From his NHL debut in October of 1986 to December 1987, Ron Hextall enjoyed a stretch of hockey that will never be duplicated. You may know him as the Philadelphia Flyers’ patient, steadfast General Manager, or as the goaltender most likely to kill you.
As you ponder how both those labels can be true, remember also that Hextall was pretty great at stopping pucks. His rookie year, in particular, was tremendous. In the 1986-87 season, Hextall posted a record of 37-21-6 and led the league in saves, save percentage and minutes played. He was awarded the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie (Amazingly, he finished second in Calder Trophy voting for rookie of the year to Luc Robitaille).
Hextall continued his stellar play in the postseason, where he backstopped the Flyers to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. Ultimately, Philadelphia fell to Wayne Gretzky and the dynastic Edmonton Oilers, who collected their third cup in four seasons.
Still, Hextall was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP for his efforts; he’s one of five players from losing teams to receive that honor.
Flyers fans, and hockey fans in general, had high hopes for Hextall’s second act. He didn’t disappoint. On December 8, 1987, he became the first goaltender to score a goal in an opponent’s net.
The caveat is important. Hockey doesn’t keep track of own goals; instead, the scorekeepers credit either the player who was closest to the puck when it went in—if, say, it happened off a faceoff—or the player who last touched the puck. In 1979, the Islanders' Billy Smith got on the scoresheet by making a save and having a Colorado Rockies player pass the puck into his own net on a delayed penalty.
But Hextall broke the mold. Coming into the NHL, he had two reputations: the first as a fighter, the second as a goalie who liked to handle the puck. In his last season in junior, Hextall, in 46 games mind you, racked up 117 penalty minutes to go along with eight assists. He nearly matched those numbers as a rookie—104 PIM, six assists. The first three seasons of his pro career saw Hextall produce one goal (he added another in the 1989 playoffs), 20 assists and 321 penalty minutes. With the understanding that Hextall played in the high-flying 80's, consider this: Current Flyers winger Chris VandeVelde has 23 career assists in 197 games. Hextall had 20 in his first 192.
Of course, Hextall peaked early. He retired at the age of 34 without having come close to reaching the heights he did as a rookie. The last image of his Philadelphia playing career came in the 1997 Stanley Cup Final when he and Garth Snow played a game of hot potato with the Flyers' crease. Detroit swept Philadelphia.
Now, he's attempting to right that wrong as the GM. No matter how his reign is remembered—reviews have been positive so far—it's important to note that Hextall was once both insane and insanely good.
Philadelphia born. Raised in God's country aka Duluth, Minnesota. Give me a frozen pond and an open pitch and I'll be happy. Follow me on twitter @noclassfriday