LOS ANGELES -- The years 1987 and 1997 will resonate forever with Ron Hextall -- for all the wrong reasons.
The former Philadelphia Flyers goalie never will forget losing the Stanley Cup to the Oilers in seven games in '87 -- winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP but missing out on the big prize -- and then getting blitzed in four by the Red Wings 10 years later. The first heartbreak 25 years ago meant it wasn't yet his time to fulfill a childhood dream of winning the Stanley Cup as a goalie in the National Hockey League; the second heartbreak a decade later meant it never would happen for him as a player.
"I will go to my grave with that," Hextall told NHL.com. "I'll never get over it. There is nothing you can do to emulate winning as a player."
Now Hextall knows what the next-best thing is.
The Kings' assistant general manager finally has reached the mountaintop. He will get his name carved into the Stanley Cup. He can touch it, lift it, kiss it, drink from it. He has Cup carte blanche now that the Kings, a team Hextall helped build into champions by following the same methodology he learned in Philadelphia and that was good enough to get the Flyers close in '87 and '97, officially is the NHL's best in 2012.
Hextall's burden of never winning the Stanley Cup as a player is not lifted -- but at least it will be a lot lighter and less distasteful for the rest of his life.
By Corey Masisak - NHL.com Staff Writer The Los Angeles Kings, on the strength of three power-play goals in the first period, finished off the New Jersey Devils with a 6-1 victory in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, earning the franchise's first championship in its 45-year history. READ MORE ›
"It's unbelievable," Hextall said on the ice during the celebration Monday night. "Just being a part of management, a small part of it, it's a phenomenal feeling. It's surreal for sure. Wow, we've been here for six years working hard trying to put this team together. It's surreal."
All that ever mattered to Hextall was winning. He so desperately wanted that 16th playoff win as a player, and when he couldn't get it, his focus turned to management. He knew he wanted to be a general manager when he was winding down his playing career in 1999.
Bob Clarke, then the Flyers' general manager, asked Hextall what he wanted to do after he retired. The ex-goalie vividly recalls telling Clarke he still wanted to play.
"I absolutely miss playing," Hextall said. "I think I've got the second-best job in the world now. I used to have the first."
Hextall knew he was done in 1999, that his dream of winning the Cup as a player was gone. It was on to the next phase of his hockey career.
Clarke asked Hextall if he had any interest in being a coach. Hextall said no -- because he needed separation from his former teammates and he had a keen interest in management -- so Clarke started him as a professional scout. In 2002, Hextall became the Flyers' director of professional player personnel. Four years later, after a successful six-year run in Philadelphia, Hextall moved to L.A. to work as GM Dean Lombardi's right-hand man.
They began building the team that now can call itself Stanley Cup champions.
"Our whole staff takes pride in where we're at right now," Hextall said. "There have been some tough years. When Dean and I first came here, the first two or three years were extremely hard years. We were a bad hockey club and we weren't a young hockey club. Now it's like, we planted the seed six years ago and the crop is starting to show. It's been a lot of fun the last couple of years, but there were some lean years in there that weren't very fun, to be frank. We've worked hard as a staff and we're enjoying this."
Hextall admittedly was leery when the Final began. He couldn't help himself. He thought back to his playing days and remembered how not one, but two opportunities slipped by him. Oh man, he thought, this can't happen again. He feared having another regret to take with him to his grave. He feared the feeling.
"When we got to the Cup Final, I was like, 'We've really got to get this done,'" Hextall said. "I've been on the other side of it and it's not pleasant. It's a thing that burns for months and months, and for me, years and years. You don't want to go down the other path, not come out on top. You don't know if you're going to get back here, when you're going to get back here."
Now if Hextall gets back to the Cup Final, be it as the Kings' assistant GM or a general manager of another team -- because that is his ultimate goal right now -- he'll be driven to win it again.
Champions say there is no feeling like it. That's a feeling Hextall finally knows.
"It feels pretty good," he said in understated fashion with a smile on his face. "I can't imagine what it's like being in one of those jerseys. I can't imagine what the players are feeling."