Ron Hextall could have done any number of things with the Stanley Cup.
After all, he had waited 25 years to actually be part of a team that won the most cherished trophy in sports, and although he didn’t win it as a player, but rather as an executive – the assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Kings – it was just as sweet a victory.
So, it’s safe to say no one would begrudge Hextall taking the Cup anywhere in the world to celebrate a victory that took much longer to accomplish than he ever thought.
He took the Cup back to his hometown of Brandon, Manitoba for a charity event and then headed up to his Clear Lake, Manitoba cabin where he spent the day taking pictures with his dad (former NHLer Bryan Hextall) and visiting area landmarks that wrapped up with a party and a bonfire at Ron’s summer home.
But there was a pit stop in between all that celebrating - one that was unexpected by everyone except for Ron Hextall himself.
“I thought [Bob Clarke] was going to be in Manitoba that week and I was going to show up at his place with the Cup,” Hextall said. “I was hoping he could be there so we could take a picture with it, but he wasn’t there yet. His wife Sandy was there though. So, I took the picture anyway.”
And while some would interpret this as a playful way of rubbing it in, that was not Hextall’s intention in the least.
“Back when he won the Cup in the seventies, he didn’t get a chance to spend a day with it because they didn’t do that then. So, I thought it would be a good chance for him to reconnect with it. I was really excited about it because we had talked at the draft and we had realized we were going to be up there the same week. So, I figured I’d surprise him.
“I had the Cup on a Tuesday and he wasn’t getting in until Friday of that week, so I missed him. He did see the picture though of the Cup at his place and he thanked me for it.”
It was a gesture from one friend to another, but it was a kinship that goes well beyond their Manitoba-bred roots.
It was a relationship that really began when Clarke, then the general manager of the Flyers, chose Hextall as a rookie to be the Flyers everyday goalie in a season when they had Stanley Cup aspirations.
It was a risky proposition, but one that almost came to fruition, with the 1986-87 Flyers falling in Game 7 to the legendary Edmonton Oilers of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, et al.
Hextall made it back to the Finals one more time as a Flyers goalie – in 1997 – but that squad was swept by the Detroit Red Wings.
In 1999, upon retiring, Hextall was given a job as a scout with the Flyers, hired by Clarke to stay with the organization.
After a few years as a scout, Hextall was promoted to Director of Pro Player Personnel in 2002.
Four years later, he left the Flyers to become assistant general manager of the Kings, where he’s been for the last six years – and now has a Cup on his resume.
And no matter how many more he may get in his career as a manager in Los Angeles – or wherever the NHL may take him – Hextall will always circle back to his relationship with Clarke as a reason for his success.
“I can’t state enough how much I learned from Bob Clarke,” Hextall said. “He is one of those guys who didn’t talk a lot, but if you watch him – first as a player and then as part of the management team – how he conducted himself and how he was methodical when making decisions, and despite the fact that even though he was competitive as hell he didn’t overreact – there are so many times that I find myself in a position and choosing to react the way Clarke would.
“He was one of those guys where even if your two best players were hurt, you got the sense as a player that he believed the team could still win. Those little lessons that I observed from him helped mold my personality that I have today as an assistant general manager.”
There was no doubt, that with all the Flyers connections on the Kings from management to coaches to players on the ice, that they were an easy team to root for once the Flyers were eliminated.
Yet, while Hextall’s first Cup will always be connected to the Kings, he still considers himself a Flyer at heart and recanted some of his fondest memories of playing in the orange and black.
“Game 6 of the 1987 Finals at the Spectrum that we won against Edmonton was [the most memorable moment] in Philadelphia," Hextall said. “Not only was it a big game but we came from behind – and we had been coming from behind that whole series – and we pushed that Oilers team to a point they never thought they’d be.”
Everyone will remember J.J. Daigneault’s goal in the third period that put the Flyers ahead, but the final minutes of the game were about as frenetic and edge of your seat as maybe any in Flyers history.
The Oilers were buzzing around the Flyers net for the entire end of the game, but Hextall was square to every shot.
Then, with about 10 seconds left in the game, Hextall tried to clear the puck, only to have it intercepted at the blue line by Mark Messier, who skated in alone on Hextall.
“I just made the save,” Hextall says now, 25 years later. “You had to know though, every time you got into one of those situations with Edmonton it was going to be a frantic finish. We had to buckle our seat belts and get it done. They had a great team. I often think back that if we didn’t play them – and they were possibly the greatest team ever – we would have won the Stanley Cup. It’s like – damn – why did it have to be that year?”
Hextall also addressed some of his other memorable moments in his time with the Flyers
- On scoring a goal: “I say to this day it was overrated,” he said. “The part that was special to me was the reaction of my teammates. They all came off the bench. Guys were hooting and hollering. The Flyers got us all a plaque made out of the game sheet. It became more of a team thing. Because of that, it’s something I’ll never forget. I never thought about scoring before it happened. It wasn’t that important to me. It couldn't not be in my mind though because every time I got the puck and there was an empty net the fans would be yelling, ‘Shoot.’ The media kept asking me when I was going to score a goal. It was one of those things that people wouldn’t just let sit on the sideline. I figured at some point I’d have a good opportunity to do it and I happened to have it that night against Boston and it went in the net.”
- On the hit on Chris Chelios in the 1989 Eastern Conference Finals: “I think its safe to say that was one of those points where my emotions got the best of me,” he said. “Everyone remembers what he did to [Brian] Propp earlier in the series, so I guess I didn’t want to go away quietly. When you’re facing the end of a series and you are losing out it is an emotional time and I did what I thought was right. I guess the league didn’t feel the same way though.”
- On the 1987 Canada Cup experience, especially the final series win over the Soviet Union: “I had the best seat in the house,” said Hextall, who was the backup goalie to Grant Fuhr. “In the final game I was on the bench there and it was exciting. Someone asked me [recently] if it was the best hockey I had ever been part of or seen and I said, ‘Yes.’ It was the highest level of hockey ever because it was more than just a hockey game. It was more than just the Canada Cup. At that point in time we all still hated the Russians. To bring that type of emotion into the game and the series there is something I don’t think you can ever duplicate again. We get along with the Russians now. Every team has Russians in their organization and they’re not a lot different then us. The times have changed. It wasn’t like the 1972 series with them when Clarke played and you wanted to rip the guy’s head off, but it wasn’t that far short of that. We really wanted to beat them. It was a clear emotional pinnacle.
- On missing Philadelphia: “That was my home for a long time. My girls still live on the East Coast and my son Brett played on the East Coast last year (with Portland of the AHL). I do spend a decent amount of time in Manchester (N.H.) with our minor league team, but I miss the Philadelphia area. I can’t say enough about the organization and the people in the organization. When you get down to it, an organization is just an organization but what makes it special is the people. From [Chairman] Mr. [Ed] Snider to Clarke to [Paul Holmgren] to everyone in that organization, it’s a special, special organization.”