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Ron Hextall: From Those Who Were There

by Ray Finocchiaro / Philadelphia Flyers

Ron Hextall will become the 19th member of the organization to be inducted into the Philadelphia Flyers Hall of Fame during an on-ice ceremony at the Wachovia Center on Wednesday, February 6, prior to the club’s 7:00 p.m. contest against the Washington Capitals.

Below is the first of several features on Hextall that will run here on leading up to the game.

To purchase tickets to the game, click here.

Whether it was scoring a goal from the opposite end of the ice, making an acrobatic save to prevent a score, or wielding his stick like a lumberjack as he protected his crease, Ron Hextall’s play in goal was always a sight to see.
From a rookie season capped by a Vezina Trophy and the Conn Smythe Trophy as Playoff MVP and through two tours of duty with the Flyers, Hextall revolutionized the way goaltenders played in the National Hockey League while winning legions of fans en route.

“Hexy was probably the most competitive player we’ve ever had,” said Bob Clarke, considered the heart and soul of the Flyers by its fans, saluting Hextall on his induction into the Flyers Hall of Fame. “And a little crazy, too. But that was him – the combativeness, the competitiveness, the whole thing is what made him what he was.”

Teammates, fans and hockey writers all have their favorite memories of Hextall. Here are a few.
Ron Hextall makes a save in one of his first games as a Flyer in 1987. (Flyers archives)

“He was part of a long line of Hextalls who hated to lose and would do anything to win,” said Wayne Fish, the dean of area hockey writers who covered his first Flyers game in 1976 for the Bucks County Courier Times. “He revolutionized the game in terms of handling the puck. Not just scoring goals, but he was a goalie who served as a third defenseman. He nullified other team’s power plays because they couldn’t dump and chase. He’d get the puck, turn and fire it out. Teams had to adjust their style because of him.”

“I just remember his enthusiasm for the game, his intensity in goal,” said Paul Holmgren, a Flyers’ player, coach and now the team’s general manager. “It was unbelievable. His first year (1986-87) was a magical season, for Hexy and the team, all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. He had a tremendous year. And in all the years I’ve known him, he still has that love for the game.”

An auspicious beginning

Ray Didinger, now an NFL Films producer and member of the NFL Hall of Fame, covered countless Flyers games as a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

It was Hextall’s first game as a Flyer, the 1987 season-opener against the Edmonton Oilers team the Flyers would later meet in the Stanley Cup Finals, that sticks out in Didinger’s memory.

“The fact that he was such an unknown at that point,” Didinger said. “The Flyers had just gone through the profound tragedy of losing Pelle Lindbergh, a young Vezina Trophy winner, and now you’ve got to replace the guy you thought was going to be your goaltender for the next decade. Now your future’s turned upside down.

“They came up with this minor-leaguer who, at the start of training camp, you didn’t even think was going to be on the big team. He makes the team and Mike Keenan, who’s not given to doing things impulsively, has the courage to run him out there for the opening night at the Spectrum. We were all surprised he played, but then the kid plays with such unbelievable poise and wins the game. It was one of those moments where you feel, ‘Wow, we just saw something really special happen here.’ This was more than just the start of a season, it was like the start of an era.

“I wrote about Hextall that night and the feeling I got was that this was not just a typical rookie, not just an aberration or a flash in the pan. This was a guy who had earned the confidence of a tough-minded coach and team and was probably the new guy. Keenan was prepared to go with this kid with a team that clearly had the ability to maybe win a Cup.”

If the writers were surprised to see Hextall in goal, the club brass wasn’t.

“Mike Keenan made the decision who was going to play from Day One,” said Clarke, that club’s GM after retiring following the 1984 season. “He was our No. 1 goalie.  We knew. He’d played really well at Hershey and he came really fast as a pro. Lindbergh’s death accelerated his rise to the NHL.

“And right from Day One, he was outstanding. The first game he played has been defining in his career. We played Edmonton and their first shot went in. And that was the only goal they got on him.”

Getting to the Finals

Defenseman Mark Howe, who played with Hextall for six seasons among Howe’s 11 with the Flyers admitted the game that still stands out in Howe’s mind was Game Three against Montreal in the Wales Conference Finals that got them there.

“It was our 16th playoff game in 30 days and our team was beat up, injured and tired as hell,” Howe recalled. “What I remember the most about that game was the first period.

"Montreal led 2-0 at period’s end, but the score should have been 5 or 6 to zero and possibly more. I believe the shots were 24 to 6 or it surely seemed like that. If I had to guess, the scoring chances may have been something like 15 to 1.

“We didn’t get the puck out of our end. We ended up winning that game 4 to 3 but had no business doing so. We scored a couple of soft goals to get back into the game, but that 20 minutes was as good as anyone could ever play. Hexy more or less willed the team to victory that night, not only on the ice but in-between periods with his competitive spirit, enthusiasm and fiery determination.”

“They were absolutely sleep-walking when they came out,” agreed Jay Greenberg, the Flyers’ beat writer for the Philadelphia Daily News from 1975-89. “He kept them in the game the first period, then they came back and stole the game. But Hextall was just amazing. The Flyers probably were outplayed in the Montreal series, but they won that series because of goaltending.”

Howe cited Hextall’s fiery determination as a rookie.

“For a nine-month period that included every practice, every regular-season game and every playoff game, Ron's focus, determination, competitive spirit and abilities were nothing short of spectacular,” Howe said. “It was a pleasure to be a part of it.”

…And One for All

The unanimous attribute noted by everyone who saw Hextall play was his selflessness and team-first attitude.

“He was as good a team player as we’ve had in the organization in the 38 years I’ve been here,” Clarke said.
Mark Howe and Ron Hextall played six seasons together on the Flyers. (Getty Images)

“Nobody wanted to win more than he did,” Greenberg said. “He really was an unselfish guy, to a fault because I really think he was too hard on himself.”

Les Bowen, who succeeded Greenberg as the Daily News hockey writer, said “the thing I always admired the most about Hexy wasn’t a game or string of games. It was how, when the team lost a tough game, he always took the blame, whether it was his fault or not.”

“The puck went in, blame him. That takes a really big, courageous man.”

“Ron was a ferocious competitor,” Didinger agreed, “and when he didn’t play well or the team didn’t play well, he was pretty edgy after the game. He did not take losing well. He took it personally. After games, he didn’t laugh off a bad performance.”

“For a long time, he didn’t have many bad nights,” Clarke noted. “There was the odd bad goal he’d let in, but his competitiveness and spirit was always so good that a bad goal never bothered him. Well, it bothered him, but it just made him play better.”

Tim Kerr, the Flyers’ third-leading all-time goal scorer who missed the 1987 Cup finals with a separated shoulder, called Hextall “the perfect teammate. He came to practice everyday focused and played every game like it could be his last. During his success, he never looked at it as a personal accomplishment, but as a team accomplishment. Every player in the game knew Hexy was into the game both mentally and physically and hated to lose.”

The second time around

After being part of the trade for Eric Lindros in 1992, Hextall played for the Quebec Nordiques and New York Islanders before coming back to the Flyers in 1994.

“The team had missed the playoffs five years in a row and it needed some remembrance and some leadership from the old days,” said Clarke, the team’s GM. “As much as we needed the goaltending, we needed the leadership, the competitiveness, the fire. He brought all that.”

Injuries had forced Hextall to alter his game somewhat from the standup style he’d used when he came up. But if his balance wasn’t as good, his numbers were.

“He was the same, one of the most competitive players ever to play in a Flyers’ uniform,” said Holmgren, then an assistant GM under Clarke. “He cared about the team more than anyone.”

Clarke, who helped groom Hextall for his post as assistant GM with the Los Angeles Kings and predicts “he’ll be a good GM soon,” thought a moment about Hextall’s career with the Flyers and smiled.

“The organization, since it started, has had some great athletes and some great people come through and play here,” Clarke said, “and Hexy’s at the top of the list. There’s none better than he was for this organization and for this city, on and off the ice.”
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