Tough in the Nets : Flyers' Hextall Makes Plenty of Saves, but Few Friends, With His Goaltending

Times Staff Writer

Ron Hextall, the colorful and controversial goaltender for the Philadelphia Flyers, subscribes to the theory that it's better to burn out than it is to rust.

"I'd rather have 10 great years than 15 good years," he has said. "I'll go all out the next few years and if I burn out, then I'll burn out. That's our whole team. That's the way we are."

And so, he holds nothing back, physically or emotionally, leaving decorum and dalliance to others while revolutionizing his unusual art with an aggressive, swashbuckling style.

A seemingly perfect complement to his teammates, the once and future Broad Street Bullies, he is at once revered and reviled.

Hextall, who 2 1/2 months ago became the first National Hockey League goaltender to score a goal by shooting the puck into the net, is as admired for his stickhandling as he is assailed and admonished for his stick- wielding.

Last season as a rookie, Hextall won the Vezina Trophy as the National Hockey League's top goaltender and the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs as he took the Flyers to within one victory of the Stanley Cup championship.

However, along the way, he established an NHL record with 104 penalty minutes and, with a mighty swipe that looked like something out of Paul Bunyan, he used his stick to chop down Kent Nilsson of the Edmonton Oilers last May in the Stanley Cup finals.

"I know he's a heck of a goalie, but what he does to guys in front of the net--I really disagree with that," said King General Manager Rogie Vachon, who once was revered for his play in the nets. "It shouldn't be in hockey and I think it tarnishes his image, too. He can play. He doesn't need that (stuff)."

Recently, Hextall high-sticked Greg Adams of the Washington Capitals in the face, but Washington Coach Bryan Murray declined to send a videotape of the incident to the NHL office for review.

"Of course it's serious," Murray said, "but it's every night. It's a farce. Nothing's going to be done."

Hextall, who seemingly has accomplished the impossible by making the Flyers more hated than ever, grudgingly accepts the criticism as "part of the territory."

He certainly is more comfortable with his image than is his wife, Diane Ogibowski, a former Canadian junior figure skating champion, who said the public seems to have a misguided vision of her husband as a villainous, mean-spirited man.

"I remember people asking him last year if he's the same way off the ice as he is on the ice, and a few reporters asking me, 'How do you handle him at home?' " Ogibowski said. "I couldn't believe it. I didn't know what to say.

"He's a competitor. He loves to win. And anybody who is a competitor understands that. People who think that hockey is just a game, and it's not serious or intense--they just don't know."

Hextall, 23, said he doesn't spend much time worrying about how the public perceives him.

"I don't believe there's anything I can do about it," he said. "I think I've gotten a lot of bad press that I haven't deserved, but that's part of being in the spotlight, I guess. People try to pick you apart."

Vachon's comments, though, seemed especially puzzling to him.

"That disappoints me," he said, "because he was a goalie and he knows what it's like in front of the net. Whether it's gotten worse since he played, I don't know, but people don't realize what a jungle it is in front of the net.

"And anybody who knows anything about hockey realizes that the referees don't call those penalties. And so, somebody's got to do something about it. Unfortunately, it's the goalies. If I didn't have to touch anybody in front of the net, I wouldn't. But I feel I have to."

In other words, it's part of the job. And Hextall, if nothing else, is passionate about his work.

"I'm striving to be the best goaltender ever," he has said.

It is an ambition that took root some time ago.

Ron's father, Bryan, a former NHL player and himself the son of an NHL Hall of Famer, told the Toronto Globe and Mail that his son never wanted to play any other position.

"From the time he was 2, he'd be out playing street hockey with older kids, but as a goaltender," Bryan said. "He had a mean streak and, at hockey schools, I'd pull him out sometimes and have him try defense, because I thought with his temperament, defense was a better position for him.

"But the next day, he'd be back playing goal."

As a toddler, Ron dragged his mother, Fay, outside the house and had her take shots at him.

"We'd have our own little hockey games," she said. "Hockey was on his mind constantly. He'd say, 'Just five more shots, Mom.' "

A self-proclaimed hockey brat, Ron mimicked NHL goaltenders.

"When the puck was down at the other end, he'd be down making saves like Tony Esposito," Fay said. "And the other parents would jokingly say to me, 'Who is he now, Fay?' And I'd say, 'That's Tony Esposito,' or, 'That's Ken Dryden.'

"He was just sort of playing it all out, finding out who Ron Hextall was, even as a little kid."

In contrast to his heroes, though, Ron enjoyed handling the puck as much as he enjoyed stopping it.

Also part of his style from an early age was the ritualistic clanging of his stick on the goalposts, which one writer described as "taking on the air of some primitive witch doctor conducting a tribal war dance."

It's not nervousness, Hextall said. He's just trying to get his bearings in the net.

Of course, Hextall's idiosyncrasies would have gone virtually unnoticed if he hadn't developed a propensity for stopping the puck.

He was only a sixth-round draft choice in 1982 after a 12-11 season as a 17-year-old for the Brandon (Canada) Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League. It was at Brandon that he met his wife, who trained at the same rink.

But by the end of the 1985-86 season, he was an American Hockey League first-team all-star and the AHL rookie of the year, compiling a 30-19-2 record and 3.41 goals-against average for the Flyers' affiliate at Hershey, Pa.

Quick, aggressive and agile, the 6-foot 3-inch Hextall played so well in training camp last season that he emerged as the logical starter for the season opener. Jari Kurri of Edmonton scored on him on the first shot he faced in an NHL game, but Hextall shut down the Oilers the rest of the way and the Flyers won, 2-1.

He went on to lead the NHL with 37 victories, 66 appearances and a .902 save percentage. He was 37-21-6 with a 3.00 goals-against average. In the playoffs, he won 15 more games and lowered his goals-against average to 2.77.

"Fundamentally, he's very good," Vachon said. "He doesn't have too many weaknesses. He's very quick, and with his size, he covers a lot of net. And he recovers very quickly, from one side to the other."

More than that, though, it's the way Hextall plays that draws raves.

"He's very aggressive on the puck and getting out of the net," Vachon said. "He gets involved in the play all the time."

A model for future goaltenders, many hope that the next generation won't emulate Hextall's tendency to treat those who would challenge him as so much firewood.

His chop on Nilsson resulted in an eight-game suspension at the start of the season.

When Hextall returned, he struggled along with the Flyers, winning only twice in his first 12 starts.

He worked out his problems with help from goaltending coach Bernie Parent, a former Flyer goaltender and Hall of Fame member, believing it was only a matter of time before he broke out of the slump.

He has since returned to form. In his last 36 appearances, he is 24-7-3 with a 3.01 goals-against average.

In a game Dec. 8 against the Boston Bruins, Hextall took some pressure off himself when he fired a 170-foot shot into an empty net in the final minutes of a 5-2 victory at Philadelphia.

He had stated publicly that he would one day score a goal and, two nights before he did, he dreamed it.

"I was a forward, though," he said of his dream.

However, his history-making achievement has made Hextall even more of a target.

In a game last month at Boston, Hextall was hit "8 or 10 times," by his own estimate.

"If he wants to act like a player," said the Bruins' Keith Crowder, "we'll treat him like a player."

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