Kings deliver for long-suffering Hextall

Ron Hextall left the ice for good as a player in the Spring of 1999. It wasn’t as a triumphant hero, but as a goaltender whose best days were clearly behind him.

The two less-than-iconic images fans of that era recall of the end, and how quickly it came, was of him standing helplessly as a buzzer-beating shot from Kings forward Jozef Stumpel sailed past him at the Forum in Los Angeles in February of that year and of his glaring misplay of a center-ice shot by Rangers defenseman Chris Tamer on home ice on April 5.

That game against New York was his 23rd and last appearance of the 1998-99 season, a 5-1 loss. It was also his 573rd and final sojourn into a crease for the franchise which took him in the sixth round — 119th overall — in the 1982 draft. He only provided backup for John Vanbiesbrouck from that point forward — through the final five regular-season tilts and a six-game first-round playoff loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

At the start of the next season, Hextall became a scout for the Flyers. It began a slow but steady ascent through the business side of the sport, one which culminated in his long-awaited Stanley Cup victory last night as the assistant general manager for Los Angeles.

What a twist. The outwardly-reserved, but deeply competitive goaltender who once was tasked with bringing a championship to Philadelphia for on-ice actions ended up doing it less directly for a club which featured an unmistakeable Philly imprint.

“It’s unbelievable,” Hextall said on the ice during the celebration following Monday night’s series-clinching 6-1 win over New Jersey. “All I ever wanted to do is win, whether it’s as a player or in my current role. Just being a part of management, a small part of it, it’s a phenomenal feeling. It’s surreal for sure. Wow, we’ve been here for six years working hard trying to put this team together. It’s surreal.”

If you think this will wipe away the stains of all the misfires Hextall suffered through as a player, think again.

There is still the matter of the 1997 Stanley Cup Finals, where Hextall was pilloried for his play during a four-game sweep at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings. And the surprising but failed run to the Wales Conference Finals in 1989 with the Flyers that was ended by Montreal. And also that bitterly painful seven-game defeat to the Edmonton Oilers during his rookie campaign in 1987.

“I will go to my grave with that,” Hextall told NHL.com’s Dan Rosen. “I’ll never get over it. There is nothing you can do to emulate winning as a player.”

Hextall spent six seasons and seven years with the Flyers front office in a variety of roles before the Kings opportunity opened up prior to the 2006-07 season. It was perhaps poetic that he was able to head for calmer waters and be spared the drama that was that season in Philadelphia with a fresh start.

You’d have to wonder if the competitiveness surfaced and the juices started flowing again two years ago, when the Orange and Black made the Finals against the Blackhawks. It was four years since he left the organization and 13 years since he last played a meaningful on-ice role in this city. Besides, the Flyers had jumped the Kings for a surprise playoff run before falling short in shocking circumstances.

The win on Monday night also provided Hextall a piece of long-awaited immortality: he, along with grandfather Bryan Hextall, will become just the second grandfather/grandson combination to have their names engraved on the Cup. The first, Lester and Craig Patrick. Bryan was a key member of the New York Rangers’ 1940 squad, scoring the overtime winner in the clinching contest.

Want more evident of some cosmic intervention? Los Angeles’ 102-game course to the first championship in franchise history came after a sad beginning to the hockey year. It was only nine months ago that Hextall lost former Flyers teammate Brad McCrimmon in the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv plane tragedy.

“When I think of teammates I had over the years and great teammates, McCrimmon is at the top of the list. Any athlete wants to be remembered as a good teammate. He truly was,” Hextall told the LA Times back in September. “I had such a strong bond with those guys. ‘Beast’ was on our top ‘D’ pair.”

To top it off, Hextall’s name will be engraved on the Stanley Cup thanks to a player who has enjoyed his best season at such a young age with the spotlight on him for the first time.

Jonathan Quick, all of 26, went 35-21-13 with a career-best 10 shutouts and career-low 1.95 goals-against average in the regular season, then followed up with a 16-4 record, 1.41 GAA, three whitewashes in the playoffs. The Connecticut native is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy and claimed the Conn Smythe as the playoff’s MVP.

It recalls Hextall’s epic rookie campaign. Having turned 23 during the ’87 postseason run, the fiery netminder was 37-21-6 with a 3.00 GAA and one shutout, then finished 15-11 with a 2.77 GAA and two clean sheets en route to Conn Smythe honors. Hextall was later rewarded with the Vezina, and probably should have won the Calder Trophy as well.

“He’s matured as a player, he’s also matured as a person. They kind of go side by side,” Hextall said in an LA Daily News piece last week which recalled the time Quick fell asleep on goaltending coach Bill Ranford while playing in the ECHL. “A bad goal or a bad game doesn’t bother him. That’s something along the lines of Marty Brodeur where you’re competitive but you don’t let things bother you.”

That’s a valuable lesson Hextall has learned as he rose through the ranks. Those of us old enough can recall from his first days in the NHL his histrionics at every goal where he believed he was hindered in stopping the puck — and wasn’t shy about charging the opposition or the officials to let them know his displeasure.

He now hovers above the action, the traditional reserve of a Canadian prairie upbringing welling to the surface as the years progress, masking the 48-year-old’s now inner fires to be successful.

“Sitting up top, you really have no control over the game, Hextall added. “It’s a little more

Thanks to Nick D.

nerve-wracking up top, I must say. when I got to my 30′s, I suddenly wanted to become a general manager…that’s my goal.”

After 26 seasons of labor in the National Hockey League, Hextall is one feather in his cap closer to his ultimate destination.

His satisfaction, for the moment, comes from the knowledge that players he helped select molded the Kings into winners and it led him to the place he always dreamed of being.

But knowing Ron Hextall, he already has his eyes and mind set to the places and goals beyond this rewarding first step.