THERE IS no neutral ground--you love him or you hate him. Ron
Hextall of the Philadelphia Flyers is either the most
competitive goalie in hockey, a man whose ability to pass the
puck has helped redefine his position, or a magna cum laude
graduate of the Lizzie Borden School of Stickhandling. While
Flyers general manager Bob Clarke calls Hextall "a tremendous
asset," some think Clarke is giving him the benefit of the last
Right from his rookie season with the Flyers in 1986-87, Hextall
established himself as a hothead who gladly wielded his stick
against opponents who came near his crease. Now, after 10 years
in the league, including brief stints with the Quebec Nordiques
and the New York Islanders between tours in Philly, Hextall has
cooled off a little, but he still hasn't played on a Stanley Cup
"He is a player who has always made a big impression," Flyers
coach Terry Murray says of Hextall. "There's his longevity in
the league, 10 years of service and no Stanley Cup ring. People
want to see if he can win. That's why he's under a microscope."
Maybe the time has come to put down the microscope and pick up
the reading glasses. Through Sunday, Hextall had the lowest
goals-against average in the NHL (2.19), and the Flyers had the
league's third-best penalty-killing unit, in part because
Hextall has the ability to move the puck to his defensemen or
clear it himself. The evidence is as plain as the mask on his
face: Hextall is having a Vezina Trophy-caliber season.
But facts seem inadmissible in the NHL's court of public
opinion. One general manager says, "Hextall was an elite goalie
when he came up in the '80s, but then he kept injuring his groin
in the early '90s and he dipped. People remember the dip. He's
stopping the puck, but I wouldn't put him among the top guys
right now." Another general manager says, "There's no doubt in
my mind--he can't win anything."
Hextall's performance in last season's playoffs may be a reason
some people are skeptical. He was solid in the first two rounds,
but in the Eastern Conference finals, against the New Jersey
Devils, he allowed a soft goal in Game 5 that altered the course
of the series. With less than a minute remaining in a 2-2 game,
Hextall gave up the game-winner on a 55-foot slap shot by Claude
Lemieux. The Devils closed out the series two nights later.
"This man's a terrific goaltender," Flyers captain Eric Lindros
says of Hextall. "He gets tagged with a label, and people can't
see beyond that. What is the statute of limitations in hockey,
With the playoffs starting next week, the lingering question
among many hockey observers remains: Is Hextall good enough to
win a Stanley Cup? Wrong question, Clarke insists. "When he came
up, he wanted to be the star, but now Hextall understands better
than any other goalie that a goalie doesn't have to be the
star," Clarke says. "He has to be part of the team. You don't
want to lose because of goaltending, but goaltending won't win a
Cup by itself. The question should be, Is this team good enough
to win the Stanley Cup?"
For the Flyers, who at week's end were 10-3 in their last 13
games and had emerged as an elite team in the Eastern
Conference, the answer may depend on the health of right wing
Mikael Renberg. If Renberg, who missed 26 of the Flyers' last 29
games through Sunday because of inflammation around his pelvic
bone, returns for the playoffs and is effective, the Flyers
should have two good offensive lines. And despite rumors to the
contrary before the March 20 trading deadline, Clarke and Murray
say they never thought the Flyers needed to upgrade their
The faith in Hextall is shared in the Flyers' dressing room.
"He's one of the hungriest players around," says defenseman Petr
Svoboda. And Lindros adds, "Hexy's mellowed a little, but I
still rate him among the top 20 tough guys."
Hextall does seem more at peace with himself. He has cut his
tics and mannerisms by half since his return to Philadelphia at
the start of last season and is now controlling his
superstitions and temper instead of the other way around. Last
year when Hextall broke his stick over the crossbar after a
goal, Flyers assistant coach Keith Acton joked, "He's matured.
He used to do it over people."
Even the mellower Hextall doesn't accept giving up a goal. Ever.
He swears he has never allowed one in practice--"Ten years
without being scored on," Hextall says, mirth tempering his cold
blue eyes--and Flyers forward Russ Romaniuk, in playful homage
to that streak, has composed a Top 10 list of excuses Hextall
has given teammates who have seemingly beaten him in workouts.
The best ones are No. 10, The whistle blew; No. 7, That hit both
posts; No. 4, Illegal stick; and No. 1, You'd never try that
move in a game.
At a February practice, when Flyers defenseman Karl Dykhuis
scored on a move he wouldn't try in a game, a shake-and-bake
breakaway, Hextall fired back the puck, which hit Dykhuis above
his right eye, causing a gash that required six stitches.
Hextall says he was trying to hit Dykhuis in the leg. Really.
Of course Hextall comes by his emotions honestly. His
grandfather Bryan Hextall Sr. is in the NHL Hall of Fame. His
father, Bryan Jr., and his uncle Dennis also were NHL forwards,
and both had nasty dispositions. Ron took over the family
business in 1986-87, winning the Vezina Trophy that season.
However, he piled up 104, 104 and 113 penalty minutes his first
three years in the league--the three highest totals ever for a
goaltender. Hextall has also been suspended three times for a
total of 26 games.
"I think Ron liked his on-ice personality," Clarke says.
"Sometimes he seemed to go out of his way to be the goalie
people thought he was." Hextall demurs. He says he never
relished being regarded as a raving lunatic. Even now that he
has quieted down, Hextall doesn't particularly care what
anyone--except his teammates and family--thinks.
At home Hextall wouldn't hurt a spider. "He can't," says his
wife, Diane. "I have to kill them." When his teammates played
golf on an off day recently, Hextall took his four children
fishing instead. He skips the gambling trips with the guys to
nearby Atlantic City. A big night on the road for him is calling
home. "He is the absolute perfect father and husband," Diane
says. "We wouldn't have four children if he weren't." And if on
some nights his behavior has seemed, well, childish, Hextall has
told his kids, "Listen, Dad made a mistake. He's human. Parents
make mistakes too."
Kids, more than the rest of the hockey world, are willing to
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Hextall must sustain his league-best goals-against average for Philly to fly in the playoffs. [Ron Hextall]