He also wasn't much for school. Fay preached the virtues of education to her three children, but only her eldest, Tracy, now a grade school teacher in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, took the message to heart. Ron, who was born a year after his brother, Rod, earned B's and C's by doing the minimum, but there was really only one subject that interested him: goaltending. "Everybody else would be working and I'd be drawing pictures of Tony Esposito and Jimmy Rutherford," he says. Bryan Jr., who like his father was a forward, had no objections to having a goalie in the family. But he did insist that Ron play other positions first so he could develop his skating.
"I always thought Ronald would make a great defenseman," says Bryan. Fay, whose wrist shot tested five-year-old Ron in the driveway, said she saw his single-mindedness and became convinced that someday he would be exactly what he intended to be. "I can't say that I didn't discourage distractions from it," she says, "but I felt from a young age that he would make it. He had a love for the game that frankly I didn't see in too many of the players that his father played with."
From 1962 to '76, Bryan Jr. bounced from the Rangers to the minors to Pittsburgh to Atlanta to Detroit to Minnesota. The kids would begin every school year in Brandon, then in early October, when the season began, would transfer to a school near where their dad was playing. "Every year I would march them into the new school the first day like it was the most natural thing in the world," remembers Fay. "Then I'd get in the car and burst into tears."
Hextall adjusted though. "I always had friends," he says. "Guys either hated me because I had a father who was a professional athlete or they liked me because of it. I don't want to put my kids through that many moves, but I had a great childhood. I got to hang around NHL rinks. What more would I have wanted?"
Bryan can still picture Ron's face behind the glass at practice, watching the goalie's every move. The exposure to an athlete's life-style and the instruction at the hockey school where Bryan taught every summer were ideal situations for a budding player. The youth hockey programs in cities like Pittsburgh and Atlanta, though, were not. Ron was 12 when Bryan retired in 1976, and the family moved back to Brandon. He had some catching up to do.
"I wasn't what you would call real polished my first year of junior [at 17]," he says. He played for a poor Brandon team that afforded him little protection, and he found himself fighting, literally, an almost nightly battle for survival. When Flyer scout Jerry Melnyk saw him, he figured Hextall was the Flyers' kind of guy. "I liked what most people probably didn't like about him." Melnyk says. "There were teams who thought he was loony. That's probably why he lasted until the sixth round [in the 1982 draft]."
It was not until four seasons later, when Hextall played for Hershey of the American League, that he blossomed as a prospect. On opening night of the 1986-87 season, he was in the Flyer goal against Edmonton. The Oilers scored on their first shot, but they didn't score again. "Who the hell are you?" Wayne Gretzky said after Hextall robbed him on a breakaway early in the game. "Who the hell are you?" Hextall replied. The Flyers won 2-1 and kept winning all season, all the way to Game 7 of the Cup finals. There Hextall was holding his team in against an overpowering Edmonton offensive machine until, in the 57th minute, the Oilers scored to seal a 3-1 victory and take the Cup. Hextall accepted the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs' MVP and then, when alone, broke down and cried.
"It's a terrible feeling, losing the last game of any year," he says. "A lonely feeling. Maybe I'll mellow out as I get older, but each year, no matter how far we go, it still feels the same. It kills the first few weeks of my summer.
"Every goal I give up, I ask myself why I didn't do anything different. Even when you know that you didn't have a hope in heck, you still think there's something you could have done."
Almost as heavy as the goalie's burden is his stick. It is a cumbersome instrument designed to stop pucks, not shoot them. But, as a kid, Hextall grew bored standing in the net for long minutes of a game. When he finally got the puck, he hated to give it up.