|It was twenty years ago this week that former Flyers' goaltender Ron Hextall shot the puck down the length of the ice and scored an empty-net goal in a game against the Boston Bruins to seal a 5-2 win.
VIDEO: Goalie goal footage
Even now, 20 years later, Hextall is surprised, and quite touched, that his historic, arcing, length-of-the-ice saucer shot that bee-lined into the net recently vacated by Boston Bruins goalie Reggie Lemelin the night of Dec. 8, 1987 still causes quite the stir in hockey circles.
“My teammates all came off the bench, and that was the special part for me,” Hextall, now the assistant GM in Los Angeles, told NHL.com. “I remember Scott Mellanby just screaming. I started thinking, ‘Maybe this is bigger than I thought.’ ”
Bigger? Try huge, at least in terms of hockey history.
Hextall’s goal, which capped a 5-2 win over the Bruins at the Spectrum, was the first of its kind. The Islanders’ Billy Smith is credited with the first goalie goal in NHL history, but Hextall was the first to score by actually shooting the puck into the net.
“It was the perfect scenario, the perfect opportunity for him to ice the puck down there,” said Derrick Smith, the Flyer who gathered the historic puck out of the net as his teammates were mobbing Hextall at the other end. “He took full advantage of it and fired it right down the middle.”
Known as one of the great stickhandlers and passers among goalies of his generation, it’s no surprise Hextall used to field questions about scoring goals. He said fans at the Spectrum used to chant for him to try it every time he got the puck with an empty net.
Hextall’s response to all the media inquiries was, “I’d say I will score a goal, but give me time. It wasn’t arrogance. It was matter-of-fact. I’ll score, give me time, but I didn’t work on it. To say it was a goal of mine to score, I can’t say that.”
But Smith recalls seeing Hextall work on the techniques in practice “all the time.” Hextall admitted he would make a game of it with his teammates during the final minutes of practice to have some fun.
“Everyone had seen him trying it over and over,” Smith said. “We knew eventually he would get a chance to do it.”
Hextall said he nearly had a chance just moments before he scored his historic goal. On the same shift the puck got dumped in and Hextall gathered it, but, “I didn’t have a good look at the net.”
“Then all of a sudden, Gord Kluzak dumped it in to my left side and I saw a lane,” he continued. “I knew I had to put it up. Even as it’s in the air you get a sense that you’ve got a chance, but as the puck hits the ice it spins and curls to the left, so you don’t know.”
When the puck crossed the line, the Spectrum erupted, Flyers announcer Gene Hart was stunned, and the entire bench spilled onto the ice and stormed toward a celebratory Hextall, actually earning a minor penalty in the process.
Smith went the other way.
“My first instinct was this puck needs to get to Ron because this is a special occasion. It is something he could keep and cherish,” he said. “I remember the roar of the crowd. They were going crazy. Our bench emptied. Everybody went to Ron, and I went down to the far end to get the puck.”
There was so much chaos on the ice and in the building at that moment that Smith said he never was awarded a plus for being on the ice for the goal.
“They couldn’t figure out who was on the ice when he scored,” he said. “It was neat being on the ice and seeing that puck sail over everybody’s head.”
In total, 40,218 NHL games had been played before Hextall made history.
Two years later he did it again, becoming the first goalie to score a playoff goal.
While he said the first one was satisfying because of the reaction from his teammates and adoring fans, the second, which he scored on April 11, 1989 against the Washington Capitals at the Capital Centre, provided a sense of relief.
The short-handed tally came at the end of Game 5 of the Patrick Division semifinals, and it clinched an 8-5 victory.
“It was in the playoffs, we were up by two goals and we were shorthanded with time left,” Hextall said of his goal, which came with 1:02 remaining. “At that point it was more relief that the game was totally over.”
Hextall, though, had some fun with his accomplishment after the game, telling reporters, “Somebody told me the other day that it had been over 100 games since I had scored. I guess it was time.”
In the past 18 years the time has come for only four other goalies. Chris Osgood, Martin Brodeur, Jose Theodore and Evgeni Nabokov have accomplished the same, rare feat of firing the puck into the net from the opposite crease.
They can thank Hextall for being the innovator.
“I didn’t realize it would cause the stir that it did,” Hextall said.