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A Trip Down Memory Lane with the Hextalls

Dan Potash spoke with Ron and his parents Bryan and Fay about their time in Pittsburgh from 1969-74

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

Ron Hextall's hockey journey began in Pittsburgh when his father Bryan played for the Penguins from 1969-74. And both Bryan and his wife Fay were thrilled to take a trip down memory lane back to the Steel City with Dan Potash for the latest episode of Inside Penguins Hockey on AT&T SportsNet.

The idea for the segment came while Potash was doing research on Bryan and those early days in Pittsburgh. Potash came across an article in the Brandon Sun, which is the local newspaper in Brandon, Manitoba, where the Hextalls are from. A reporter had done a feature on the family a couple years back, and since it was recent, Potash emailed him asking if he could get him in touch with Bryan.

The reporter obliged, and Potash called Bryan. Right away, the elder Hextall started sharing story after story. 

"I could tell just by talking to him on the phone that he was an old-school hockey dad," Potash said. "And I was kind of like, wait, hold on a second - I didn't even get a chance to ask you yet if we can do this via Zoom! Because it was this raw emotion and storytelling, and it's what I would love to see."

Potash asked if Fay would be willing to chat as well, and they both agreed. It turned out to be a wonderful, touching conversation despite the virtual setting. 

"It's hard to connect with a player or a coach through a computer screen," Potash said. "It's just not the same, and it's no one's fault. That's just where we are. But for the first time in a long time, Bryan and Fay Hextall just made me feel as if they were sitting in front of me."

Potash called it the first story he's done in 11 months where he was able to reach out and capture someone's true emotions. It was a joy for him, and a joy for Bryan and Fay as well. Not just by sharing stories, but looking for old photographs that they later sent to Potash. 

"Fay did email me and say, no one has ever really asked us about those early days - it was so much fun to talk about that," said Potash, who interviewed Ron - or, as his parents call him, "Ronnie" - for the feature as well. 

Watch: Youtube Video

The story begins after the Penguins acquired Bryan from the Vancouver Canucks. During his first season in Pittsburgh - which was the franchise's third in the NHL - the forward helped the Penguins make the playoffs for the first time in team history. 

He also helped Ron get started in hockey, as his younger son - who was 5 at the time - was anxious to start following in his family's footsteps. Not only did Ron's father play; his grandfather Bryan Hextall Sr. scored the overtime winner that clinched the 1940 Stanley Cup for the Rangers and was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1964; while his uncle Dennis would go on to play over 500 games in the NHL.

"I wanted him to play defense and to get him out, because he was going to be such a big kid," Bryan Jr. said. "So just wanted to get him skating and improve all of that."

While that would eventually prove beneficial for Ron later in his career, as his skating and puckhandling ability became two of his biggest assets as a netminder, his heart really was between the pipes from the beginning.

"I think he was a goalie when he was born," Fay said.

Ron said that according to his mother, when he was just 2 years old, he would throw a sock up the stairs and make a big save while he was down at the bottom. And when he got a little older, it was Fay who would play hockey with him in the house while his older brother Rod was at school.

"Ronnie only had half days, because he was in kindergarten our first year in Pittsburgh," Fay recalled. "It would be like, 'Mom, just five more shots' (laughs). So Ronnie and I were playing a lot of hockey in those days."

"Ronnie would stand where the stairs were, and she would shoot a wadded-up cloth at him and he would be the goalie," Bryan said. "He'd be like, 'Come on, Mom - five more minutes!'"

During Bryan's time in Pittsburgh from 1969-74, the family lived in an apartment complex in Green Tree. Their neighbors included many other Penguins players, including goaltender Jim Rutherford, who came to the organization in 1971, much to a young Ron's delight. 

"He was very good to me," Ron said. "He gave me his mask, he gave me his skates, he played road hockey with me. He was my biggest idol when I was a child. He did a terrific job."

On the days that Ron tagged along with his father to the arena for practices or games, he would be mesmerized watching Rutherford and fellow netminder Les Binkley at work.

"Ronnie would sit behind the net and watch," Bryan said. "He didn't have to look around the rink. He'd be behind the goal at one end and he'd watch Jimmy; then the next time he'd be at the other end watching Les Binkley. That's all he thought about, was playing hockey."

Ron certainly wasn't hard to miss in the stands during those days, as Fay wanted her two boys to make a good impression - so she outfitted them in matching leisure suits. It was the 1970s, after all.

"I just always wanted them to be dressed up for the games," Fay said with a laugh. "They could have worn their little Penguins jackets, but of course, they were just a little bit more dressed up with their suits on."

Bryan and Fay did a lot of digging trying to find a photo of Ron wearing his, which was green. "I said even if it's a picture of him wearing the green suit at a birthday party or in his school pictures, we'll take it! It doesn't have to be him at the game," Potash said. But unfortunately, they came up empty-handed - much to their dismay, and Ron's relief.

"I'm glad there are no pictures, at least that I know of at this time, of the green leisure suit," he chuckled. "I actually didn't like the green leisure suit. But my mother made me and my brother wear them to pretty much every game. They're identical suits. His was blue, mine was green and they were both ugly (laughs)."

While Ron obviously loved hockey, he also enjoyed watching the other sports teams in town, as the NFL's Steelers and the MLB's Pirates were having tremendous success during those years. So one day, when two Pirates players who resided in their building - Manny Sanguillen and Rennie Stennett - joined their game of street hockey, the Hextall boys were absolutely over the moon.

"I never thought much of it. Watched them for a bit," Bryan said. "Then when the boys came in, I said, 'Who were the two new guys?' Well, they were so excited that two of the Pirates were out there playing with them, they talked about it all the time for weeks."

"We're just out there playing and they came out and started playing with us. We were like, whoa - this is pretty cool," Ron said. "I had been exposed to a lot of the hockey players on the Penguins, obviously, but in terms of the baseball players - it was a thrill for my brother and I."

At that point, Ron was playing organized youth hockey in Pittsburgh for teams sponsored by local businesses, like the Ideal Sports Shop, in arenas like the Rostraver Ice Garden. One day on their way to the rink, Ron astutely observed that his coach was actually driving behind them, and his son - who was the goalie - was not in the car.

"He got so excited, and I was like, oh my gosh - it's starting, because I knew he'd end up in the net," Fay said. "I phoned Bryan. He had a game that day, he was going to the rink. And I said 'Bryan, what am I going to do? They're putting Ronnie in the net.' And he said, 'Fay, you're going to sit down and watch the game.' I went, okay (laughs)."

As Ron said, it was the start of a long journey that would lead to him getting selected by the Philadelphia Flyers in the sixth round (119th overall) of the 1982 NHL Draft. And while Bryan was thrilled that his son was one step closer to reaching his dream, he wasn't necessarily thrilled about the organization.

The Flyers had earned their reputation as the Broad Street Bullies in the 1970s, with enforcers like Dave Schultz - nicknamed 'The Hammer' - leading the charge. And during Bryan's tenure with the Penguins, the bad blood had boiled over many times that he still felt bitter towards them years after retiring and moving back to his native Brandon, Manitoba.

"To be quite honest with you, I hated them," Bryan said. "I fought most of them, Schultz and the whole crew. I just couldn't stand them. And when Ron got drafted by the Flyers, I wasn't the happiest guy in Manitoba, I'll put it that way."

So when Bryan and Fay went to watch Ron play during his rookie season with the Flyers, in a move that would make Penguins fans proud, the elder Hextall turned the other cheek after catching sight of his old foes.

"The first night we were down there, Fay and I went in and they had everything set up for the parents," Bryan said. "We walked in, and there was Schultz and that whole crew sitting over there in the corner. I never even went over and said hello."

Ron would go on to build quite a legacy in Philadelphia. During that rookie season in 1986-87, he won the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goaltender and led the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Finals against Edmonton. He captured the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs, which was a rare honor, since he played for the losing team. 

Ron then spent the majority of his 13-year playing career with the Flyers before transitioning into their front office, where he served in their personnel department from 1999-06, was assistant GM from 2013-14 and GM from 2014-18.

Despite that, Pittsburgh always held a special place in all of the Hextalls' hearts, as they thoroughly enjoyed their time here. So when Rutherford - who went on to become inducted into the Hall of Fame in the builder category - resigned as general manager of the Penguins for personal reasons on Jan. 27 and the team reached out to Ron about filling the position, he texted Bryan right away.

"He said, 'Dad, you know what, Pittsburgh got ahold of me. What do you think?'" Bryan said. "Well, I jumped about two feet up in the air, and I said, oh my goodness, wouldn't that be wonderful?"

The Penguins officially announced that they had hired Ron as general manager on Feb. 9, and his parents were truly ecstatic to see him go full circle back to the city where it all began.

"I just couldn't see Ronnie in a better spot right now," Fay said. "Bryan and I were really just elated."

Bryan and Fay, who still reside back in their native Canada, are anxious to return to Pittsburgh once it's safe enough to do so - and maybe take another trip down memory lane with Potash.

"They truly, honestly cannot wait to get here," Potash said. "They said, as soon as this COVID thing is clear, we can't wait to come down there, and we're just so excited."

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