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 Stick-handling. While Flyers general manager Bob Clarke calls Hextall "a tremendous asset," some think Clarke is giving him the benefit of the last two letters.
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 champion.
"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, anyway?"
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 goaltending.
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."