Amazing. Fiery. Aggressive. Revolutionary. These are all adjectives that probably pop into your head when thinking about retired goaltender Ron Hextall. He was all of the above.
He had many people thinking he would be the greatest goalie to ever take the ice. He could take over any game and agitate an opponent, which was very uncommon for any goalie in the late 1980s.
In 1986, I remember turning on a movie channel called “Prism," which was only available in the Philadelphia area. It was on this channel that I would witness my first Philadelphia Flyers game, which was oddly enough Ron Hextall’s first game in his rookie season.
Immediately, I was hooked.
Being a new fan of hockey, I couldn’t appreciate how different he was from every other goalie at the time. I didn’t realize that other goalies stayed in their crease and didn’t stick-handle the puck. I had no idea that other goalies didn’t slash their opponents in the back of the legs if they got in their way. At the time I had no idea what I was witnessing.
Of course, after adapting to the sport of hockey and seeing the goalies the Flyers faced that season, I came to the realization that Ron Hextall was like no other player let alone goalie to ever lace up his skates.
Ron comes from a family of NHL players. He is the grandson of Hockey Hall of Famer Bryan Hextall, the son of Bryan Hextall Jr. and the nephew of Dennis Hextall. Ron’s son was drafted by the Phoenix Coyotes in the sixth round of the 2008 NHL entry draft. It’s safe to say that hockey is in “Hexy’s” blood.
In his rookie season, he collected a number of individual awards. He won every goaltender award possible his rookie season, even the Conn Smythe Trophy for NHL Playoff MVP despite losing to the Oilers in the finals in seven games. The only honor to elude him that year was the Calder Trophy, which was awarded to Luc Robitaille, who nearly broke 50 goals as a rookie.
Hextall tallied at least 30 wins in each of his first three NHL seasons, a feat that wouldn’t be matched until Henrik Lundqvist debuted over 15 years later.
Hextall truly revolutionized the goaltender position. He was often referred to as a “third defensemen” because of his stick-handling abilities. He was lethal on dump-ins and was known for his precise outlet passes. He was also the first goalie to actually score a goal. He did it once in the regular season and once in the playoffs.
Hextall was a Philly favorite because he gave 110% every game. He was as loyal as they come and would crush any opponent that gave the Flyers trouble. His aggression sometimes came with consequences. His infamous slash on Kent Nilsson earned him an eight-game suspension for the start of the ’87-’88 season. His loyalty to his teammates was illustrated in Game 6 of the ’89 Wales Conference Finals, when he attacked Chris Chelios in retaliation for his illegal and unpenalized hit on Brian Propp in Game 1 of that series, in which Propp suffered a concussion.
To many hockey fans outside of Philadelphia, Hextall was viewed as an uncontrollable maniac. This wasn’t true at all. He was a very misunderstood individual. He was so passionate about the game and the comradery with his teammates and Philadelphia fans. His aggression was taken out of context and people just thought he was plain crazy.
In 1992, Hextall was dealt to Quebec along with Peter Forsberg, Chris Simon, Mike Ricci, Steve Duchensne, Kerry Huffman, first-round picks in ’93 and ’94 and $15 million in cash for Eric Lindros. The day he was traded to Quebec in what was the biggest trade in NHL history, and Hextall was quoted as saying “this is the worst day of my life."
He was reacquired by the Flyers in 1994 and once again reached the finals in 1997, only to be swept by the Red Wings. He retired in the orange and black in 1999.
It isn’t the stats or the bad reputation that true Philly fans remember Hextall for. It’s his heart and determination. It’s his willingness to put it all on the line at any time to stand up for his teammates. He exemplified what it is to be a Flyer and helped set the standard that players live by today. He will always be my favorite player and I credit him with getting me interested in the game of hockey.
Since Hextall’s exit, Philly fans will tell you that the Flyers have never had a true No. 1 goalie. His relationship with the fans is uncanny, and he’s always said that was his favorite part of playing in Philadelphia.
Guys like Hextall come once in a lifetime. For me, our shared NHL debut couldn’t have been timed any better.
This article was also published here: Philly Sports God Blog