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Ron Hextall: The Series that Defined a Legacy

by Wayne Fish / 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, when the Flyers take on the Washington Capitals.


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

To purchase tickets to the game, click here.


Legend has it the windows in Philadelphia were shaking from what sounded like Woodstock, Times Square on New Year's Eve and the Roman Colosseum all rolled into one.
 
Well, maybe it was just the loudest night in the history of the Spectrum and the window stuff is something Flyers fans swear must have happened.
 
Whatever the case on that warm May night in South Philly, a young rookie goaltender named Ron Hextall played what might have been the game of his life.

The noise threatened to blow the roof off the place just as the wind had done in the late 1960s. Through the cacophony of Game Six of the 1987 Stanley Cup Finals, Hextall turned aside one great scoring chance by the Edmonton Oilers after another.
Ron Hextall helped lead the Flyers to the seventh game of the 1987 Stanley Cup Finals against the Edmonton Oilers. (Getty Images)

I was in the building that night, just as I was for Game Six of the 1974 Stanley Cup championship game.

The decibel level of the two games was comparable, as was the goaltending of Hextall's to that of legendary Hall of Famer Bernie Parent in his 1-0 shutout of the mighty Boston Bruins.

In other words, one for the ages.

When J.J. Daigneault scored to complete the unlikely comeback and send the series back to Edmonton for a decisive Game Seven, Hextall raised his stick with both hands.

Less than an hour afterward, he needed a security escort to get out to his car.

Looking back 20 years or so later, Hextall, who will be inducted into the Flyers Hall of Fame on February 6, remembers that night fondly and agrees it might have been the defining moment in his career.

"That was huge,'' he recalls. "I remember when J.J. scored the goal. You're so into the game, you hear the crowd but you don't comprehend that's the loudest that's it been in that building, possibly ever.

"I think the one clear memory I have is, walking out after that game, we were in the regular parking lot like everybody else. I had to be escorted out. It was pretty funny. It was kind of like being a rock star, everyone was going nuts. It took a while to be escorted to my car because of the crowd.

"Back then I did have a rock star haircut,'' he adds with a chuckle. “I couldn't get ‘er cut because we kept winning.''

For the Flyers, the series did not turn out the way they wanted. In Game Seven, Hextall was once again brilliant, although the Oilers just had too much firepower.

Afterward, hockey's greatest scorer, Wayne Gretzky, called it the "greatest goaltending'' he had ever witnessed.

“It would have meant a hell of a lot more if we had won,”' Hextall, now assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Kings, says with a laugh. “When one of the greatest players ever says something complimentary, particularly at that stage of my career…it was early. For someone to say something like that, it's very flattering.''

The rest of the hockey world agreed with Gretzky's assessment. Hextall became just one of four players from a losing team to win the coveted Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff most valuable player.

Although there would be numerous other excellent moments in Hextall's career, this was no doubt his crowning achievement.

Imagine a first-year goalie setting the sport on its ear. His brash style - aggressive stickhandling and puck clearing, his flashy routine of banging his stick off all three pipes and willingness to take on any intruder in his crease - captured international attention.

The 1987 playoffs really established Hextall's reputation for the next decade. There would be ups and downs, but no one can take that magical run away from him. From that point on, everyone seemed to know that fiery competitive side of Hextall.
A dejected Ron Hextall accepts the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the 1987 Stanely Cup Playoffs. (Getty Images)

“I think that's fair to say,” he says. “Obviously when you are in the Finals, there are a lot of people watching. Some people hadn't seen me the whole year because they might be out west or in Canada. A lot of fans watched the Finals.”

Teammate Brian Propp, now a radio commentator on Flyers games, says Hextall's style and ability kept the Flyers in a series in which they were overmatched in terms of talent.

“It's like any team, you look at the New Jersey Devils and Martin Brodeur,'' Propp says. “They have confidence that they can take some chances and go on the offense to score some goals when you need it because they know their goaltender is going to be there to back them up.

“Having a goaltender like Hexy behind you only afforded you more chances to take so that you could win games.”

Current General Manager Paul Holmgren was an assistant coach under Mike Keenan in that 1987 finals series. He remembers that Hextall had already established a bit of a reputation for handling and controlling the puck during the regular season.

It was his ability to stop the puck that seemed to catch people off-guard.

“By the playoffs, it was his goaltending that raised everybody's eyebrows, too,” Holmgren says. “We were charting scoring chances and Edmonton was getting 25, 30, 35 chances a game. He was unbelievable.”

The coaches on the bench - Keenan, Holmgren, E.J. McGuire - were astounded by Hextall's work against the Oilers, particularly in the last three games.

“I think he had given good goaltending performances (up until then),'' Holmgren says, "but I don't know there was a time when he had to be so dominant to keep his team in it.''

And yes, the fans responded with some of their greatest work in Philadelphia sports history.

"I heard guys talk and people who were at that game,'' Holmgren says. “They say it's the loudest it's ever been in any building that they can remember. That's going back a long time. That's pretty amazing.  When J.J. scored that goal to win it, it was pretty incredible.”

Not many athletes want to admit their best year of work might have been their first. Although Hextall would go on to have a very good career, including becoming the first goaltender to shoot the puck into an opposing net, he was never quite able to duplicate that initial wild season of success.

Was '87 the high point?

“I would agree with that,'' Hextall says. “You say some people don't want to say they did some of their best work in their first year, but obviously some of your best work is when you play for a winning team.

“The fact that we had a good team that year and were in the spotlight I think adds to…how well a team did reflects on everybody. I'm no different than everybody else.''

The debate might never abate: Game Six or Game Seven? Which was Hextall's better performance?
Ron Hextall went on to score goals in both a regular season and playoff game. (Getty Images)

“When you lose Game Seven what you remember is the goals,'' Hextall says. “I think for me with Game Seven, I have to be frank with you, I remember the goals more than anything positive.

“I think back to Game Six and I think more about how we won it, a couple saves I made as opposed to Game Seven when you lose, you tend to focus on the negative.

“Obviously that run was some of my best hockey for sure, and certainly over a couple month period. Our whole team - and I'm not trying to deflect credit - but our whole team played well. It truly was a team effort.

“You look across the ice at who we were playing. The matchups, I mean let's be real, we didn't match up with them. And the fact that we took them to the brink I think is a tribute to every guy on that team, and the heart and character that we played with.''

Later in his career, Hextall would score goals both in the regular season (vs. Boston) and in the playoffs (vs. Washington).

Some say those goals, along with the way Hextall controlled the puck, revolutionized the position and spawned a generation of young goalies such as Martin Brodeur, the best of the current generation of stickhandling goalies.

The first goal is still a fond memory for Hextall.

“I think it was the perfect opportunity, the puck came right to my left side,'' he says. “It was a very good opportunity to take a shot at it. When I got the shot, I looked up ice and everything was clear so I knew I could clear the zone. Fortunately it went over everybody's head and into the net.

“I've said this many times, the special part to me was the whole team came over the boards and it was almost like we won a playoff round or something. Guys were real excited. I don't want to say it became a rallying point, it became a bit of a team accomplishment. Everybody was pumped after the game. The Flyers gave everyone a plaque with the game sheet. It became special to me because of the reaction of my teammates.

“It actually became bigger than I ever thought it would be to my teammates. That's what made it special to me.”

Induction into the Flyers Hall of Fame is special to Hextall.

"It means a lot to me,'' he says. “I think the farther you get removed from your career, the awards mean an awful lot.

"I've got fond, fond memories of Philadelphia. I'll be honest with you, I still feel honored to have played in that organization. I still think it's one of the best organizations in sports.

“As you mentioned, the Howes, the Kerrs, the Poulins and Bob Clarke and Bernie Parent, it means an awful lot to me. It certainly will be a humbling experience.''

Can he keep his emotions in check?

“It's going to be a hard day for me,'' he says with a chuckle. “I haven't been back to a game yet. This is going to be difficult for me, I can tell you right now.''
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