Hextall's journey through hockey

Posted: May 19, 2014

As he waited to be selected in the 1982 draft, a budding young goalie named Ron Hextall had particular disdain for one NHL team.

The Flyers.

Growing up and watching the Flyers try to intimidate his father and uncle - feisty NHL players during the Broad Street Bullies' heyday - Hextall did not have a warm and fuzzy feeling about the Orange and Black.

"I absolutely hated them," he said from his Voorhees office last week, five days after he got what he called his "dream job" - becoming the seventh general manager in Flyers history.

When he was 18 and working a summer job at an auto dealership, Hextall was changing the oil on a car when he received a phone call and learned that the Flyers had drafted him in the sixth round.

Little did he know that it would be a life-changing development.

"You think you hate a team - and I did at the time - but what I didn't realize [is that] I had a strong admiration for them as well," Hextall said, smiling at the memory. "And all of a sudden, when I got drafted by them, it was almost like an instant love affair with the Flyers. It was actually pretty ironic."

Hextall, who as an assistant general manager played a part in the Los Angeles Kings' 2012 Stanley Cup championship, has impressive NHL bloodlines. His grandfather, Bryan Hextall Sr., was a Hall of Fame right winger with the New York Rangers who twice led the league in goals. Hextall's father, Bryan Jr., a center, played for five NHL teams before his career ended in 1976; and his uncle, Dennis, was a two-time all-star left winger with the old Minnesota North Stars whose penalty-filled, 12-year career ended in 1980 with Washington.

"I wasn't born yet when my grandfather was playing, and I was pretty young when my dad played," Hextall said. "I was 12 years old when my dad retired. I would hear things about my grandfather and would certainly talk to him. I'd visit with him in the summertime."

He paused.

"The nerve of him to actually be wearing a New York Rangers jersey!"

Hextall was 20 when his grandfather died in 1984 at age 70. "He was a quiet man who didn't say a lot, but when he spoke, you listened," Hextall said. "He didn't talk a lot about his playing days, but he would always tell my dad and uncle, 'You can't score from the penalty box.' "

That, apparently, was his not-too-subtle way of saying they needed to play with more discipline.

Hextall, 50, said his father was his biggest influence in steering him toward hockey.

"He didn't put pressure on me to be a hockey player. There was no pushing or prodding," Hextall said. "All he said was, 'If you want to play hockey, great. All I ask is you work hard.' "

Hextall, who helped the development of goalies Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier (now with Toronto) when he was an assistant GM in Los Angeles, played 11 of his 13 NHL seasons with the Flyers.

"I wanted to be like my dad. And I had the exposure to it just from being around an NHL team as a kid, and skating around with the guys," Hextall said, adding that he and his brother would "watch practice, and skate before and after practice. The players would fool around with us on the ice. I think from a young age, I knew what I wanted to do just because of the fact I was around the lifestyle and the excitement."

Jim Rutherford, now president of the Carolina Hurricanes, was a Penguins goalie - and Bryan Hextall Jr.'s teammate - in the early 1970s when he first met Ron.

"Jimmy actually came out in the street and used to play roller hockey with my brother and I, so he had a huge impact on me," Hextall said.

Rutherford, one of the NHL's most respected general managers before being elevated to club president last month, and Hextall have remained in contact over the last several decades.

"He'll do extremely well. He did it the right way and didn't rush into it," Rutherford said. "He clearly served his apprenticeship under such good people in L.A. He's well-prepared, and it's been fun for me to watch his career grow."

As a youngster, Hextall and his family got used to moving, depending on where his father was playing. They lived in Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Detroit, and Minneapolis.

"It was tough. Always being the new kid in school because, we started out school in our hometown of Brandon in Manitoba, and then we'd move in late October to wherever we were going," Hextall said. "It had its challenges, but I think part of that makes you stronger, too. You've got to go to a new school and meet all new people and a new hockey team, so there are some benefits, but there were times it was tough. And there were trades, too. You kind of got settled in somewhere, and all of a sudden you get traded midyear and you have to pick up and move - a new school and new hockey team and all that.

"It had its challenges, but I think there were more benefits than negatives."

When Hextall was named Flyers GM, one of the first people he called was his father. His parents live in Victoria, British Columbia, during the winter and spring and in Manitoba for the rest of the year.

"He was excited for me, and so was my mom. My mom and dad are probably my biggest fans; they give me a lot of support," Hextall said. "They always have. Obviously, I've got my wife and kids as well, but going way back to childhood, they have to be your biggest supporters if you're going to be a hockey player. Someone said to me the other day that minor-league hockey is a lifestyle, and it truly is for the parents; pretty much your weekends are tied up for six or seven months, or nowadays maybe even more."

Hextall and his wife, Diane, live in South Jersey and have four children: Kristin, 28; Brett, 26; Rebecca, 21; and Jeff, 18.

Brett and Jeff hope to continue to extend the Hextalls' NHL lineage.

Brett, a right wing drafted by Phoenix in the sixth round of the 2008 draft, had 11 goals for Portland in the AHL this season. "He came on toward the end of the year, so we'll see how it goes," Hextall said. "He plays hard."

Jeff just graduated from Northwood in Lake Placid, N.Y. He is eligible for this year's draft and is a goaltender - much to his father's chagrin.

"I'm not sure where that's going," Hextall said of his son's hockey future. "Actually, I'm not sure how he got into the net. That was my wife's fault. I said no [to his being a] goalie, and I went away on a 10- or 12-day road trip, and I came back and had a goalie when he was 121/2 or 13 years old. He had a late start on it, but he's doing OK."

As for his own goals, Hextall said that when he stopped playing in 1999 he set his sights on working his way up the ranks and becoming a general manger. He said he was fortunate to work under executives such as Bob Clarke and Paul Holmgren with the Flyers, and his unofficial mentor, Dean Lombardi, in Los Angeles.

"I think," he said, "I'm ready for this position."

Rutherford thinks so, too. The Hurricanes president remembers living next door to the Hextall family when he played goalie for Pittsburgh in the 1970s.

"We saw each other every day, and like all kids he wanted to play ball hockey," Rutherford said. "You could see right from then that he hated to lose, and when you think back to when he was a player, he had the same thinking instilled in him."

Hextall takes that thinking to the front office, where he will try to become the first Flyers general manager since Keith Allen in 1975 - back when the future GM watched painfully as his father's and uncle's teams got pushed around by the Flyers - to build a Stanley Cup champion.


scarchidi@phillynews.com

@BroadStBull

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