later he got a 12-game sentence for taking his blocker to the head of Chris Chelios after the Montreal defenseman cheap-shotted Flyers forward Brian Propp.
In other towns, they booed him. But Hextall was admired by his teammates and adored by the local fans. If goalies served as NHL team captains, he would have been a fine candidate.
He was always thrilling. You’d watch him skate 50 feet away from his net and fear that he’d get caught out of position. It happened occasionally, but more often, he’d beat a speeding opponent to the puck and turn play around with a crisp pass to a Flyers defenseman.
Twice, he did more than that. On Dec. 8, 1987, against the Boston Bruins, Hextall became the first goalie in NHL history to score a goal by shooting the puck into the other team’s net. Sixteen months later, in the playoffs, he repeated the feat against the Washington Capitals.
In 1992, Hextall’s first term with the Flyers ended. He was among six players and two draft picks traded to the Quebec Nordiques for the rights to budding superstar Eric Lindros. He eventually moved to the New York Islanders. And then, before the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, the Flyers brought him back.
Hextall Version 2.0 was a little tamer than the original model, and left more responsibility to his defensemen. But he was still a topnotch goalie. And he brought more than talent. “He added a lot of ingredients that I thought were missing on the ice and in the dressing room,” said Terry Murray, who coached the team to the 1997 Stanley Cup Finals.
In his second tour, which lasted five seasons, Hextall went 110-62-27, with another 20 wins in the playoffs. He retired after the 1998-99 season and eventually entered hockey management. He currently serves as assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Kings. In 2008, he became the 19th man inducted into the Flyers Hall of Fame.