Playing goal is not fun. It is a grim, humorless position, largely uncreative, requiring little physical movement, giving little physical pleasure in return...[a goalie] is simply there, tied to a net and to a game; the game acts, a goalie reacts.
Six years after Hall of Famer Ken Dryden wrote the definitive book on goal-tending in hockey, along comes Ron Hextall of the Philadelphia Flyers to rewrite it. This goalie acts. And then the game reacts to him.
Hextall, 25, wanders from the goal and plays as a third defenseman. No other NHL goaltender has ever shot and scored a goal; Hextall has done it two times. And he is typecast as the reigning villain on the ever-hated Flyers. Twice he has raged into violent acts that have caused the NHL to suspend him. Last Saturday he ended his most recent suspension, for the first 12 games of the season, returning to play goal in a 7-4 victory over the Maple Leafs in Toronto.
The chip on Hextall's shoulder is from a block three generations old. His grandfather Bryan scored the winning goal in overtime when the Rangers last won the Stanley Cup, in 1940. His father, Bryan Jr., and uncle Dennis made NHL careers more with Hextall grit than with their average skills.
The grandson, however, is special. After Edmonton's Grant Fuhr, who has won four Stanley Cups, Hextall is the goalie most hockey people would choose for a hypothetical do-or-die playoff Game 7. Hextall is quick, tall (6'3") and supple, with the mobility and wrists of a 50-goal scorer. He is a new concept in goaltending: the complete athlete.
Historically, goalies have had bodies that inspired nicknames such as Gump. Many of the best of them, like Dryden and Jacques Plante, were perceived as being more cerebral than athletic. Plante was the first to help himself around the crease by handling the puck. Later, the Rangers' Ed Giacomin and the Bruins' Gerry Cheevers ventured out from the net to aid the defensemen. But not to the degree that Hextall does.
"Giacomin may have connected on some long passes," says current Ranger goalie John Vanbiesbrouck. "But he never made offensive plays like Ron does. He's the first goalie who has put his team on the attack, especially when it is killing penalties."
Former New York Islander goalie Billy Smith was actually the first in the NHL to be credited with a score, but he got it by being the last Islander to touch a puck that the Colorado Rockies accidentally shot into their own net in a game in 1979. Smith was also notorious for being the first goalie to use his stick as a scythe to clear out opposing players from the crease. But Hextall may be even freer with his stick. During the 1987 Cup finals, Edmonton's Kent Nilsson happened to be the unfortunate Oiler to come through the slot after Glenn Anderson—in an attempt to bat a puck out of the air—rapped Hextall on the arm. Hextall took a vicious two-handed swing to the back of Nilsson's legs and sent him crumbling to the ice. Although Hextall argued later that he turned the blade flush to soften the blow—Nilsson was able to take a shift on the resultant power play—the sight was chilling. Hextall was suspended for the first eight games of the next season.
That incident served as a prelude to Hextall's explosion in last season's playoffs. During the dying minutes of the semifinal game that eliminated the Flyers last spring, Hextall charged 40 feet from the net and hit Montreal's Chris Chelios with his blocker, the hard glove a goalie wears on his stick hand. Chelios, whose harder-than-necessary elbow earlier in the series had driven Brian Propp's head into a steel glass support and knocked the Flyer winger unconscious, escaped Hextall's attack without injury. Still, Hextall's previous record and the unsavory image of the losers beating on the winners justified the 12-game suspension he was given. Many thought the punishment light.
"No, I don't think he's a jerk," says Vanbiesbrouck. "I'm a goalie and I know that standing your ground and slashing and hacking is part of the game. But to lose it to the point where injury results is wrong.
"There's a limitation to what one guy can do. I don't know why he wants to take it upon himself to do everything. I just wonder why he wants to be portrayed as such a bad guy."
Truth is, Hextall doesn't. "It bothers me that anyone would think that off the ice, I'm the way I am on it," he says. "I don't think I would be real happy with myself if I was."
Ron's wife, Diane, a former competitive figure skater and Hextall's sweetheart from his hometown of Brandon, Manitoba, swears the maniacal version of Hextall is never to be confused with the doting dad who treasures his time with Kristin, 3, and Brett, 19 months. "He doesn't beat his head against the wall," she says. "We don't have padded doors. I have never seen him lose his temper with the kids. We haven't had a good fight in a long time."
But Diane freely admits she was up and cheering when her husband mugged Chelios. She thinks the Montreal defenseman had it coming for giving Propp a concussion that kept him out of the next game. Diane's view is shared by Hextall's father and his mother, Fay. They are nice people, but they are also hockey people.
Even more jarring than the sight of Hextall going after Chelios was watching him try to defend his actions in the locker room after the game. Limited remorse began to settle in within a few days. Six months later, he is contrite.
"It was wrong," he says. "I'll admit I'm not a good loser, and I'm not proud of it. I've had two incidents that have hurt myself and our club. I know I've been suspended twice, and if I do something else, I will be suspended again. I have to cut that stuff out.
"I thought about [Chelios] for a few minutes before I did it and told myself that as long as I didn't use my stick, we'd both probably get five-minute penalties. I didn't think it all the way through. Two wrongs don't make a right, but what Chelios did to Brian Propp was certainly a lot more harmful than what I did to Chelios."
Obviously the only real apology Hextall has offered is to his teammates. Most of his ethical considerations center on their effect on the team. Hextall has never allowed a goal that he figured wasn't directly his fault. He has 33 one-goal games in his three NHL seasons, but the only lost shutouts he laments were two 1-0 defeats. "It's tough to explain to anyone who has never been on a team," he says. "But you'll do anything for your teammates."
That value reflects his upbringing, though it turns out that Grandpa was something of a pacifist. Bryan Hextall Sr. was a strong player who three times was voted first-team All-Star right wing during an 11-season NHL career that ended in 1948. But he repeatedly lectured his sons, Bryan Jr. and Dennis, to stay out of the penalty box. "He was a tough player. He just didn't like fighting," says Ron. "He'd really get frustrated with my dad and uncle."
Bryan Sr. died in 1984, but Hextall's grandmother, Gert, still lives in Poplar Point, Manitoba, and it is she who claims credit for introducing the mean genes into the family. Instilled with her fire and their father's quiet determination, Bryan Jr. and Dennis hung on to have lengthy NHL careers. And they stuck those Hextall noses in places where they often came away bleeding. One of the outstanding remembrances of Ron's youth was watching the Broad Street Bullies beat on his father and uncle. "I hated the Flyers." says Hextall.
He also wasn't much for school. Fay preached the virtues of education to her three children, but only her eldest, Tracy, now a grade school teacher in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, took the message to heart. Ron, who was born a year after his brother, Rod, earned B's and C's by doing the minimum, but there was really only one subject that interested him: goaltending. "Everybody else would be working and I'd be drawing pictures of Tony Esposito and Jimmy Rutherford," he says. Bryan Jr., who like his father was a forward, had no objections to having a goalie in the family. But he did insist that Ron play other positions first so he could develop his skating.
"I always thought Ronald would make a great defenseman," says Bryan. Fay, whose wrist shot tested five-year-old Ron in the driveway, said she saw his single-mindedness and became convinced that someday he would be exactly what he intended to be. "I can't say that I didn't discourage distractions from it," she says, "but I felt from a young age that he would make it. He had a love for the game that frankly I didn't see in too many of the players that his father played with."
From 1962 to '76, Bryan Jr. bounced from the Rangers to the minors to Pittsburgh to Atlanta to Detroit to Minnesota. The kids would begin every school year in Brandon, then in early October, when the season began, would transfer to a school near where their dad was playing. "Every year I would march them into the new school the first day like it was the most natural thing in the world," remembers Fay. "Then I'd get in the car and burst into tears."
Hextall adjusted though. "I always had friends," he says. "Guys either hated me because I had a father who was a professional athlete or they liked me because of it. I don't want to put my kids through that many moves, but I had a great childhood. I got to hang around NHL rinks. What more would I have wanted?"
Bryan can still picture Ron's face behind the glass at practice, watching the goalie's every move. The exposure to an athlete's life-style and the instruction at the hockey school where Bryan taught every summer were ideal situations for a budding player. The youth hockey programs in cities like Pittsburgh and Atlanta, though, were not. Ron was 12 when Bryan retired in 1976, and the family moved back to Brandon. He had some catching up to do.
"I wasn't what you would call real polished my first year of junior [at 17]," he says. He played for a poor Brandon team that afforded him little protection, and he found himself fighting, literally, an almost nightly battle for survival. When Flyer scout Jerry Melnyk saw him, he figured Hextall was the Flyers' kind of guy. "I liked what most people probably didn't like about him." Melnyk says. "There were teams who thought he was loony. That's probably why he lasted until the sixth round [in the 1982 draft]."
It was not until four seasons later, when Hextall played for Hershey of the American League, that he blossomed as a prospect. On opening night of the 1986-87 season, he was in the Flyer goal against Edmonton. The Oilers scored on their first shot, but they didn't score again. "Who the hell are you?" Wayne Gretzky said after Hextall robbed him on a breakaway early in the game. "Who the hell are you?" Hextall replied. The Flyers won 2-1 and kept winning all season, all the way to Game 7 of the Cup finals. There Hextall was holding his team in against an overpowering Edmonton offensive machine until, in the 57th minute, the Oilers scored to seal a 3-1 victory and take the Cup. Hextall accepted the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs' MVP and then, when alone, broke down and cried.
"It's a terrible feeling, losing the last game of any year," he says. "A lonely feeling. Maybe I'll mellow out as I get older, but each year, no matter how far we go, it still feels the same. It kills the first few weeks of my summer.
"Every goal I give up, I ask myself why I didn't do anything different. Even when you know that you didn't have a hope in heck, you still think there's something you could have done."
Almost as heavy as the goalie's burden is his stick. It is a cumbersome instrument designed to stop pucks, not shoot them. But, as a kid, Hextall grew bored standing in the net for long minutes of a game. When he finally got the puck, he hated to give it up.
The rule book required that a goalie stop at the red line, and Fay, still wondering if Ron would rather be a defense-man, sometimes asked, "Wouldn't you like to keep going?" But since he was three and began stopping a rolled-up sock he had bounced off the stairs, nothing had given Hextall more satisfaction than making a save. At the same time, there was little—except tradition—to prevent him from doing the things other position players did. By age 12, Hextall's technique and wrist strength enabled him to lift the puck on the fly as far as the red line. Scoring a goal was simply a matter of time and opportunity.
He announced his intention soon after joining the Flyers. He wouldn't risk the icing—and the face-off in the Flyer end—with a one-goal lead, but if they were up two and the opposition goalie had been pulled, he would try it. On Dec. 8, 1987, at the Spectrum, Boston's Gord Kluzak flipped the puck in and Hextall stopped it behind the goal. He turned, aimed and made history.
Hextall estimates that given time, he can hit the net five times out of 10 from 180 feet away. So far, under game conditions he's 2 for 3, having missed once, then connected for a shorthanded goal in an 8-5 win over Washington at the Capital Centre in last year's playoffs.
"I'd primarily like to be known for stopping the puck," he says. "But I'd rather be known as the goalie who scores goals than for the [suspensions]. I feel good about making a contribution to the game. It's given me a great living."
Last summer, however, he became convinced that the living wasn't as great as it could have been. Too much of the money in the eight-year, $4 million contract he had signed early in the '87-88 season was deferred over 20 years; he was earning only $325,000 a year. So he hired Rich Winter, the most confrontational agent in hockey, to renegotiate. When the Flyers refused to deal with Winter, Hextall called a press conference and tearfully said he wouldn't come to camp. "I made the decision," Hextall insists. "Rich only laid out the options. I didn't see that he had done anything wrong that I should fire him."
Hextall returned 42 days later, after both sides promised to say nothing about the renegotiations. Flyer general manager Bobby Clarke hinted, though, that a new deal was in the works. "When something happens, you'll know about it," he said after Hextall's return. Throughout, Hextall has said that he never wanted to leave Philadelphia. Still, he had convinced himself, just as he did when he went after Chelios, that a principle was involved. His direction may be open to question, but never his resolve. The correct way to play goal is to do it standing up. Hextall believes it is also the way to live one's life.
"When I'm done, I'll look in the mirror and say I gave it everything I had," he says. "If you got every ounce of talent out of yourself, then you did well."