Ron Hextall won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goaltender in 1986-87, his rookie season. He led his Philadelphia Flyers to the '87 Stanley Cup Final, where they lost in seven games to the Edmonton Oilers -- but was so good he became one of five members of the losing team to take home the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs. During the series, Wayne Gretzky called Hextall "probably the best goaltender I've ever played against." He played 13 seasons in the NHL and was enshrined in the Flyers Hall of Fame in 2008.
For all his shot-stopping abilities, Hextall also was the most aggressive goaltender the NHL had seen, legendary for his fiery and physical nature on the ice. His prodigious puck-handling and passing abilities made him almost a third defenseman on the ice for the Flyers. Thus, it scarcely came as a surprise when, on Dec. 8, 1987, Hextall became the first NHL goaltender to score a goal by shooting the puck into the net. The goal, scored at 18:48 of the third period, put Philadelphia up 5-2 on the Boston Bruins in front of a capacity Spectrum crowd.
On the 25th anniversary of Hextall's achievement, NHL.com talked with Hextall and the teammates, commentators and opponents who were on hand to witness history.
Wayne Fish, Flyers beat reporter, Bucks County (Pa.) Courier Times
"So much had happened so early. He had just won the Conn Smythe in June of that year, and Gretzky had called him the greatest goaltender he had faced in the NHL. Those two items stand out above anything else. I think that's why he was sort of a rock star at that time. I did some 25th anniversary stuff for the J.J. Daigneault goal to win Game 6 against Edmonton, and people said the Spectrum was louder than they had ever heard it, including those wins in the '74 and '75 Stanley Cup [Final] games. When they sent it back to Edmonton for Game 7, they said Hextall needed a police escort when he left the building that night, that he felt like a rock star. So I think that all that stuff had built up and was a precursor for that night [he scored]."
Mark Howe, Philadelphia Flyers defenseman
"I've said on record, his rookie year when he won the Conn Smythe, I said from Day 1 of training camp to Game 7 of the Final, that's as good [a run] of goaltending as I've ever seen. Stuff I've watched before, stuff I've watched after. I mean, he had a very good career, but that year was just absolutely outstanding. He was the backbone of our hockey club that year, and we wouldn't have been to the Final without him. Everybody who played on that team knows that. We had a lot of contributions from a lot of people, but without a doubt he's the main reason we got to where we did that year."
"He had all his hair, he had his mustache -- he looked like a rock star. He was sort of this swashbuckling type of guy, only 23 or 24 years old, which was, believe it or not, the prime of his career. He was right in the middle of that storm of admiration. He owned the town at that point. I'd say '87 was when he was at his very best."
Brian Propp, Philadelphia Flyers left wing
"When Ron Hextall came in the League, the way he could handle the puck and the way he could shoot it, sort of changes the game for goaltenders because after that there seemed to be a lot more play with the puck from goaltenders. When he first came into the League in 1985, he was sort of a pioneer for being a seventh defenseman."
Ron Hextall, Philadelphia Flyers goaltender
"From a young age I really loved the game, and it was one of those things that when I was 2 or 3 years old, I'd throw a sock up the stairs and when it came down I'd try to stop it. I spent a lot of time on outdoor rinks by myself. I spent endless hours on my driveway, shooting a ball, playing with a ball. When you work at something, you develop some type of ability. I think it's all of those skills over the years that as I said, instead of playing hide and go seek I'd be out playing road hockey or just shooting the ball behind the house. I spent a lot of time with a stick in my hand, not working on my skills but just playing. That was my No. 1 form of entertainment as a kid."
Bobby "Chief" Taylor, Philadelphia Flyers color commentator and former NHL goaltender
"Handling the puck -- Jacques Plante really started the thing with handling the puck. But no one really thought about stopping it, passing it, almost becoming a third defenseman -- until Hexy. That was the amazing thing, to see his ability to do that."
Lyndon Byers, Boston Bruins right wing
"Nobody handled the puck better than Ron Hextall. That guy was sick. We already knew he could clear the glass at the other end, we already knew he was the best puck-handling goalie. Not for nothing, he revolutionized goaltenders and how they handled the puck. He was basically a defenseman back there. He could really handle the biscuit."
"I remember Mark Howe telling me, 'He's gonna put five years on my career because I won't have to get the puck so often.'"
"He added such a dimension with his puck-moving ability. The thing was, he wanted the puck. As a defenseman, you wanted the puck, too, but you soon learned that Hexy wants the puck; it's going there anyway, so it's his. And we used it to our advantage on the penalty kill."
Dave Poulin, Philadelphia Flyers center
"I was a penalty-killer and I knew when a puck was dropped in -- so if he was standing in net and the puck came around from his left, and he was going out and his glove side was on the boards -- he could stop virtually any wrap at all that way. So when we were shorthanded we would know, and we had a distinct plan that I would go to the penalty-box side of the ice and then straight across the middle if I saw that happening, and he would clear the puck to the middle. We ended up scoring a number of shorthanded breakaways that way."
"The next progression, in the line of being able to handle the puck and passing it up and shooting it up to your defense, would be to try and shoot and score. That would be the next progression, and so that's why if it was going to get done, it was going to get done by him."
Rick Tocchet, Philadelphia Flyers right wing
"We knew Ron Hextall would score a goal in the NHL because he was such a good shooter. I know whether it was warm-ups or practice, he would shoot pucks top shelf with his goalie stick. He used to rifle it with his goalie stick. I would skate around with him and watch him shoot pucks and think to myself, 'Man, this guy can shoot better than I can!'"
"[After practice during the 1987 Canada Cup training camp] we ended up playing a game of H-O-R-S-E. It was Gretzky, myself, [Gretzky's] younger brother Brent, who was maybe 15 at the time, and Hexy. And Hexy had his goalie stick and his goalie gloves. Gretz always got to go first, since his name was on the bottom [of the Shooter Tutor used in lieu of a goaltender], as he put it. He had his patented move like he did in games, where he would come out from behind the net, backhand, short side, [top] shelf. And you had to replicate it; it was a game of H-O-R-S-E. So, of course Hexy does it. And as the game goes on, what's proven is how accurate he is with a wrist shot. And I didn't have a great wrist shot, Gretz didn't have a great wrist shot, and Hexy would stand at the faceoff dots, at the blue line, and just be zinging it into the top corner of the net. I believe the winning shot was from center ice and was in one of the top corners of the net. It's how accurate he was that was uncanny -- the velocity and the accuracy.
"We had watched him so much in practice, the way he handled it and the way he shot it, that it [scoring] was inevitable as a matter of time."
"To be honest with you, it wasn't high on my priority list. It wasn't one of those things where I went into every game or every year thinking, 'I want to score a goal.' But I can tell you, from the fans in Philly there, they used to chant whenever the net was empty, they always wanted me to shoot. My teammates bugged me about it too."
"After seeing how well he could hit the net [in practice], a lot of us would encourage him to go for the empty net a little bit more."
"Getting back to Propper there, he was always encouraging me. Every time we had an open net, he'd say 'Why didn't you shoot, why didn't you shoot?' But it just wasn't the right situation."
"He had tried before, [but] he had missed. I think he had hit the post in the preseason, or in the preseason before that. That night he scored the goal it was perfect conditions: They were up 4-2, the puck came to him and there was no one around him."
"The last thing I wanted to do was shoot the puck down the ice for an icing and have a faceoff and have the other team tie the game up. It was, again, one of those things that I'm certainly not going to take away from our team by trying to score a goal every time there's an empty net for selfish reasons."
Derek Sanderson, Boston Bruins color commentator
"The Bruins were caught in the middle of a line change, so they didn't have the bodies they normally would up the middle – their defensemen came off. So he saw the opening and took it. With a goaltender like that, you don't change the lines when you dump it in. The Bruins were trying to regroup with their A players, so they pulled the [defensemen] off and there was nobody there to knock it down."
"I was the guy going to try to keep him from shooting it. I knew I wasn't going to get there, and it's pretty funny. I remember thinking, 'He's gonna score!' Everybody knew he could probably put it over the glass at the far end, and he had a good head start, so more than anything it was one of those, 'Oh, God! I can't believe I'm here right now!'"
"The Bruins were coming down our defensive left side, which was coming at me, and they dumped it in towards Hexy. As I said before, if it's going in there I know he's going to handle it, so my only job was to make that right winger take a little bit of a detour. So instead of letting him go straight in, I kind of got in between him and the puck. I couldn't interfere but he had to take a detour, go around me, so that gave Hexy a split-second more time to get the puck off."
"It just happened that night. It was an empty net, and I think [Boston defenseman Gord] Kluzak had dumped it in to my left side, which was kind of right in my wheelhouse, and I was fortunate enough that I took the shot and it hit the net."
"Some factors came into play late in the game that people don't realize: How heavy the ice is, how much more difficult it is late in the game than it is at the start of the period when you could just shoot it down."
"The puck was actually going a little bit wide, but it had a little spin on it, and there was so much snow on the ice it creates a little more drag, so I bet you it curved about a foot and went about 6-8 inches inside the right post."
"I remember thinking, 'Hextall could score from here.' And he did! Had plenty of time, got the shot in and gave them the old, 'How ya doin?'"
"I was so focused on what was going on with the puck that actually the puck went in the net, then I saw our forward start jumping up and down, so it was after the goal was scored, maybe a split second that it finally hit me that, 'Wow! It was Hexy that scored.'"
"I just remember [Boston defenseman] Ray Bourque coming out, either off the bench or off the boards, towards where the puck was coming, and it was well over his head, at his own blue line. It cleared everything."
"Dave Poulin is right: He did it all the time on a penalty kill. Some goalies would maybe just leave it for a defenseman, shoot it at the corners, but he had no problems going up the middle, high. To win a Stanley Cup, to be successful, you had to take chances. He was willing to take chances. And he was willing to take the retribution for it."
"It was kind of crazy. You're kind of stopped there, you're awestruck, then all the sudden, 10 or 15 seconds later, you go, 'Whoa! Whoa! I knew he was going to do it, but damn, he did it!'"
"It's hard to explain, but you kind of waited for a second after it went in the empty net and said, 'Hey, this was from a goalie.'"
"I was not on the ice, but I was probably the first guy to him. In all the video clips there, as soon as the camera goes back on him, I'm there. I was just excited about everything."
"When anybody reaches a milestone like that, your teammates are always there for you. You can see, Ronnie was jumping up and down, so excited, people in the Spectrum were going crazy. Everybody liked Ronnie a lot; most everybody in that locker room liked each other a lot. It's not the individual; it's the celebration of a team thing."
"I've said this many times over the years that what made that goal special for me was our team's reaction. Our guys, they came off the bench and were whooping and hollering, almost like we had won a playoff series. I kind of felt like it wasn't that big a deal, and they sort of made it a big deal, and made it kind of a team thing and quite honestly it made it a lot of fun. I was kind of surprised by how much it meant to my teammates, which I was certainly thrilled by."
"I saw him the next day and we just kind of burst out laughing. We just looked at one another and started to laugh. I'm pretty sure he told me that when he saw them coming up the side and saw the middle opened up, that's when he decided to take that shot. It was kind of funny because he were laughing, laughing in disbelief and how great an accomplishment it was at the same time. For a goaltender, it's pretty cool that he did it."
"The next day or two, the different TV stations had local sports personalities that came out and tried to duplicate it. They had the camera and everything out on the ice, they would have goalie gloves and a goalie stick, and that's it – not a mask, not pads – and they were trying to shoot the puck down the ice to show how difficult it was. And this was on good ice, not at the end of a game or the end of practice. So they were trying to show what a feat it was."
"The Flyers got a plaque made up as well as of the game sheet for everybody, kind of gold-plated. It ended up being a really cool affair for everybody."
"I do believe the Flyers presented him with a car, an orange-and-black car."
"He remembers everything, doesn't he? Yeah, they got me a car. There was this limited edition Flyers car at the time, so I showed up at the next game and they presented it to me on the ice, so that was pretty cool, as well. It's actually black with orange pinstripes. It's a 1988 Mercury Cougar. My wife rode it around for a little while, she got tired of people pulling up beside her and honking at her and waving at her, so it ended up going in the garage after that."
"What did it mean in the grand scheme of things? It sort of revolutionized the game, his stick-handling and the way he handled the puck. [It] paved the way for guys like [Martin] Brodeur, maybe a Jimmy Howard. I think what Hextall did was, when he scored those two empty-net goals [he also scored in a playoff game, April 11, 1989, against the Washington Capitals], there was a 12-year-old who said, 'I want to be more like Ron Hextall.' Look at the 1960s – those goaltenders never touched the puck. Hextall really took a more proactive approach than anyone had ever seen. It added to the Flyers' folklore, the idea that they think of themselves as innovators and pioneers."
"The best thing about Hexy was, he scored his goals and stuff, but he was just a real team guy and a great competitor. How fiery he was, and how competitive he was, that's what made him so good. Even today, when I scout today, you have guys who are technically sound, guys who are this or that, but when a guy is very competitive, guys like [Dominik] Hasek, they're acrobatic, they're this or that, but the reason they're so good is that they're competitive. And there's no way guys were more competitive than Hexy. He brought it every day."
Osgood followed in Hextall's path
Eight years after Ron Hextall became the first NHL goalie to shoot and score a goal in a regular-season game, Chris Osgood matched the feat for the Detroit Red Wings on March 6, 1996. It's only fitting that Osgood, a native of Peace River, Alberta, grew up idolizing Hextall when Hextall played his junior hockey with the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League.
"He played junior out west, not near me but in the league I grew up watching," Osgood told NHL.com. "I always noticed how he played the puck, so I'd always try to copy him or do better the same things he did.
"He was really the first guy to ever be able to play the puck that way, icing it, making passes. He was far and away the best at it over everybody else, so all the goalies in my generation would try to top him. Coaches would tell me, 'Shoot the puck around the glass like Hextall does.'"
Osgood's goal, which gave the Red Wings a 4-2 lead against the Hartford Whalers, came when he grabbed a dump-in, took one step and lofted the puck down the ice and into the empty net -- the trajectory mirrored Hextall's shot. Scoring at the NHL level was something Osgood said he always tried but "never thought I would do in the NHL."
While Osgood matched Hextall’s accomplishment -- a feat only five goaltenders can claim -- he clarified Hextall's impact as a trailblazer for the goaltending position.
"He was just far and away the best puck player of any goalie, ever," Osgood said. "How hard he shot it, his lead passes, how accurate he was with the passes. He could clear the ice constantly. He changed the position, of the way the goalie could play.
"They should call [the trapezoid] the Hextall Line. He was the one who started it. All these young guys came out and played the puck better than anyone before them, and Hextall really started that."