Taking the skates off Ron Hextall’s feet didn’t take the fire out of his heart when it comes to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Hextall played in two Stanley Cup finals as a goaltender with the Philadelphia Flyers. The 48-year-old Brandon native hopes to finally get his first championship ring as the assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Kings.
He’s watching from a distance now instead of from the crease, but the former Brandon Wheat Kings standout said many of the same feelings from his playing days remain.
"It’s a lot different in a lot of ways, obviously, but the emotional part of it (is the same)," said Hextall, whose Kings advanced to the Cup final for the first time since 1993 with their 4-3 overtime victory over the Phoenix Coyotes on Tuesday night. "The deeper you get in, the more you’ve got invested and the closer you are. And the closer you are, the hungrier you get."
Hextall’s hunger remained unsated in 1987 when the National Hockey League rookie had a front-row seat as the Edmonton Oilers won their third of four straight Cups, and again 10 years later as the grizzled 33-year-old veteran and his Flyers teammates were swept by the Detroit Red Wings. It’s that first Cup appearance, when the Flyers lost in seven games to the dynastic Oilers, that still sticks with Hextall 24 years later.
"Once you get to this point, you really want to push the envelope and get it done," said Hextall, who was the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the playoffs’ most valuable player in ’87. "I can tell you as I sit here today; (from) 1987 there’s still thoughts that go through my mind of regret. It’s nothing we did as a team obviously — we played one of the greatest teams of all time — but it’s just one of those opportunities you want to take advantage of. You don’t know when you’ll be back."
That the Kings would be in this spot — with a 12-2 playoff record — seems surprising given the club’s lacklustre season that sent them into the playoffs as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference at 40-27-15.
The Kings went through some major shakeups, from the off-season trade that brought veteran Mike Richards from Philadelphia Flyers for a pair of players including former Wheat Kings star Brayden Schenn, to the deal days before the trade deadline that brought Jeff Carter from the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The biggest move of all came in December when the slumping team fired head coach Terry Murray, later replacing him with Darryl Sutter.
"It’s funny, people ask me are you surprised where you guys are at. … You obviously don’t expect to get to the Stanley Cup finals every year, but to be quite honest, I was more surprised with our regular season than I am with the playoffs," Hextall said. "We felt like we were a top team. We felt like we were in a group of six or eight teams that had a shot."
The Kings responded to the coaching change by going 27-15-11 the rest of the way and Hextall said it’s the players themselves who deserve the most credit.
"In the end, it’s up to the players and the players have really, really committed down the stretch and into the playoffs," he said.
One group that Hextall takes particular pride in are the contributors who have worked their way up to the Kings through their American Hockey League affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs.
"Our minor league system has worked well," said Hextall, who also serves as the Monarchs’ general manager. "Our head coach (at Manchester) Mark Morris, (assistant) Scott Pellerin and (Monarchs director of hockey operations) Hubie McDonough have done a great job developing players for us. …
"We’ve got a big chunk of our lineup that played in the minors and developed at the right pace, one step at a time instead of three."
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition May 24, 2012