Reluctant Rookies Face Off : King-Flyer Match Pits Robitaille Against Hextall

Times Staff Writer

Either Philadelphia goaltender Ron Hextall or King forward Luc Robitaille will win the Calder Trophy, awarded to the NHL's outstanding rookie, this season.

Surprisingly, in the world of professional sport, where personal acclaim is widely sought, both Hextall, 22, and Robitaille, 21, are disclaiming their rights to the award.

"If I could vote, I'd vote for him," Robitaille said of Hextall.

"If he wins, he'll deserve it," Hextall said of Robitaille.

Though they might sound like buddies, Hextall and Robitaille scarcely know each other. "I might have talked to him once," Hextall said.

Nevertheless, there are parallels in their rookie careers, and Hextall will test his defensive mettle against Robitaille's scoring knack when the Kings play the Flyers tonight in the Spectrum.

Like Hextall, Robitaille reported to camp after a highly regarded season in Canadian junior hockey. Neither player was given much chance of making his team.

Each, however, used remarkable performances in training camp to earn a spot on his team. Each has had a mentor, a veteran who passed along experience and advice. For Hextall, it has been the Flyers' No. 2 goaltender, Glenn (Chico) Resch. Robitaille had Marcel Dionne in that role, until Dionne was traded to the New York Rangers.

Each has been bombarded with Calder Trophy questions and each has said he'd rather see his team make it to the playoffs than to gain personal awards.

"I try not to think about it," Robitaille said. "I just have to work hard. If the team is doing well and winning, then that's what counts. If you help your team become a winning team, you are a better player than one who wins awards. Hextall is playing very, very well. If he wins it, I'm not embarrassed."

Hextall is likewise low key about the award. "Don't get me wrong, I would be very thrilled to get the trophy," he said. "That's just not the No. 1 goal I have. I want to help this team."

Philadelphia has never had a Calder Trophy winner. This is more a reflection of the quality of the Flyers' older players than an indictment of its younger ones.

"We've got some fine rookies, but it takes a lot more to break in on this club than with the L.A. Kings," said Flyer Coach Mike Keenan. "This team has been the most successful team in the NHL for 14 years, so it's been difficult for a rookie to break in."

The Kings have never had a Calder Trophy winner, either, but with the lack of depth experienced by the team in recent years, rookies have as good a chance at making the team as many veterans. When it comes to age and ability, the Kings don't discriminate.

"We're fighting for the playoffs," King General Manager Rogie Vachon said. "If Luc didn't play like he did in the first half of the season, who knows where we would be? For us, the kid would have to win it because of the impact he's had on our club. I think Luc has the chance to win it in the last 10 games. Everyone knows where Hextall stands."

The everyone Vachon refers to are the hockey writers of the U.S. and Canada. The Calder Trophy is voted on by 63 writers--three from each of the 21 NHL cities.

The Kings say that since they operate in a hockey Siberia, Robitaille's accomplishments have gone unnoticed. Vachon points out that the Kings have not been on ESPN's hockey show this season, whereas the Flyers' games are frequently shown nationally.

Viewers would likely enjoy Robitaille's exciting style of play. He leads all rookies in points with 70, and goals with 37. Robitaille is well ahead in shooting percentage and is third in assists.

Hextall has led the league's goaltenders in almost all categories for most of the season. His 2.99 goals-against average is second and his save percentage of .905 is first. He has played more games than any other goaltender and has a 30-19-12 record.

Hextall also has 91 penalty minutes, an NHL record for a goalie.

His aggressive, combative style often brings him out of the crease, chasing after an opponent with his stick high.

His play solidified, though, just when the Flyers most needed it. For two months, Philadelphia was without five key players, all of whom were injured.

"That's when he really earned his stripes," Resch said. "He's been forced into so many pressure situations, he's been under so much more pressure than Luc."

Keenan thinks it's harder to be a rookie goaltender in the NHL than it is to be a rookie forward. Thus, Keenan says, Hextall deserves the trophy.

"The goalie is in a vulnerable position for 60 minutes of the game," Keenan said. "Forwards are less vulnerable and play about a third less time. One nice way of evaluating it is to poll the National Hockey League general managers. I'm sure they would select the goaltender over the forward."

Vachon, a former goaltender, disagrees with Keenan.

"I would say that it is easier in the first year for the goalie," he said. "You don't have pressure in the first year. You're not thinking about anything. You're just too excited to be playing."

For what it's worth, Robitaille has history on his side. The voting has been heavily in favor of skaters, rather than goaltenders. Since 1972, only two goalies have won the award, Montreal's Ken Dryden in 1971-72, and Buffalo's Tom Barrasso in 1983-84.

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