Ron Hextall amazed in 1987 Final to help Flyers go distance vs. Oilers

The Great One, Wayne Gretzky tells the story of how he came by his trademark number 99 by pure luck.

EDMONTON — For the Philadelphia Flyers to hang with the 1987 Edmonton Oilers for seven games in a Stanley Cup Final, all the dominoes had to fall the right way.

In hockey, that recipe begins with a red-hot goaltender, a box that Ron Hextall checked off en route to becoming the first Conn Smythe Trophy winner from a Cup-losing team since former Flyers forward Reggie Leach back in 1976.

“Hexy was so good,” began Flyers defenceman Mark Howe. “I remember doing an interview after that series, and I said, ‘I feel bad for him.’ The reporters says, ‘How can you feel bad for him?’

“I said, ‘There’s no way in the world he can play this good again.’ That’s how good he was.”

Hextall was a rookie in 1987, a third-generation NHLer whose Hall of Fame grandfather, Bryan, had played for the New York Rangers in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Father Bryan Jr. and uncle Dennis roughly split 1,200 games in the ‘70s, and now it was Hextall’s turn. The only goalie in the lineage, had been handed the ball by head coach Mike Keenan for the opening game of the 1986-87 season — a visit to the Spectrum by the Oilers.

“It’s ironic, my first NHL game was against Edmonton that year in Philly,” he recalled. “It was a pretty gutsy move on Mike’s part, because Bob Froese was a Vezina finalist the year before. But it showed how much he believed in me.”

That seemed like a big game, until Hextall and the Flyers showed up at Northlands Coliseum for Game 1 of the Cup Final the following May.

“That was a big stage, for sure. But once you get to the playoffs, the stage is big. When you’re a hockey player, the ice is the same, the glass is the same. You just go out there and play.”

Hextall would gain infamy as the first NHL goalie to shoot at an opposing net and score, when he notched an empty-net goal the next season against the Boston Bruins. But if that is a career highlight, Hextall’s standing as perhaps the toughest Flyer — and certainly one of the most intimidating — is how his body of work is remembered today.

“He was kind of the spirit of the team,” ex-Oiler Mark Messier said. “He represented what the team had been, and what it was (in ’87). He didn’t like anybody around his crease, and that was an extension of what the team was.”

“He was the perfect fit to be a Flyer, let’s face it,” said Philadelphia winger Scott Mellanby. “We weren’t the Broad Street Bullies, but we had Rick Tocchet, Dave Brown and a lot of tough players. We were the Flyers, and he fit that mould as well as any goalie at that time could have.”

Hextall’s emotions took over in the third period of Game 4, when he was slashed by Glenn Anderson late in a game the Flyers were trailing 4-1. The next Oilers player who came near Hextall was sure to claim Anderson’s payback, and Kent Nilsson proved that theory when he skated near Hextall’s crease seconds later.

The Flyers goalie chopped Nilsson down like Paul Bunyan with a six-iron.

“That’s a cheap shot, and a no class move!” blasted colour man Bill Clement on the American TV broadcast. “And of all the guys to slash, too! A guy who will never slash back, Kent Nilsson.”

“I’ve got a bit of a fuzzy memory on that stuff. I’ll take your word on it,” Hextall opens, with a quiet chuckle. “Look, we played four rounds that year, and every series I was getting banged up. I know, at the time, I … reacted against Nilsson there. It truly was, you get poked in the back of the leg, you get tripped, you get slashed … I don’t profess to be a saint, but that goes on for six, eight weeks and you reach the point where my frustration came out.”

The Oilers, having played three series against the volatile New York Islanders goalie Billy Smith earlier in the decade, knew that pushing Hextall over the edge was a dangerous pursuit.

At one point, Kevin Lowe scored on a feed from Wayne Gretzky, and then piled into Hextall, landing on top of the Flyers’ feared goalie. “I thought, ‘He’s going to cross-check me in the head or do something for sure,’” Lowe said. “I rolled over and covered my head for five seconds …”

“The funny thing about Hexy is,” Mellanby said, “off the ice, he’s one of the calmest, quietest, more reserved people you’ve met. Sure, there is an intensity. You’d think he’d be a Wildman, but he was soft-spoken.

“Now, on the ice, at practice, if he got mad at you he’d take a swing at you, or chop you in front of the net. Hexy would rock back and forth in his stall and bite his nails for 10 minutes before every game. You knew it: He was a competitor.”

At the other end of the rink stood Grant Fuhr. Three months later the two would be teammates on Team Canada at the 1987 Canada Cup, but during that ’87 Stanley Cup Final, you could not concoct two more polar opposite personalities.

“It’s funny,” Fuhr noted. “Off the ice, he was calm, great guy. On the ice? A little high strung. But that’s who he was, he had to be high strung to play at that level. It was his on-ice character. It reminds me a lot of Billy Smith. Smitty was mean as could be on the ice, but a great guy off the ice.”

Other than stopping pucks, Hextall was a formidable puck handler. One of the first of his breed really, as exhibited by his two career NHL goals.

“He was the first goalie that we played against where (Oilers assistant coach) John Muckler devised a system, a plan, on how we would dump the puck into their zone. If you dumped the puck into the right corner, where Hextall could get the puck on his forehand, when you got back to the bench you got yelled at,” said Gretzky.

“John wanted him to handle the puck on his backhand, on the left side. When you had to dump it into the right corner, I remember John would be beet red, he’d be so mad.

“I’d say, ‘John, I had no other choice. I had to …’”

For Hextall, 1987 marked a career accomplishment, winning three Final games against Edmonton that spring. He would only start two more Final games in his career, losing both to the Detroit Red Wings in 1997.

“The moment I take the most pride in as an individual and as a team, was to take that Edmonton team to a Game 7,” Hextall said. “It was a monumental task for us. Timmy Kerr was out, and we had a lot of guys who beat up. (Dave) Poulin had broken ribs. Howe had a bad leg. We were literally bandaged together, and for us to take that team as far as we did, I take a lot of pride in that.

“But also — and I don’t know if ‘regret’ is the right word — but the one thing I would change about my career would be the outcome of one game.

“We put so much into that playoff run. We only played two games below the maximum number (of 28), all the travel … It was a grind.

“It was incredible. It really was.”

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