Bernie Parent Versus Ron Hextall: Who Was the Best in Flyers' History?

Biff RobertsContributor IApril 5, 2010

OK, I know I will probably be blasted by a lot of people for even raising such a question.

After all, Bernie is a legend in Philadelphia. He is part of one of the greatest sports teams in Philadelphia history. He won two Stanley Cups with that team, and was instrumental in doing so, winning both deciding games without giving up a single goal.

Hextall, on the other hand, has no Stanley Cup, and is remembered as much for his fighting, checking, and stick swinging as he is for his play as a top-notch goaltender.

I realize all of this, and all of the obvious reactions that people will probably want to throw at me, which may even include a few orange colored rocks. But please bear with me and hear me out.

If you are the kind of person that uses championships as the end—all, be—all of deciding who is better when comparing players, then I would not even bother reading any further. If that is your only measuring stick, then Bernie wins hands down. If you are open to looking at and considering all the variables, then you might find some of this interesting.

The reason I am even bringing this up is that I recently answered a post that caused me to compare the two a bit closer, which revealed some interesting things. So, I figured I would share it here and open it up for discussion. 

Championships, Schmampionships

Of course, this is always the default measuring stick, and what very often becomes the deciding factor in sports discussions such as these. Does it matter? Of course it does.

Championships are what they all compete for and desire. It is the ultimate goal and certainly is a factor, but I do not believe it should be the deciding factor when comparing players for a couple of reasons.

First, hockey is a team game, and without a great team in front of a goalie he will never win a Cup. Many great players, goalie and non-goalies alike, have retired without a Cup because they just were not fortunate enough to be surrounded by a good enough team. One player can only do so much.

Dominik Hasek would have retired without one if he had not left Buffalo for an All Star Team in Detriot. Ray Bourque would have retired without one if he had not left Boston and gone to Colorado. Pat LaFontaine retired without a Cup.

Dan Marino was in just one Super Bowl and never won one. Does this make him any less great? He is still considered one of the all time best.

I think you get the point. The fact that a great player does not happen to win a championship does not make him any less great or diminish his accomplishments.

Much the same, there are many average players who do wind up with a ring, because they are lucky enough to find themselves on a great team destined to win one with or without them. Should this automatically mean they are great or should get a free pass to the Hall of Fame? Not in my opinion. 

In the case of Ron Hextall, he did all that one man possibly could in '87 to win one. He faced arguably the greatest offensive team in NHL history as a rookie and took the Edmonton Oilers to the brink of the seventh and deciding game with a injury riddled team in front of him, missing their top scorer.

He played what could quite possibly be the greatest series a goalie has ever played and faced far more shots and chances than Bernie had in either of his series wins.

This is not to diminish the effort that Bernie had to make to win both of his Cups. It is indeed staggering to think that in both deciding games he posted a shutout.

This is only a statement of what Ron Hextall had to deal with that year. Hextall was forced to do much more in the loss than his opposing goalie Grant Fuhr had to do in the win, but Fuhr is the one with the cup. That is just the way it goes sometimes.

We all know Ron Hextall went on to be one of a very select group of players to win the Conn Smythe as MVP on the losing team, which is saying something. It is safe to say that Hextall certainly deserved a title that year and if he had Kerr on the ice it is safe to assume he would.

So should he be faulted for not having one? In this case, I personally think not.

About Bernie

To my point about the team having a lot to do with a goalie's success, Bernie was no doubt a great goalie, and certainly made that Flyer team a better one. He was there when they needed him most, making great saves when called upon and coming up big in big games. You could not ask for more.

That said, it is undeniable that Bernie played behind one of the best and most intimidating teams of the era—maybe in all sports. This can make any goalie a much better one.

Bernie is really remembered most from the success he had in just a few seasons. He put up some staggering numbers in the '73-'74 and '74-'75 seasons and even beyond, to a lesser extent.

But take a look at his combined NHL record before he landed back on that dominating Flyer team in 1973-74. Bernie's combined NHL record before that point was 94-138. That is far from stellar, or even .500. He moved around the league spending time with the Bruins, Flyers, and Leafs, and even spent a season out of the NHL completely over the course of eight seasons.

This is not the Bernie Parent that most remember. Again, I don't disagree that he was a big part of the Flyers' success, but I do think it went both ways. After all it is a team game and it takes a team to win.

How Great Was That Flyer Team, Really?

One example of how great that Flyer team was and how they helped the goalie is Wayne Stephenson. An average goalie at best, in relief of Bernie in 1975-76 he went 40-10-13. That is a stellar record for a backup goaltender.

Only one other time in his career did Stephenson have as many as 20 wins in a single season. He went on to take that team to the finals, where they unfortunately were beaten by one of the greatest teams in NHL history in the Canadiens. If they played anyone else in the finals they probably would have won, and even Stephenson might have had a Cup. Would that make him better than Hextall as well?

Clearly that team had the ability to make a goalie not only look better, but also play better. That Flyer team was also able do something that no other team was able to do in '76, which was beat the Russians. And they did that with their backup goalie as well.

This all shows why I do not think that Cups won should be the deciding factor. It is a team game, and teams win cups, not individuals. Just my opinion here, folks!

About Mr. Hextall

To the team point, Ron Hextall never had the luxury of playing behind a team as intimidating or dominating as that 70s Flyer team. If he had, it is safe to assume he would have at least one Cup, maybe more.

Sure, he played on some good teams throughout his career. But none like the 70s Flyers.

The core of the '87 team fell apart after the '89 season. The team in '97 had a ton of skill but zero heart, as they completely disappeared in the finals. That Lindros-led team in the 90s had a good run, and when you look at the before and after effect of Ron Hextall coming back to the team, it is clear that he had a lot to do with their success.

After all, he led the NHL in GAA in the '95-'96 season with 2.17, and has a measly .913 SP. He helped get them to the finals once again in '97 and had another great playoff run leading up to the finals.

In the finals the team completely disappeared in front of him. Their goal scoring average dropped by half from the preceding three series, and their team "leader" Eric Lindros had a measly two points in the four-game sweep by a Red Wings team poised to go on "dynasty"-type run.

Now, I do not think Hextall was great in that series, either; but I think it was also a reflection of what was happening in front of him. 

Hextall's Postseason: Success or Failure?

Here is another interesting statistic about Ron Hextall. In the eight postseasons where he was the starter (excluding '97-'98, when he only played one period) he was beaten by the eventual Stanley Cup winner six times.

There certainly are no excuses, and I am not trying to make one for him. After all, he would not make any excuses.

People like to question Hextall's ability as a "big game" goaltender, but it is not like he was losing to bad teams in his playoff career. You can add one more if you want to open it up to teams that went on to the finals, which would make it seven of eight playoff seasons—excluding only the Caps in 1988. 

A Couple Specific Points on Hextall Vs. Parent

Ron Hextall in his career accumulated more wins in less time than Bernie, and is the winningest goalie in Flyers history.

Hextall had an added dimension to his game that Bernie never had with his puck handling and skating ability. He scored two goals, after all, and was the first goalie to do so.

Hextall proved that he had a greater ability to make a bad-to-average team better than Bernie ever did. Bernie's and Hextall's records both prove this.

In thirteen seasons, Hextall finished below .500 only two times.

In contrast, Bernie finished below .500 a staggering seven times in thirteen seasons. He did not finish above .500 ever in his career before coming back to Philadelphia in 1973-74, where he then went on to do it six times in his final six seasons.

Coincidence? Bernie's dominance was secluded to a very few amazing seasons in his long career only, while he was on an all-around great team. Other than that, he was well below average. Hextall was much more consistent over the course of his career than Bernie was.

Their numbers are kind of difficult to compare evenly because the eras were so different. In the 70s the league was filled with as many "goons" as it was with skilled players.

In the 80s the game had changed and  was much more offensive minded.

In addition, the league was more mature by the time Ron Hextall came along. There were less flat-out "bad" teams to feast on than there were in the post-expansion era when Bernie played.

That said, I cannot find save percentage stats for Bernie (please share if you have them). Their regular season GAAs are pretty close, with Bernie at 2.55 and Hextall at 2.98. Where it does lean more toward Bernie's corner is in the playoffs, when Bernie had a 2.43 and Hextall with a 3.03.

But one must consider that Ron Hextall played in more playoff games (93) than Bernie (71). Ron Hextall also has more playoff wins (47 to 38). After all, the more time you play in the playoffs the greater the chance your numbers are going to be higher. This is why save percentage would be a more telling statistic.

In any case, there is something to be said that Hextall not only lead his teams to the playoffs more often, but also took them deeper.

In Closing

As I said, I am not saying that Ron Hextall is in fact better than Bernie Parent, only that it is debatable, and a bit closer than most might think, when you look beyond the surface of Stanley Cup rings alone.

I also want to say it again that I am not trying to diminish anything that Bernie Parent ever did. One could not have any more respect for him than I do. I am only trying to share a different perspective when deciding who was the best in Flyers' history.

Ron Hextall had an amazing career, and I think too often he is remembered for the wrong reasons, or a couple of very specific goals, in an otherwise long and successful career. I think it was fitting that the Flyers inducted him into their Hall of Fame. I think that his number should be retired. Maybe for both him and Reggie Leach.

I also think he deserves some NHL Hall of Fame consideration. But that is another topic all together.


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