Former Hershey Bears’ goaltender Ron Hextall doesn’t consider himself a pioneer, but there’s no denying that he was a trailblazer who revolutionized the position.
Prior to Hextall’s entry into the pro ranks, a goaltender’s responsibility-to stop the puck- was rather simple. But when Hextall arrived on the pro scene, he took the position and it’s responsibilities to another level with his puckhandling skills.
In eras prior to Hextall’s, when a team dumped the puck into the offensive zone, they would only need to beat an opposing forward or more likely, a defenseman, to the biscuit to retain puck possession. However, Hextall was not content to stay in his crease when that happened, and more often than not would vacate the area to intercept the dump-in and play the puck along the boards, or turn the tables on the situation and fire off an outlet pass to a teammate which would create an offensive situation for his own club.
In addition to his stickhandling abilities, Hextall also was very a combative sort who did not hesitate to use his stick or any other means to let an opponent know that they had ventured into his personal space.
“People have asked me that before, but I don’t necessarily look at it like that,” said Hextall, in response to the pioneer question. “I look at myself as a hockey player who went out and played the game to the best of my ability. Obviously, I had a little bit of skill with the puck, and I spent a lot of time as a kid on an outdoor rink with a player’s stick, so I’m sure I developed part of my skills from that. But it wasn’t like I said to myself, ‘Oh, I’m going to become really good with the puck and set a new trend.’ I just used the skill that God gave me and tried to do my best.”
Selected by the Philadelphia Flyers in the 6 round of the 1982 NHL Entry Draft, Hextall began his pro career in the 1984-85 season, where he spent a portion of it in Hershey, a place he knew little about prior to his arrival.
“I didn’t know very much about the town of Hershey before I came there, except for the obvious thing that everybody knows that they make chocolate there, but that’s about it. When you’re a young kid growing up in Western Canada in those days, you don’t hear a lot about the American Hockey League, but I did know of Hershey and the Hershey Bears and the legacy that organization had built over the years.”
That season, which saw the Bears manage only 26 wins, was a forgettable one for the club, but it’s one that Hextall still remembers very well, for it was a very “moving” season for him personally.
“What I remember most about my rookie season is that I moved eight times after training camp started,” said Hextall. “I bounced between Kalamazoo (of the IHL, where he was coached by former Bear Bill Inglis), Hershey and Philly, and that was kind of a rough year for me from that standpoint because I never really got my feet under me. I’d go one place and play a couple of games and then I’d be going somewhere else, but that was tough year for everybody in Hershey.”
Hextall continued, “At that time we shared the affiliation with Boston and you really didn’t get that team feeling, at least at the times I was there. You didn’t feel that team feeling that you get when you have total ownership of one franchise, and all of the players were Flyers prospects as opposed to a mixture of teams. But the next year, the full year I spent in Hershey, it was just the Flyers, and we had a real good team and a real good team feeling.”
Year two of Hextall’s Hershey career, his one and only full season wearing the Chocolate and White, was a different story. The Bruins had flown out of town and the Flyers were once again the Bears’ sole NHL affiliate, and Hextall had a sensational sophomore campaign in which he registered 30 wins. He also won the Rookie of the Year Award and along with goaltending partner Darren Jensen, led the Bears to the Calder Cup Finals. In the finals, Hextall and the Bears were felled by the Adirondack Red Wings, who were backstopped by Mark “Trees” Laforest who would become a Bear later in his career.
“That was a great season; we had a real good group of guys and we worked hard and played gritty every night. Everybody knows that the AHL is not an easy league with the three-in-three and the four-in-five schedules. We had Ross Fitzpatrick, Al Hill, Kevin McCarthy, Tim Tookey, and I could go on and on about the guys on that team. We had outstanding leadership from some of those guys I just mentioned and we also had some quality young guys, but it was a real good mix. We went to the finals and lost to Adirondack, but it was a great season, and I had a really good time in Hershey being part of the community.”
The Bears’ head coach in the 1985-86 season was John Paddock, who led the club to a perfect 12-0 post-season and a Calder Cup Title two campaigns later. Although Paddock had probably never seen a goaltender play the puck with the prowess that Hextall possessed during his playing career or his coaching career, he wisely employed the “hands off” approach when dealing with Hextall’s ventures in and outside of the crease.
“John was very open to my style. I had a coach in junior who tried to reel me in, but in the pros I really didn’t have anybody who tried. John was all for it and pretty much just let me do my thing back there. You talk to defenseman, and they appreciate what I was doing with the puck because it kept them from getting hit so much, and little chip passes from back there really help them out in that regard.”
While stating that he really could not say that playing in the fabled HERSHEYPARK Arena, with all of its quirks and quaintness, gave him an advantage as far as playing the puck, Hextall was very decisive in confirming that playing in the Bears’ longtime barn gave the club a decided advantage.
“I do think there was a real home-ice advantage for us in that building. The fans were right on top of you and they were loud, and it was just one of those rinks that had that old feel to it, and that was a real advantage for us as the home team. But for our opponents, that building was a very intimidating building to play in, and when things didn’t go your way and it got real loud, it was like, ‘Wow, this is going to be a tough night’ kind of feeling.”
Although he never scored a goal for the Bears, and couldn’t remember a time where he came close, Hextall hit a bull’s-eye with the Flyers against the Boston Bruins on December 8, 1987, and became the first NHL goalie to be credited with a goal in which they shot the puck into their opponent’s net. Ironically, current Bears’ forward Chris Bourque’s father, Ray, was on the ice for the Bruins at the time of the goal, and Hextall’s backup that night was Laforest.
“The thing you have to be really careful of when you try that you’re not trying to score a goal to be selfish, and you have to be extremely cognizant of the icing. So if you’re shorthanded or up by two goals (which the Flyers were at the time of his goal) you take a shot at it, but there were a lot of opportunities for me over the years both in the NHL and the AHL where I didn’t go for it because I didn’t want to take the chance of getting an icing and a subsequent faceoff in our zone.”
After 13 NHL seasons, Hextall’s playing career came to an end after the 1998-99 season, and he packed up the pads with 296 NHL wins, one regular season goal (he also scored a goal against the Washington Capitals in the 1989 playoffs), 132 assists, and 586 PIM’s in over 600 outings, which are pretty impressive numbers when you consider the fact that he really had no goalies to pattern his play after during his youth.
“My dad (Bryan Hextall Jr.) played with Jimmy Rutherford (a former goalie who played with the Bears in the 1971-72 season, and is now the GM of the Detroit Red Wings) for a few years, and I always watched Jimmy in practice and I saw what he did. I did remember one time very distinctly where he shot the puck and it hit and the glass and I thought that was the coolest thing that a goalie could shoot the puck and get it as high as the glass. So, I grew up watching Jimmy, and Tony Esposito and Ed Giacomin were also big back then, but I can’t say that I really emulated my game after anybody in particular,” said Hextall, who graciously took time to chat during the hectic week before the NHL trade deadline.
With his playing days over, Hextall reluctantly went on to the next phase of his life, and it was the Flyers-the organization with which he broke into the pros-who gave him the opportunity to start the next phase of his hockey life and gave him the job of Professional Scout.
“That job came about after I retired said Hextall, 47, who shares his May 3 birthday with former Bears Troy Crowder and Jeff Chychrun. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to retire at the time that I did, and I did have an offer to play that summer. So I took my time to try and figure out what was best for me and my family situation. I looked at a lot of things, and I wasn’t sure that was going to be the end (as a player), and to be quite honest, I was hoping that it wasn’t.”
“In the end though, it worked out. Once I decided to retire, I talked to Bob Clarke and he basically asked me what my interests were as far as coaching or other things. I told him that I wanted to stay in the game and I had always thought about being a manager when I was done playing, and I thought that the best way to get into the management side was to start out by scouting.”
Currently in his sixth season serving as the Los Angeles Kings’ Vice President/Assistant GM, a position he holds in addition to his role as the GM of the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL, the Kings’ top affiliate, Hextall splits his time between both coasts in order to fulfill his duties.
“I spend more time at the NHL level with the player movements and trades and what not. What I do is basically try to get out once a month to see our minor league team play,” said Hextall to explain the details of his dual roles. “I try to stay with Manchester for five to seven days, keeping an eye on our kids and see where they are at, how much they are improving, and to keep a gauge on their value. I travel a lot with the Kings, probably about half the time, and then I run our pro scouting and keep an eye on our college free agents. I stay pretty busy, and if I had to put a percentage on my time spent, I’d say it was 75% NHL and 25% with the minors.”
This season, another Hextall has joined the AHL-Ron’s son Brett, who is playing with former Bears’ and current Portland Pirates captain Dean Arsene in the Maine city. The young Hextall currently sports five goals and 38 PIM’s in 50 outings for the Pirates, but three of his strikes have been registered at the expense of the Monarchs, and the proud papa is ok with that. Well, at least as long as his son keeps the damage to a minimum when he faces the Monarchs.
“I’ve seen him play four or five times this season, and I actually saw him score a goal against Manchester. We have a little bit of fun with it, and I’m okay with him scoring against us if we win, but if it’s a winning goal I’m not happy. He can score the next night,” Hextall chuckled.
“It’s been fun seeing him play and watching him break into pro hockey. We talk fairly often and he has some questions. In the pros he’s playing more games and playing against bigger and stronger guys than he did in college, and it’s a faster pace and it’s been an adjustment for him as it is for every young player. But it’s been a lot of fun seeing him going into places like Hershey. It’s pretty exciting for me to think of the history of the AHL and my days in Hershey, and all of a sudden Brett’s going into Hershey and playing. It’s been pretty neat.”