LOS ANGELES - He slips out through the door of the Los Angeles Kings management suite at the Prudential Center between periods of Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final and, looking at Ron Hextall, lanky and imposing, the thought occurs:
He could still run down Chris Chelios, no problem, and despite Chelios’ reputation as a fitness fanatic, I don’t know if you would want to give Chelios the edge.
Hextall, now 48, is the Kings vice-president and assistant general manager and looks like he could still play.
It’s a little different watching from up here, huh?
“You feel pretty helpless, that’s for sure,” he said.
The former Vezina and Conn Smythe Trophy winner has now helped the Kings get to within two wins of winning the Stanley Cup, something he didn’t do as a player despite his wonderful efforts with the Philadelphia Flyers in a 1987 season when he was the best goaltender in the game and led them to the final against the Edmonton Oilers.
His imprint, in so many different ways, is on this Stanley Cup final, which the Kings lead 2-0 going into Game 3 Monday night at Staples Center. You look at the way New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur handles the puck (and Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick, who is underrated in that department) and you have to remember Hextall revolutionized the position when it came to puckhandling.
In December 1987, he became the first goaltender in NHL history to score a goal by actually shooting the puck in the net. Two years later, he became the first to score a goal in the playoffs.
Brodeur and Quick aren’t doing what they’re doing without Hextall becoming the first goaltender to really become a third defenceman with the puck.
He was a fiery competitor, once charging out of the net to attack Chelios after the then-Montreal Canadiens defenceman had hammered the head of Flyers star Brian Propp into the glass at the Montreal Forum during the playoffs in 1989.
Hextall is having a different, but quite significant impact now. He is in his sixth season with the Kings, one of a half-dozen former members of the Flyers organization (general manager Dean Lombardi, assistant coach John Stevens, former head coach Terry Murray and players Mike Richards and Jeff Carter) who have helped the Kings get this far.
As Lombardi’s right-hand man, Hextall has had a huge influence on building this Kings team. He cut his teeth as a manager running the Kings’ American Hockey League franchise in Manchester, so he has had a direct hand in cultivating the prospects that are now helping the Kings enjoy their success.
Despite his star status as a player, Hextall was willing to start at the bottom and work his way up in the Flyers organization learning the management ropes.
As a former star player who has been here, he has been an important resource for the Kings players in this playoff run.
“It’s one of the reasons you hire a guy like him,” said Lombardi. “It’s not only his work ethic and his background. I mean, this is a former player that wasn’t afraid to go down on the scouting trails, drive five hours to learn the craft. He takes over the minor-league team and learns some management skills. You combine that with being a former player who was recognized as a winner, not just a player. When you have that type of presence, you’d be foolish not to expose it to your players as much as possible.”
“It’s always a different thing. You put almost 30 years into it, you’ve been through a lot things,” said Hextall. “There are a lot of things you can impart on the players.”
He’s had a key hand in the big moves the Kings made over the course of this season which transformed them from a struggling club to being on the cusp of winning the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
Despite his intimate knowledge of the Kings, Hextall said he couldn’t pick one move or moment - the off-season trade for Richards, the firing of Murray and hiring of Darryl Sutter as coach, the trade for Carter in February - that turned this team around.
“There were a number of things that happened. I think the coaching change really woke everybody up to some degree. They understood that it wasn’t necessarily the coach’s fault. It’s everybody’s fault here,” he said.
“We brought up (Dwight) King and (Jordan) Nolan. We brought in Jeff Carter. I think it really helped us to bring another gun into our lineup. It didn’t have an immediate impact, but it definitely had an impact. We went from a good-sized team to a very big team. When we play our game, we’re very hard to play against.
“But I think down the stretch at some point - I couldn’t define exactly when - we won a lot of games. Everybody knew we were a good team on paper, including our players, but until it comes together and you start playing like it ... late in the year, our team started to realize we are a pretty good team here. There was no real, in my mind, defining moment.”
The development of defenceman Slava Voynov in Manchester under Hextall’s watch gave the Kings the flexibility to deal defenceman Jack Johnson to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Carter. Another concussion suffered by forward Simon Gagne, an injury to Scott Parse and the struggles suffered by Dustin Penner had the Kings stuck in 30th place in a 30-team league in offence.
“We knew we needed a scorer. When Gagne got hurt, Scott Parse got hurt and Dustin Penner wasn’t scoring like he’s capable of, it was kind of like, ‘we need to do something here.’ Knowing full well we had Voynov waiting in the wings in Manchester - but an NHL player and a pretty darn good one - that was the one piece that we felt we could move and not hurt ourselves and bring in a guy like Carter which we clearly needed. We knew we needed a scorer. It’s not why we played poorly for 60 games, but it was part of it.”
Around the same time, the Kings called up King and Nolan. They were miscast to start with on the second line because of the injuries and Penner’s lack of production, but the Kings didn’t have much choice.
“They seemed to give us a short-term injection of life. It helped us. We knew we were not talking second-line players here,” said Hextall. “We knew we needed to make a move. They fit in good. They added to our size. We formed the identity of a big team and a hard team to play against.”
Now Hextall should be right near the top of any team’s search list for their next general manager.
He was a winner as a player.
He’s helped build a Stanley Cup contender.
While his focus right now is helping the Kings get two more wins, it’s also clear Hextall is ready to have a chance to have his own team.
“I’d love to, yeah, absolutely,” he said.
“I’ve got my beliefs. Everybody has got their own beliefs, I’ve got my own set of beliefs. You learn from a lot of people as you come up. In Philadelphia, Bob Clarke and Paul Holmgren and now with Dean, you take a little bit of everybody and you form your own identity.
“I’m a big will-to-win guy. I believe in the end, as long as your teams are close, the team with the more will to win is going to win. That would be my identity. I think it was my identity as a player and it’s still what I believe in.”
Looks like a lot of that belief has rubbed off on the Kings.