Playing goal is not fun. It is a grim, humorless position, largely uncreative, requiring little physical movement, giving little physical pleasure in return...[a goalie] is simply there, tied to a net and to a game; the game acts, a goalie reacts.
Six years after Hall of Famer Ken Dryden wrote the definitive book on goal-tending in hockey, along comes Ron Hextall of the Philadelphia Flyers to rewrite it. This goalie acts. And then the game reacts to him.
Hextall, 25, wanders from the goal and plays as a third defenseman. No other NHL goaltender has ever shot and scored a goal; Hextall has done it two times. And he is typecast as the reigning villain on the ever-hated Flyers. Twice he has raged into violent acts that have caused the NHL to suspend him. Last Saturday he ended his most recent suspension, for the first 12 games of the season, returning to play goal in a 7-4 victory over the Maple Leafs in Toronto.
The chip on Hextall's shoulder is from a block three generations old. His grandfather Bryan scored the winning goal in overtime when the Rangers last won the Stanley Cup, in 1940. His father, Bryan Jr., and uncle Dennis made NHL careers more with Hextall grit than with their average skills.
The grandson, however, is special. After Edmonton's Grant Fuhr, who has won four Stanley Cups, Hextall is the goalie most hockey people would choose for a hypothetical do-or-die playoff Game 7. Hextall is quick, tall (6'3") and supple, with the mobility and wrists of a 50-goal scorer. He is a new concept in goaltending: the complete athlete.
Historically, goalies have had bodies that inspired nicknames such as Gump. Many of the best of them, like Dryden and Jacques Plante, were perceived as being more cerebral than athletic. Plante was the first to help himself around the crease by handling the puck. Later, the Rangers' Ed Giacomin and the Bruins' Gerry Cheevers ventured out from the net to aid the defensemen. But not to the degree that Hextall does.
"Giacomin may have connected on some long passes," says current Ranger goalie John Vanbiesbrouck. "But he never made offensive plays like Ron does. He's the first goalie who has put his team on the attack, especially when it is killing penalties."
Former New York Islander goalie Billy Smith was actually the first in the NHL to be credited with a score, but he got it by being the last Islander to touch a puck that the Colorado Rockies accidentally shot into their own net in a game in 1979. Smith was also notorious for being the first goalie to use his stick as a scythe to clear out opposing players from the crease. But Hextall may be even freer with his stick. During the 1987 Cup finals, Edmonton's Kent Nilsson happened to be the unfortunate Oiler to come through the slot after Glenn Anderson—in an attempt to bat a puck out of the air—rapped Hextall on the arm. Hextall took a vicious two-handed swing to the back of Nilsson's legs and sent him crumbling to the ice. Although Hextall argued later that he turned the blade flush to soften the blow—Nilsson was able to take a shift on the resultant power play—the sight was chilling. Hextall was suspended for the first eight games of the next season.
That incident served as a prelude to Hextall's explosion in last season's playoffs. During the dying minutes of the semifinal game that eliminated the Flyers last spring, Hextall charged 40 feet from the net and hit Montreal's Chris Chelios with his blocker, the hard glove a goalie wears on his stick hand. Chelios, whose harder-than-necessary elbow earlier in the series had driven Brian Propp's head into a steel glass support and knocked the Flyer winger unconscious, escaped Hextall's attack without injury. Still, Hextall's previous record and the unsavory image of the losers beating on the winners justified the 12-game suspension he was given. Many thought the punishment light.
"No, I don't think he's a jerk," says Vanbiesbrouck. "I'm a goalie and I know that standing your ground and slashing and hacking is part of the game. But to lose it to the point where injury results is wrong.