It was 20 years ago Saturday that Ron Hextall did something never before accomplished by an NHL goaltender.
He scored with a shot on goal. Playing for the Philadelphia Flyers, Hextall capped a 5-2 win over the visiting Boston Bruins with their goalie, Reggie Lemelin, on the bench in favour of an extra attacker.
The home crowd erupted. They’d waited and waited for Hextall to do it. He was great handling the puck around the nets and everybody figured he’d eventually get a goal. On Dec. 8, 1987, in the closing minutes, he started to think the time was right.
“The puck got dumped into our end but I didn’t have a chance to go for the empty net,” he recalled. “The next time they got the puck, Gordie Kluzak dumped it in to my left.
“It was right in my wheelhouse. I figured I might as well take a shot. I was fortunate enough to put it over everybody’s head and, as luck would have it, it went in.”
Hextall, now 43 and assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Kings, said his fondest memory of the historic goal was the reaction of the fans and of his teammates.
“It’s funny because I don’t look at it as a big thing as other people do,” he said while in Manchester, R.I., to have a look at players on the AHL farm. “It was exciting for me, don’t get me wrong.
“I scored, it was exciting, and our whole team came off the bench. I remember Scott Mellanby screaming at me. It was almost as if we’d won a playoff series. It was fun to see the excitement in my teammates’ eyes. We had some fun with it after the game.
“It became a team thing. Individual things are great but when your team gets involved and you can share something like that with the rest of the guys . . . that’s what made it a special thing for me.”
The Flyers had plaques made up for every player in that game depicting the scoresheet.
“It was a neat little momento,” said Hextall. “It was a classy thing the team did.”
Hextall put a tag on the puck, put it in a closet, and that is where it remains.
Billy Smith of the New York Islanders had been credited with the first goal by a goaltender in NHL history on Nov. 28, 1979, but he didn’t shoot the puck. He was merely the last Islander to touch the puck before it wound up in a vacated Colorado Rockies net.
Hextall made history two months into his sophomore NHL season.
Two years after his goal, Hextall became the first goalie to score a playoff goal. It was on April 11, 1989, in a road game against the Washington Capitals.
“Somebody told me the other day that it had been over 100 games since I had scored,” Hextall quipped after the game. “I guess it was time.”
The second goal, in retrospect, was the most satisfying.
“I think it was 7-5 and we were short-handed,” recalled Hextall. “Scott Stevens dumped the puck around. It was pretty satisfying to get that three-goal lead. The importance of winning every single game in the playoffs is obviously at a much higher level.”
In the ensuing years, four other NHL goalies – Chris Osgood in 1996, Martin Brodeur in 2000, Jose Theodore in 2001 and Evgeni Nabokov in 2002 – have scored regular-season goals by shooting the puck the length of the ice into empty nets. The only goalie besides Hextall to do it in the playoffs is Brodeur, who accomplished the feat in 1997.
Because he was so good with his stick on the puck, Hextall took special care in ordering and preparing his sticks.
“My sticks were important to me,” he said. “The bend on my stick was more like a pitching wedge than a curve. I found with a curve it was difficult to control rebounds and stop the puck. I went with only a slight curve with a pretty good wedge.
“I spent time on my sticks. When my sticks came in, I treated them probably not unlike other players did. I was fussy about my sticks.”
Hextall is now working his way up the managerial ladder.
“I enjoy it,” he said of his current job. “I spent a lot of great years in Philadelphia and learned a lot from Bob Clarke and Paul Holmgren.
“I’d like to be a GM at some point. I love the game. It’s work on one hand but when you work in the game of hockey, that’s probably as good as it gets.”