(Courtesy of Perry Bergson, The Brandon Sun) — When Ron Hextall looks back at his long hockey career, the story begins in Brandon.
Now 52 and the general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers, Hextall enjoyed a 13-season career as one of the best goaltenders in the National Hockey League. The Winnipeg-born, Brandon-raised netminder began his Western Hockey League career with the Brandon Wheat Kings in 1981-82 after growing up watching the team.
“For me it was an absolute dream come true,” Hextall said. “Watching the big teams, (Bill) Derlago, (Ray) Allison, (Laurie) Boschman, (Brian) Propp, the McCrimmon boys (Brad and Kelly), I always wanted to play in the NHL but I was more focused on, at that point, playing for the Wheat Kings just because I knew it came first. That was a huge deal for me.”
Hextall came to the Wheat Kings just after the league-winning team of 1978-79, but he had a ringside seat for one of the greatest teams in Canadian Hockey League history. “I sold programs at those games,” Hextall said. “I was dialled right in and I was at every game.”
His devotion to the game started early, something he thinks is engrained in Canadian culture. One of his early memories is watching the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the USSR that Paul Henderson dramatically won with a late goal in Game 8.
Hextall was in Grade 3 at the time. “I remember sitting in a classroom watching a game thinking that I was going to die if Canada didn’t win,” Hextall said. “That’s pretty extreme thoughts for a young fellow and I guess silly on one hand. But it just felt that important to me that Canada won that series. I told my one son, Brett, when he went to play in Penticton, I said playing in Canada is going to be a really neat experience for you because there’s nothing like eating, sleeping and breathing hockey.”
Hextall certainly came by his devotion to the game honestly.
His father is Bryan Hextall Jr., a veteran of 549 NHL games played between 1962 and 1976. Ron’s grandfather Bryan Hextall Sr., played 486 games between 1936 and 1948, leading the league in goal-scoring twice and once in points. He was a first-team all-star three times.
Finally, his uncle Dennis was in the league from 1967 to 1980, playing 681 games.
As a result of his father’s career, Hextall actually played his early hockey in the U.S. When his father hung up the blades after the 1975-76 season, the Hextalls came home.
“I grew up in Brandon but my dad was playing until, I think it was 11 was my last year that we travelled down to the States,” Hextall said. “I think my first year of hockey in Brandon I was 12 years old. It was important at that age to get that level of hockey. Some of the places I played in, like Atlanta at the time, it was not great hockey. It was time to ramp up the level and I think getting back to Brandon and playing, it was great hockey now and great hockey then. It was a level I hadn’t played at yet so it was important.”
Hextall first played junior hockey in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League in 1980-81 with the Melville Millionaires, a team that went 11-49 that season. On a bad team in a different era of hockey, he posted a 6.57 goals-against average in 37 games, once facing 105 shots in a game.
A season later he was in Brandon trying to earn a spot with the Wheat Kings. One memory stands above the others of that fall.
“I guess just the thrill of actually pulling that Wheat Kings jersey on,” Hextall said. “Watching those big teams … Dunc McCallum was coaching back then and some of the names that were moved on to the NHL. It felt like such a big stage for me as a 17-year-old.”
He went on to play three seasons with the Wheat Kings, appearing in 133 games in the regular season and playoffs. Hextall said it was a tremendous learning experience.
“We used to practise at 11 in the morning and you’d be at practice early and you’d stay out after,” Hextall said. “I remember being on the ice two, two-and-a-half hours in total between practice and working at your game before and after. We had some good hockey people, Les Jackson, Dunc McCallum, Jack Sangster, we had some good hockey people there who taught us young guys.
“When you’re 17, 18 years old, you certainly have a lot to learn, even though at the time you think you know it all. We had some good mentors.”
The team never got past the second round of the playoffs in Hextall’s era but it was an experience measured in more than just post-season success. Hextall said he can’t imagine a finer place to grow up, or to play his junior hockey.
“They were truly three of the better years of my life,” Hextall said. “Playing junior hockey, there’s nothing like it. It was a lot of fun. We had good teams, certainly great teammates, and playing in your hometown in front of family and friends was special. Some of the guys I played with … Ray Ferraro was a heck of a player, Cam Plante was a terrific junior player, certainly part of the reason Ray scored 108 goals, Dean Kennedy … I have a lot of fond memories of Brandon.”
He still talks to old teammates such as Ferraro, Plante and Bruce Thompson occasionally. Hextall’s parents have a cabin near Clear Lake that they spend their summers at, while his wife Diane (nee Ogibowski) still has family in the Minnedosa area. They try and get back once a summer to visit.
The couple have four children: Jeffrey, Kristin, Rebecca and Brett.
Hextall said he keeps a close eye on the players that come out of Brandon and Manitoba and are selected in the NHL draft, noting that the Wheat Kings have always produced top talent.
More than 30 years after his Wheat Kings career ended, his name is now in the running to be selected to Brandon’s WHL Dream Team in a fan balloting initiative co-sponsored by the franchise and the Brandon Sun. It’s not something he takes lightly. “I think whenever you’re talked about from back during your career for accomplishments, it’s terrific,” Hextall said. “I feel honoured just to be in the running.”
Hextall talks warmly about the long bus rides and the opportunity it gave teammates to bond. He calls what is now known as the Westman Place arena a great building.
He remembers Brandon as a city devoted to the game and its team. Hextall said he loves when he’s able to get back to the Wheat City, something he admits isn’t as often as he might like. Regardless of where hockey has taken him, home is always home. “I’m a Brandon boy. I grew up there and I’m proud of it.”