In the beginning, there was Bryan Hextall, a New York Ranger right wing enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He scored 20 or more goals in seven of his 11 NHL seasons—quite a deed in the era of 48-, 50- and 60-game seasons—and will be forever remembered by Ranger fans as the man who scored the winning goal the last time the team won the Stanley Cup, in 1940.
Bryan Hextall the Elder begat Bryan and Dennis. Bryan the Younger played for five NHL teams in eight years, retiring in 1976 with 99 goals in 549 games. Dennis left the game in 1980, with 153 goals in 684 games. And tough? The Hextall brothers amassed 2,136 penalty minutes during their years in the league.
And Bryan the Younger begat Ron. "Ron is a typical Hextall, the same type of competitor," says Philadelphia Flyers general manager Bob Clarke. Well, not quite. Ron, now 22, has chosen to concentrate on stopping goals instead of scoring them. And though the kid is defying family tradition, he's got a good shot at hockey immortality. If this were horse racing, Ron Hextall's bloodlines would almost guarantee him the Triple Crown.
As it is, the Flyers' 22-year-old goalie sensation has a two-length lead in the Rookie of the Year race. Hextall's numbers—a 2.27 goals-against average and 12 wins in 17 starts—are impressive enough. Even more remarkable, he has replaced Bob Froese as Philadelphia's No. 1 goalie. Last season, Froese shared the Jennings Trophy with his backup, Darren Jensen, because the club's combined goals-against average of 2.99 was the best in the NHL. Froese, who had taken over the Flyers' top spot when All-Star Pelle Lindbergh died after a car crash six weeks into the season, has been so over-shadowed by Hextall that on some nights he hasn't even dressed. Meanwhile, the Flyers are off to the best start in the NHL (14-4-2) and have given up the fewest goals, 45 in 20 games—18 fewer than their closest rivals, the Whalers.
"Ron is the real thing," says Chico Resch, the Flyers' 38-year-old backup goaltender. "There are young goalies in this league like [Montreal's] Patrick Roy, [Buffalo's] Tom Barrasso, even [Edmonton's] Grant Fuhr when he came up, who were going down a lot, whose skills weren't that developed, but they were compensating with their enthusiasm and adrenaline. Ron doesn't make those mistakes. He doesn't play on his knees or use tricks. He's got the best feet and hands and lateral movement of any big goalie [6'3"] I've ever seen. He's truly got a chance to be one of the alltime greats."
Flyer coach Mike Keenan, a man who doesn't part with a compliment without a struggle, can hardly contain himself. "Ron's got that Ken Dryden aura about him," Keenan says. "I realize that I've subjected both myself and Ron to criticism by going with him, but it's a decision that we feel very comfortable with."
After winning last year's American Hockey League rookie of the year award and being named a first-team all-star while playing for the Hershey Bears, Hextall came to the Flyers' training camp in September as a long shot. But his play in four exhibition-game victories overwhelmed the Flyers. "There was no way we could not keep him," says Clarke.
The Flyers not only kept Hextall, they started him in their season opener against Edmonton. When the Oilers' Jari Kurri scored on the first shot Hextall ever faced in an NHL game, Clarke and Keenan might have questioned their decision. But Hextall went on to shut out Edmonton the rest of the way and the Flyers won 2-1. At that point Oilers general manager and coach Glen Sather might have done a little second-guessing of his own: Sather used to shoot rubber balls at a six-year-old Ron Hextall when Bryan the Younger and Sather were teammates on the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Perhaps that's why this rush of fame doesn't faze Hextall. He has already spent a lifetime sharing the highs and lows with his father. As Bryan the Younger was traded around the league a lot, Ron frequently changed schools. "I was something of a hockey brat," Ron says. "Me and my brother [Rod] used to go down to practices with my dad, and I guess we could be pests. But the players were a lot of help. [Goalie] Dan Bouchard used to stand behind me and move me across the crease to help me with angles. Jimmy Rutherford worked with me, too. He even gave me one of his old masks."
Hextall is married to Diane Ogibowski, a former top senior figure skater in Canada. Ron and Diane are the parents of seven-month-old Kristin, who figures to be doing Triple Salchows by her first birthday, if not sooner. "My idea of a wild night is staying home and playing with the baby," he says.
Maturity could have a lot to do with the way Hextall has been able to distance himself from the Froese situation. Froese has been getting mighty uncomfortable signing autographs in the press box during games while the Flyers shop him around the NHL. "I don't want to bad-mouth anybody, because I love the guys on this team," Froese says. "With all we went through last year, I want to show them that even if I'm not playing, I'm still with them. I've always been a good team guy, so I have to ask, 'Why?' I just want to go someplace where I can play." One assumes Froese does not mean Hershey, where Jensen has been assigned.
While Hextall can keep himself aloof from the controversy off the ice, at game time he displays the familial combativeness. Last Wednesday in a 2-2 tie at Toronto, Hextall evidently thought Maple Leafs forward Brad Smith might make for good kindling and chopped him down with a two-hander. The next night, in Philadelphia for a 5-1 Flyer defeat of Chicago, Blackhawks center Troy Murray was playing too close to the crease to suit Hextall, who said so with a swipe. "I used to be worse," Hextall says. "I've learned to control my temper."
Oh. But it's not stick-swinging that sets Hextall apart; it's stickhandling. "He could play the point on the power play if he wanted," says Maple Leafs coach John Brophy, who saw plenty of Hextall when he coached at St. Catharines in the AHL last season. "It gets frustrating the way he handles the puck, because every time you dump it in, he dumps it out."
Hextall vows he's going to be the first NHL goaltender to score a true goal. The Islanders' Bill Smith was credited with a goal against the Colorado Rockies in 1979, but he was merely the last Islander to touch the puck before it found its way into the Rockies' net while Colorado had possession. Hextall has it all planned. With the opposition's net empty, he will make a save, whistle a wrist shot the length of the ice and watch the puck pucker the back of the net. He can hear it now.... "Goal by number 27, Ron Hextall...." Somewhere, Bryan the Elder will be smiling.