Bernie Parent is hands down the greatest Flyers goalie ever. Pelle Lindbergh is arguably the most beloved Flyers goalie ever. But Ron Hextall is the most Flyers Flyers goalie ever.
For a franchise that prides itself on passion, sacrifice, grit, determination, heart and ferocity, Ron Hextall embodied all of those traits. A 6'3" ball of fury who would bounce around the crease, go into the corners to take out forecheckers, stickhandle and clear the puck like a third defenseman and possess a pretty decent wrist shot, Ron Hextall forever changed the way the position of goaltender was played.
In the fall of 1985, the Philadelphia Flyers had the best goalie in the world in their net. Pelle Lindbergh was a slow-to-develop Swede who finally had his breakout season in 1984-85, leading the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Finals and winning the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goaltender. The team that had lost in five games to the Edmonton Oilers the previous spring looked even better and they looked better than the Oilers. They were 12-2, the best team in hockey with the best goaltender. The future seemed limitless: breeze through the regular season dominating the competition, win the Patrick division yet again, have an even easier route to the finals than the previous season and, this time with a rested and healthy lineup and the best goalie in the NHL, defeat the defending champs for the Stanley Cup.
That dream came to an end on November 10, 1985.
The Flyers spent the 1985-86 season trying to put the pieces back together after Lindbergh's death. They relied on Bob Froese, who truth be told played admirably, winning the Jennings Award for lowest goals against average, won the Patrick division on the last day of the regular season and then lost a heartbreaking first-round series to the New York Rangers.
The Flyers had lost their best player, their Vezina Trophy winner. All that promise was gone.
As blasphemous and as callous as this may sound however, Hextall was the better goalie than Lindbergh. Had Lindbergh not had his accident, the Flyers would almost assuredly have had a goaltending controversey come the 1986-87 season with a disillusioned Froese as Lindbergh's backup and Hextall waiting in the wings. Froese would have been traded, as he eventually was, but Hextall and Lindbergh would've probably wound up going head to head for the No. 1 spot meaning the Flyers would have lost one of the franchise's top three goaltenders off all time via a trade anyway.
This of course is all trivial and in the big scheme of things—meaningless compared to a human life. Unfortunately, that scenario did not happen as events unfolded.
What did happen was Ron Hextall arrived at the Flyers' training camp in 1986 unfazed by the situation he was stepping into. The deceased, fan favorite, elite goalie, and his prickly and competitive successor did not seem to enter Hextall's mind.
He went 4-0 in the preseason and head coach Mike Keenan decided to start him in the season opener against the Edmonton Oilers instead of Froese. Hextall was stellar. He stoned Esa Tikkanen on a breakaway early in the game and then topped that by getting the best of Wayne Gretzky as "The Great One" skated in alone. He flew out of the net to clear loose pucks; he hacked at the legs of opponents in the slot. He was like nothing anyone else in Philadelphia ever saw in goal and the Flyers beat their nemesis from Alberta 2-1.
His rookie year, he strapped the Flyers to his back and carried them to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals against the greatest hockey team—prehaps the greatest sports team—ever assembled, the 1986-87 Edmonton Oilers. He won the Vezina Trophy his rookie year, he won the Calder Trophy and the playoff MVP despite the Flyers failing to win the Stanley Cup.
In the years that followed, he scored two goals, he made All-Star Game appearances, he made incredible saves look easy, he kept the team afloat during dicey situations, he took on all comers and he wore his orange and black heart on his sleeve every minute.
If ever there was a moment that defined the man, both his good traits and bad, it was Game 6 of the 1989 Wales conference finals against the Montreal Canadiens. During Game 1 of the series, Canadiens defenseman Chris Chelios took a run at Flyers forward Brian Propp, driving his elbow into Propp's head and smashing it against the glass. Propp was unconscious on his feet as he fell backwards. His head whipped back and smacked the ice. When Flyers defenseman Terry Carkner reached Propp, he removed his helmet and a mess of blood and gore poured forth.
Chelios was not penalized but the Flyers took notice. Rick Tocchet took a run at him, Jeff Chychurn took a run at him. Later in the series, Ron Sutter tried to decapitate Chelios. But nothing sent a much of a message to the Canadiens defenseman, or the league in general, as what Hextall did in Game 6.
During the final two minutes of Game 6, with the Canadiens leading and the Flyers' season effectively over, Chelios took the puck into the Flyers zone offside. At the last second, he saw Hextall fly at him but was unable to defend himself as the goalie cold-cocked him and then began pummeling him underneath the ensuing pileup. As chaos ensued around the pile, Hextall, heavily bearded, sweaterless and with a psychotic look in his eyes, emerged from the pile, saw Chelios who was being escorted away by a linesman, and chucked his blocker at him.
Enraged, Hextall then wanted to go after Canadiens goalie Patrick Roy, who smartly stayed at his own end of the ice. The officials and Flyers coach Paul Holmgren convinced Hextall to leave the ice. The league served Hextall up a 12-game suspension, but the goalie served his own notice to the league, "Don't mess with my friends."
"Did you see what [Chelios] did to Brian Propp?" A still furious Hextall asked afterwards. "Come on, I think we owed him something. God Almighty, he just about took his head off. I think that's good enough reason."
Being a 6'3" goaltender playing the style he did took its effect on Hextall. He was hampered with numerous groin and hamstring injuries. Eventually, when the Eric Lindros trade was offered, Flyers GM Russ Farwell shipped Hextall to Quebec.
Quebec was not a huge rival of the Flyers. Other than the 1985 Wales conference finals matchup between the two teams and the personal rivalry between Flyers center Peter Zezel and Nordiques center Dale Hunter, there was not much history between the two clubs.
The Lindros trade changed all of that.
The Flyers' first game in Quebec with Lindros on the roster can only be described as near-riotous chaos. Fans dressed as babies throwing pacifiers, eggs, baby diapers and rattles on the ice. (Get it? Lindros was a baby. Oh, that French-Canadian humor.). It had a Game 7 playoff intensity despite taking place just four games into the Flyers' season.
When the Nordiques scored early in the game, coins and batteries rained down on the ice. It was reminescent of some of those old Flyers-Rangers battles in years prior, when Ron Hextall would challenge the entire Rangers bench and mock their coach Phil Esposito saying Espo "talked too much". The only problem was Hextall was in the Nordiques uniform and he was lashing out at Flyers forwards and coming up with key saves as the crowd was whipped into a frenzy and the Flyers lost 6-3.
Hextall eventually came back to the Flyers and was part of their resurgence as an NHL powerhouse in the late 1990s, backstopping the team in the finals in 1997. He retired a Flyer, was inducted into the team's Hall of Fame and despite now working in the front office of the Los Angeles Kings, remains a Flyer at heart.
But it was extremely conflicting to see Hextall with the Nordiques that one season, where every game the Flyers faced them, everything seemed to be on the line.