Hextall Stands In Net And At A Crossroads Goalie Must Defeat Injury, Discipline Problems

Posted: October 25, 1991

"People ask me: 'How good can Hextall be?' I say: 'How high is the sky?' "

- Flyers Hall of Fame goaltender Bernie Parent, 1987

To the classy guy who called WIP and wondered if the violent, stick- wielding Ron Hextall comes home in the evening and beats his wife and children: Diane Hextall happened to have the radio on. Although Diane shrugged off the crack at the time, she sometimes wishes that the caller and those like him could see the side of her husband that she sees, the warm, sensitive father who once sat up in a hotel room in Pittsburgh at 4:30 a.m. and for half an hour serenaded his sick daughter, Kristin, over the phone with a lullaby.

"Kristin had an ear infection and I had an incredible headache," Diane Hextall remembered. "I was exhausted and in tears and I called Ron. He sang her to sleep."

She paused and added: "Does that sound like someone who is violent and out of control?"

Two wildly opposite personas converge within the ever-controversial Flyers goaltender: Dr. Jekyll, meet Mr. Hextall. In the course of his first five seasons in Philadelphia - during which as a rookie he led the Flyers to the Stanley Cup final and won the coveted Vezina Trophy as the top goaltender in the NHL - Hextall has been as volatile on the ice as he has been peaceable off. Twice before this season, the NHL has suspended him for whipsawing opponents with his stick and padded blocker, and he received still another suspension Oct. 1 for slashing Detroit's Jim Cummins during an exhibition game. He skates back into action with the Flyers this evening in Winnipeg after sitting out six games.

Once considered one of the premier goaltenders in the NHL and the heir to beloved Hall of Famer Parent, Hextall is at a pivotal stage in his career. In addition to the suspensions, he has been sidelined with countless injuries over the past few years, and his image still has not recovered from a protracted contract dispute with the organization before the 1989-90 season. He has become a growing target of abuse among irritated fans, and the organization itself appears to be running out of patience. Ron Hextall has to produce.

"This is an extremely big year for Ronnie as far as the Flyers are concerned," general manager Russ Farwell said. "He has to step up and do the job. We have talked. He knows what he has to do."

Hextall nodded when told of Farwell's remarks.

"I expect a big year from Ron Hextall this season," Hextall said during lunch at a Voorhees, N.J., restaurant. "I hear what people are saying. Whether someone shouts it at me from the stands or a friend tells me, 'Oh, this guy on the radio said this or that,' I hear it and I want to prove them wrong."

A waitress approached the table and Hextall paused as she cleared some plates. He watched her walk off and added: "I just want to play hockey."

*

The rear door of the limousine popped open that cold December night in 1989 and out limped Ron Hextall. Chauffered back from New Haven upon ripping up his groin while on rehabilitation assignment with the Hershey Bears, he hobbled into his South Jersey home and deposited himself in a groaning heap on the bed. The pain was just terrible - the worst he ever has experienced - and it became so unbearable that Diane called a Flyers trainer and arranged to pick up some painkillers at 3:30 a.m.

"He was just in sheer agony," Diane said. "I had to remain the calm one, but seeing him like that was frightening."

Hextall cringed as he remembered. "I have a high pain threshold, but this was just incredible," he said. "I got home and I could barely stand."

This is a side of the professional athlete that fans seldom see, the side steeped in shadows. Seated in the restaurant with his elbows propped up on the table, his square shoulders encased in a black turtleneck, Hextall conceded that he never realized until he had to do it again and again how draining rehabilitation is. Upon appearing in just eight games in 1989-90 because of groin and hamstring injuries, he tore up a knee during a game last October and remembers thinking: "Oh, God. Not again. Please." He had just come off a disabling groin injury and tried to convince the Flyers (and himself) as he sat on the training table that he could continue.

"I remember I was so upset I had to keep from crying," he said. "I just thought: 'Here we go again.' I had just come back from the groin and - bam - this happened. I had no idea how bad the injury was, but I knew it would be back to square one: more rehab. Each time it just gets a little harder."

Back in the 1986-87 season, when Ron Hextall was still just 23 years old and still owned Philadelphia - when he appeared in 66 regular-season games and won 37 of them - he looked ahead to the career set out before him and thought: ''Gee, and it can only get better." How distant those giddy days seem now. While he never once begged off the hard, endless work that rehabbing entailed - not once - he discovered how hard it was to be isolated from his teammates. Missing from his life was the sense of comradeship that rehab precluded; he no longer was one of the guys.

In looking back on his continuing ordeals, his spiraling descent into his inner self, Hextall realizes that the psychological hardships far outweighed the physical ones. Separated from his coaches and teammates - whom, incidentally, he sensed he was letting down tremendously - Hextall retreated into the comforting embrace of his family: Diane, Kristin and son Brett.

Himself the grandson of NHL Hall of Famer Bryan Hextall Sr., the son of former NHL player Bryan Jr. and the nephew of still another NHL standout, Dennis Hextall, Hextall immersed himself in the lives of his own children. He changed their diapers, helped to feed them and sat with them over their coloring books.

"I have no idea what I would have done during the last couple of seasons without those kids," Hextall said. "Whatever time I had I spent with them."

Diane Hextall confirmed that. "Ron is one of those 'new age' fathers," she said. "He spends quality time with them. I hope they appreciate someday how lucky they are."

Standing off to the side and seeing how painful things have been for Ron is difficult for Diane. Once a Canadian figure skating champion and thus acquainted with the total dedication that success demands, she remembers back to a sweltering day last summer at the Jersey Shore. The temperature was 102, the sun beating down, but there was Ron, hunkered over a stationary bike. When Diane pleaded with him, "Ron, leave that for tomorrow!" Hextall wiped the sweat from his face and said: "I have to do it now."

"He did an hour and he was sick to the stomach the whole day," Diane said. "But I know Ron; he would have felt even worse if he had skipped that day."

Snap a photo of Hextall whipping himself back into shape on the bike that summer day and preserve it with the one of him peering out the rear window of the limo on the desolate streets of South Jersey as he headed back from New Haven. Look into his eyes: in the former is utter determination and fatigue; in the latter is searing physical pain and surely dejection. In both are a hint of terror: that it could happen again, that - oh, no - it has happened again.

When the Flyers traveled to the Capital Centre to open the 1991-92 season with Washington, Ron Hextall led his teammates out on the ice and skated to his position for warmups. Still eligible because of a clause in the NHL rules that allowed him to delay his suspension for two games pending appeal, he came into the locker room and began what has become for him a certain ritual.

He laced up his left skate, then his right.

He tied his right skate, then his left.

He then strapped on his left pad, then his right.

"I have certain superstitions," Hextall said. "I like to do things in the same order. I stretch at certain times. I pee at certain times."

Hextall smiled and asked: "Silly, huh?"

No, it just comes under the heading of: Leave No Stone Unturned. Hextall is a strong believer in that. In an effort to circumvent continued problems with his groin, Hextall had Flyers physical therapist Pat Croce arrange for him to visit with an instructor from the Philadelphia Ballet and receive a set of personalized exercises. Observing how Hextall is "always looking for that extra edge," Croce laughed and remembered how Hextall showed up each day for his rehab work and "never did one second less than what he was supposed to do." Upbeat when Hextall himself began slipping into self-doubt, Croce kept telling him: "This is the year! This is the year!"

Until the regrettable slashing incident in September that led to his latest suspension, Hextall had placed himself on a positive course: He was healthy again, stronger and eager to reclaim his stardom. He professed time and again that he was "older and wiser" at 27, that he no longer would lose his cool and hurt the team with dumb penalities. But there is a side of Ron Hextall that is indeed volcanic, and it erupted when he whacked Cummins with his stick. Summoned to a hearing before NHL executive vice president Brian O'Neill, Hextall showed up with Farwell at his side and said he did not think he "hit him that hard."

Said Farwell: "We presented a weak argument."

Hextall frowned when asked about the hearing and said: "I am just an aggressive player. I will not change."

Smoldering within Hextall is a certain dark professional arrogance: If, at home with his wife and children, he is the docile sort who will rescue a wounded owl from the roadside and nurse it back to health, stick him in the goal and he will wipe out opponents who dare to enter his crease. When he was still in the juniors back in Canada and showed his temper, his grandfather, Bryan Sr., would scold him and say: 'Quit taking dumb penalities. Leave the fighting to others." When he came to Philadelphia and Daily News reporter Ray Didinger questioned him on an eight-game suspension he had received while with the Brandon Wheat Kings, Hextall said: "That was a long time ago . . . I cannot afford to take penalties in this league."

The Flyers suspected that Hextall was a little crazy out on the ice, but that turned out to have both an upside and a downside. The upside was that he was utterly fearless and inspired his teammates to drop into rank behind him. The downside was that he was apt to just snap and flip out. When Edmonton's

Kent Nilsson came skating toward him in the 1987 Stanley Cup final, Hextall hit him with a two-handed slash across the Achilles' tendon and Nilsson collapsed as if he had been chopped down with an ax; Hextall received an eight-game suspension at the start of the 1987-88 season. He also received a 12-game suspension at the start of the 1989-90 season for attacking Montreal's Chris Chelios in the 1989 playoffs with his blocker.

Add up the suspensions he has received and the question presents itself: Are there indeed two Ron Hextalls? "Yes!" Croce exclaimed. "Yes there are." Croce said Hextall "is different from any athlete he has ever been close to" and that includes Phillies legend Mike Schmidt and Sixers star Charles Barkley. When Hextall steps out of the locker room and heads down the tunnel toward the ice, a change comes over him. The battler is unleashed.

"I just get in this zone," Hextall said. "I am the same person, but at a higher level of concentration."

He comes out of the tunnel and the boos he hears on the road just jack him up a little higher. In the old days - back in the Western League - the fans would spit and throw beer on him. He remembers that he developed a tough, resilient skin back then, and it has served him well when he has traveled into places like New York and elsewhere. He can ignore it or channel it into positive energy, but Diane squirms in her seat when a fan starts up on her husband. When a fan in Pittsburgh began calling Ron names and kept it up, Diane sat in uneasy silence until a fellow Flyers wife piped up:

"He is not gay," Diane's friend said. "I can prove it."

"How?" the belligerent fan asked.

"I am Mrs. Hextall," the friend said. "Stick a lid on it."

Jeers would be replaced with cheers when Hextall came back to Philadelphia, but now there is just this cool, tentative applause that seems to ask: Can Ron Hextall hold up? Hextall understands that this is "just how fans are," that hearing criticism is just a part of the job, but it still troubles him. While Diane tells him that the fans "just want to be in on the good times" and want to be spared the "uglier aspects of the sport," Hextall says: "I want the Philadelphia fans to like me. I want to be appreciated."

Ron Hextall comes home sometimes and his son, Brett, will say: "Come on, dad. Come on out and play some hockey." He was just like that himself. While his father never pushed him into hockey, he grew up in the sport. He was 3 when he was asking the older kids to let him into street hockey games. In looking back on his climb to the NHL, how he became a goaltender at age 8 and

went on to realize his dream, he says there never was a time when he doubted that he would follow his grandfather, father and uncle into the league. He just always knew it. But he never knew back then the twists and turns a career could take. He plans to caution his son.

"He can be a hockey player if he would like, but I will never force him," Hextall said. "I just want him to work hard."

Work hard and good things can happen. Hextall believes that, and he is confident that the season ahead will provide him with vindication. While Farwell is hoping that Hextall will "step up and win back his starting job," beginning tonight, ask Bernie Parent how good Hextall can be and he himself still says: How high is the sky? He calls Hextall a "heck of a leader" and contends that his potential is "still tremendous."

"Plus," Parent added, "he has experience now."

Add that with this: Call it just another of those silly superstitions, but Diane Hextall says that Ron always seems to have a "glorious season" whenever she is pregnant.

She is due in January.

He is due beginning tonight.

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