EDMONTON, ALBERTA, MAY 30 -- Ron Hextall, the Philadelphia Flyers' rookie goaltender, was a student a few years back at a hockey school in Foxwarren, Manitoba, directed by Ron Low, currently an assistant coach for the Edmonton Oilers' Nova Scotia farm club.
Low is looking forward to drinking from the Stanley Cup if the Oilers win Sunday. It was a treat denied him during a 16-year professional career in goal.
If Low does not get his wish, it will be largely because of the efforts of Hextall, who at age 23 appears to have a brilliant career ahead of him. As an instructor, Low limited his advice to the talented Hextall. He recalls he noticed only one shortcoming.
"Hextall used to break a lot of sticks," Low said. "It was a good thing his dad was rich. The only thing I told him was to learn to control his temper."
That flaw remains. If the hockey world is unwilling to give Hextall full marks, the primary reason is his temper.
Hextall led National Hockey League goaltenders this season in games played (66), victories (37) and save percentage (.902). At the same time, he was collecting 104 penalty minutes, almost double Bill Smith's record for a goalie.
He already has set a playoff mark by playing 1,480 minutes and a success on Sunday would make him the first goalie to win 16 games in one postseason. His goals-against average (2.76) and save percentage (.906) have been exemplary. Win or lose on Sunday, Hextall is a leading candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff most valuable player.
During the final series, Hextall repeatedly has kept the slow-starting Flyers in contention, making sensational saves until his teammates were able to turn the tide. As much as stopping the puck, his unsurpassed ability to clear it has helped the Flyers cope with the Oilers' relentless forechecking.
The ultimate compliment came from Edmonton's Wayne Gretzky, who said, "Hextall is probably the best goaltender I've ever played against in the NHL. Just when you think you'll bombard him, he comes up with the big saves. We always seem to get a 2-0 lead, then he tightens up, plays really well and doesn't give us anything."
After games, win or lose, Hextall is polite with the media, answering the most penetrating questions without a trace of the sarcasm that so often intrudes on the comments of the rival coaches, Philadelphia's Mike Keenan and Edmonton's Glen Sather.
Move the subject away from hockey and Hextall talks of his wife, Diane, and daughter, Kristin: "I'm basically a quiet person. Bright lights and glamor, you can keep it. My idea of a good time is to stay home and play with the baby. I sit for hours, talking to her and making her laugh. To me that's the most exciting thing in the world."
Then there is the other Hextall, the man with the three-figure penalty total, the goaltender who speaks softly but carries a big stick. He used that stick in Game 4 to blast Edmonton's Kent Nilsson in the leg, winding up and unloading with all the strength at his command.
"Hextall has been great, keeping them in it when we should have blown them away," Sather said. "But he shouldn't even be playing. He should have had a 10-minute match penalty for cracking Nilsson. That's as bad as anything I've seen in hockey."
Hextall saw it as an exercise in self-defense, although Nilsson was looking the other way and had nothing to do with an incident a bit earlier in which Glenn Anderson whacked Hextall's pads in hopes of dislodging the puck.
"If they think they're going to get away with a two-hander at me, well, I've got news for them," Hextall said. "I can't take that."
As a junior in Manitoba, Hextall once accumulated 117 penalty minutes in a 46-game season. He sat out eight games under suspension for instigating a free-for-all against Regina in which he struck the opposing goalie with his stick and punched another player with his blocker.
"I had a reputation as a goalie who used his stick," Hextall said. "It worked against me with officials and wound up hurting the team. That was a long time ago, though. I've matured a lot since then."