(Courtesy of Perry Bergson, The Brandon Sun) — Bryan Hextall Jr. is a member of the most decorated hockey family in Manitoba history.
His father Bryan Sr. scored the winning goal in overtime of Game 6 of the NHL final in 1940, winning the New York Rangers their third Stanley Cup. He would end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
His brother Dennis was a fellow Brandon Wheat King who went on to play 681 NHL games. And finally, his son Ron enjoyed a long NHL career — both on the ice and as an executive — after his time with Brandon.
His brother, Rick, also played with the Wheat Kings for two seasons, and a fourth brother, Randy, won a Centennial Cup with the Portage Terriers in 1973.
Hextall’s path to hockey glory included his father’s lumber yard in their hometown of Poplar Point, and also in their rumpus room.
“We all worked hard as kids,” he said. “We used to load and unload lumber at the railway station. It used to come in by the carload. You would open the door and the lumber was piled to the ceiling. I was driving the big truck up to the railway tracks when I was 14 and bringing it back to the lumber yard. It was all the work ethic. I think you kind of looked at dad and would go down to the rumpus room and look at all the pictures he had down there.
“The hockey stick was on the wall that he scored the winning goal with to win the Stanley Cup.
“I think it was a combination of everything, and I think it was bred into us. I really do. I think it was bloodlines also.”
Hextall actually started to skate at Madison Square Garden when his father was with the Rangers. When his father retired after the 1948-49 season, the family, which would eventually include the four boys and sister Heather, relocated to their hometown of Poplar Point, which is 25 kilometres northeast of Portage la Prairie.
Hextall always played his minor hockey in two age groups in Poplar Point — his and the age group above him — and later was on the juvenile team in Portage.
“It’s all we did,” Hextall said. “I had the two brothers and we had street hockey games. Dad had a lumber yard and we had street hockey games out there even at noon when we were going to school. All the kids would come over there and we had nets set out. We’d play under the streetlights until 10 o’clock at night lots of times.”
There was also no shortage of ice. With a season pass at the Poplar Point arena costing $5, Hextall said they would be on the ice seven days a week.
When it came time to graduate to the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, Hextall received offers from all five teams in the league. After a four-year absence when the team was inactive, the Wheat Kings returned for the 1958-59 season, and Hextall picked them over the four city teams, the Winnipeg Braves, St. Boniface Canadiens, Transcona Rangers and Winnipeg Monarchs.
“They were all after me,” Hextall said. “For some reason I wasn’t very high on Winnipeg so I decided Brandon was a smaller place to go to. Being from a small town, I thought that’s where I want to go, and I did.”
It certainly didn’t hurt that Wheat Kings general manager Jake Milford was a friend of Hextall’s father.
On a team of mostly local players, Hextall was billeted in the community and enjoyed immediate success with the Wheat Kings, who would finish in third place with a record of 15-14-1.
In 30 games in his 17-year-old season, he had 19 goals and 23 assists, with 15 penalty minutes. The Wheat Kings fell 3-0 in the league semifinal to the regular-season champion Braves, who won the Memorial Cup. (A Manitoba-based team hasn’t won it in the 60 years since that victory.)
His most frequent linemate that season was Edgar Ehrenverth, who he said helped him a lot. Hextall noted that much of that Brandon club — which included players such as Jack Matheson, Ron Baryluk, Gord Rice and Dunc McCallum — had won a juvenile championship in the spring.
Hextall tried to be what is now referred to as a “200-foot player.”
“I always considered myself an all-around player,” Hextall said. “I could score and I could play good defensive hockey. I ended up killing a lot of penalties when I was with (the National Hockey League’s) Atlanta (Flames). I think an all-around guy is what I tried to be when I played. The biggest thing was just trying to improve all the time and get better. I think that’s what every player should strive for.”
On his first day in Brandon, he met McCallum, who promptly invited him home for Sunday dinner. He describes McCallum, who went on to coach the Wheat Kings and is well known for his local hockey schools, as an outstanding person.
“Dunc was great,” Hextall said. “He had personality coming right out of his ears. You couldn’t have had a better friend. When Dunc was your friend, he was your friend. He would stick up for you no matter what, on the ice or off the ice or anywhere. He’s the best friend I ever had. It’s that simple.’
He also loved playing in the old Wheat City Arena, which stood from 1913 until it was demolished in 1969. It was located on the block on Victoria Avenue and 10th Street that is now home to the Brandon Police Service.
“It was so close to the street,” Hextall said of the rink. “It was just sidewalk and there’s the front of the building, and then you’d walk in and there were all the offices and the ticket counters. The inside had no seats, just benches with the backs on them and that was totally different. The curling rink was joined at the back. It was a neat place to be. I really enjoyed playing there. It was just kind of a nice atmosphere in the building too. It was a very unique building.”
It was the first time he ever played on artificial ice.
In his second year, the 1959-60 season, the Wheat Kings kicked off an era of dominance that would see them win four of the next five MJHL titles. Brandon went 23-6-3 in the regular season, and then beat the Braves and the Rangers to win its first-ever MJHL championship.
After sweeping the Fort William Hurricanes in the Western Memorial Cup semifinal, Brandon fell 4-3 to the Edmonton Oil Kings in the best-of-seven western final.
It was nearly the same Brandon team from his rookie season.
The Wheat Kings made a deal for future NHLer Jim Neilsen and the product of Big River, Sask., skated with the team for a week. Then the deal was nullified and Neilsen, who played 1,023 NHL games, had to return to the Prince Albert Mintos.
Still, Hextall regrets that the Wheat Kings didn’t win the Memorial Cup that year because he remains convinced they were a better team than Edmonton.
“The team just gelled,” Hextall said. “We were all a year older and better.”
He said it didn’t hurt that many of the players had grown up and played together.
In his 19-year-old season, 1960-61, the Wheat Kings finished in first with a 24-8-0 record but were upset in the final by the second-place Rangers.
Being a member of the team back then opened doors for Hextall in the city, but it wasn’t nearly as overwhelming as it is now for Wheat Kings in the internet age.
For the kid who had spent time in New York but did his growing up in Poplar Point, it was a big change.
“It was just getting out in the world,” Hextall said. “Being raised in a small town, it was a growing up experience. For the first time I was being interviewed by CKX, the TV station. And the fact that the first year I was there I met my wife (Fay) and we started going out together and that was a huge change in my life too. We’re just coming up to our 58th wedding anniversary.”
In 90 games over three seasons in Brandon — the regular season then consisted of 32 games but they only played 30 in his rookie year — Hextall scored 63 goals and added 83 assists, with 102 penalty minutes.
In his overage season, he moved to join the Kitchener-Waterloo Beavers of the Eastern Professional Hockey League, and he made his NHL debut with the New York Rangers a year later in the 1962-63 season against the Canadiens in the old Montreal Forum.
“I’m looking down at the guys standing at the other end and it’s Jacques Plante and (Bernie) Boom Boom Geoffrion and Dickie Moore and I’m thinking to myself ‘What am I doing here?’” he chuckled. “It was kind of a weird feeling and you’re a little frightened to start with but once they drop the puck you just carry on.”
After a 21-game debut in New York, Hextall spent the next six seasons in the minors, winning the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup with the Rochester Americans in 1968. He resurfaced in the NHL with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1969-70 season.
Hextall finished sixth in scoring with the Penguins, who were in their third season in the NHL. Above and beyond his 12 goals and 19 assists, he was able to reunite with an old buddy, McCallum, who was living and working in Pittsburgh at the time.
McCallum also suited up for the Penguins in Hextall’s first two seasons there.
“It was great,” Hextall said. “He was my best friend and here we are playing together again. It was a great time.”
Hextall and McCallum did things away from the rink, and since their wives, Fay and Cheryl, had grown up together in Brandon, it was a nice reunion for the four.
He felt Pittsburgh was a good fit.
“It’s a lunch pail town and much the same as where I grew up where everybody worked hard,” Hextall said. “They are good people down there, really down to earth. I made a lot of good friends in Pittsburgh and I’m really happy they’ve done so well over the years.”
In the 1970-71 season, he led the team in scoring with 48 points. In 1973-74, he ended up in Atlanta and spent a season and a half there.
In the final year of his NHL career in 1975-76, he also saw duty with the Detroit Red Wings and Minnesota North Stars. The 36-year-old Hextall went to training camp with the North Stars the next fall, but they decided to go with younger players despite the fact that he had a year remaining on his contract.
Hextall, who always returned to Brandon in the off-season, was asked if he would consider a job as a player-coach with the New Haven Nighthawks in the AHL.
“I was tired of playing hockey so I went to them and said ‘What if I scouted for you for two years and did the Western Junior Hockey League and we take the contract over two years?’” Hextall said. “Jack Gordon was the general manager and he said ‘Fine, that would be OK.’ So I went back to Brandon. I had some land west of Brandon and built a new house and collected my salary for two years and scouted for the North Stars.”
His NHL career included 549 games played over eight seasons, with 99 goals, 161 assists and 738 penalty minutes. He had four assists in 18 playoff games.
One day when he was working on his house in Brandon, former Canadiens forward Eddie Mazur and longtime player Elliot Chorley visited him and offered him a job with Molson Breweries taking care of the Brandon and western Manitoba region with Chorley. He accepted and spent the next decade with Molson.
“The transition out of hockey was very easy for me,” Hextall said. “Things worked out really well.”
He did play another year with the Brandon Olympics in 1977-78 mostly so that he could suit up with his friends Ted Taylor, Bob Murray, Bob Ash and others.
He and Fay, who had boys Ron and Rodney and daughter Tracy, still have a place at Clear Lake but have spent the last three winters in Port Moody, B.C., after 28 years in Victoria.
Ron was a big, agile kid who Hextall was convinced would make an excellent defenceman. He would play out when his dad was there, but snuck back into net when he was gone.
“I finally gave in and it turned out he was right and I was wrong,” Hextall chuckled, adding that he thinks Ron may be the best puck-handling goalie ever because he played out a bit.
He added that Ron would sit at the top of the stairs and talk his mother into firing socks at him so he could practise.
In the 1986-87 season, the Hextalls became a third generation NHL family when Ron debuted with the Philadelphia Flyers. As a father, he reflected back to how his own dad had treated him as a kid.
“He was such a down-to-earth guy,” Hextall said. “He never pressured us kids to play hockey and I did the same thing with my boys. Don’t forget that Ron and Rod got a late start because they were down in Atlanta and places like that and we had a tough time getting ice time.”
Hextall said another reason he retired was because he thought Ron had potential and needed to play. He was happy to see him in the NHL and later be honoured for his terrific career.
“It was a great thrill, and the fact that all four of us are in the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame is pretty neat too,” Hextall said of his dad, brother and son.
Hextall credits the hockey-mad town of Poplar Point and all of his friends for helping him to advance in the game. And naturally, his father’s impact was immense.
Bryan Hextall Sr. died in 1984 in Portage la Prairie at age 70.
“My dad was one of the most humble men I’ve ever met in life and he taught us all the same thing,” Hextall said. “When they won the Stanley Cup, he had a Rangers jacket and he wouldn’t wear it because he thought people would think he was showing off. That’s the type of guy he was.”