Thursday, 2 July 2015

Goalies who score: Remembering the first

A couple months back one-time Calgary Flames goaltender Reto Berra scored a goalie, which is still considered a rarity. It reminded me of a time when no goalie had ever scored, how one finally got credit for a goal, and when a goaltender finally consciously scored.

It was all in the span of a few years, and it was incredible to see.

Finally – sort of
It was near the end of 1979 when I heard it on CJOC Radio one morning when I was getting ready for school. It was announcer Wally Hild who said a goaltender had finally been credited with a goal in the National Hockey League. It was Billy Smith of the New York Islanders in a game against the Colorado Rockies (who are the precursor to the current New Jersey Devils). It wasn’t until I got home that night after school that I saw it on the Channel 2&7 News.

I still vividly remember the circumstances. The Islanders were getting a delayed penalty. The Rockie goaltender skated to the bench for an extra attacker. Rob Ramage, a Rockie defenceman, threw the puck out to the point but no one was the there. His teammates helplessly watched as the puck slid into their empty net. The last Islander to touch the puck was Billy Smith, their goalie, who had made a save earlier in the shift.

He became the first goalie credited with a goal, but he had no intention of scoring.

That would come eight years later, a long way from my family farm in a galaxy far away.

Finally – for real
It was in Grade 12 where I first heard the idea of a goalie consciously trying to score a goal. My best friend of the time, Chris Vining, told me Ron Hextall of the Flyers had said he was going to score. He was the perfect candidate – mobile, agile, and very good with the puck. He used to come out of his crease liberally and pass the puck up to start his team’s rush.

Vining later told me that Hextall tried to score on an empty net, but his shot, which has to be high because it does have to go the length of the ice, was knocked down by Kjell Samuelsson, one of the tallest players in the NHL at the time.

The Flyers met the Edmonton Oilers in the 1987 Stanley Cup final, which the Oilers won in seven games. Hextall had played so well, he was one of just a handful of players from losing teams to win the Conn Smythe Trophy for the most valuable player of the playoffs. It was a bittersweet series for Hextall on another level. During that series, Hextall brutally slashed Oiler Kent Nilsson on the back of the leg. He would receive an eight-game suspension to start the 1987-1988 season for the incident.

By the time the hockey season had started, I was firmly transplanted to Edmonton for my first year of university. Vining and I lived on the top floor of our tower and had to ride the elevator up and down several times a day.

One day, as we were coming back from supper in the caf, a couple guys got off on Sixth Kelsey.

As the doors closed behind them, I heard these fateful words: “Hey, Hextall scored a goal.”

Back then, TSN did not air Sportsdesk (the predecessor of Sportscentre) as often as it does now, so we had to wait until we saw the highlights. Sure enough, Hextall had scored.

The goal
As fate would have it, in a year of firsts, the fateful goal came against my beloved Boston Bruins. Late in a game on Dec. 8, 1987, the Flyers led 4-2 and Bruin Coach Terry O’Reilly pulled his goalie for an extra attacker. Hextall corralled the puck, and with no one around him, shoot the puck the length of the ice into the empty net.

Ron Hextall had become the first goaltender to consciously, intentionally score a goal.

Parting thoughts
He said he wanted to do it and, although it took him a year, Ron Hextall did it. A goalie scoring a goal is one of those novelties in sports like few others. I’d liken it to the fair catch drop kick in NFL football, or even a drop kick field goal. In baseball, it might be hitting for the cycle or an unassisted triple play.

It is really hard to compare across sports, but goalies who score are a rare thing. In fact 11 goalies have scored a total of 14 goals in the NHL, including Martin Brodeur, who has three goals; Chris Osgood; Chris Mason; and Mike Smith, who was the last to do it.

However, you always remember your first. You could not pick a more suitable player to be the first. Ron Hextall was the perfect blend of skill, confidence bordering on cockiness, and guts.

Fittingly, he did it twice, the second time to close out the decade in the 1989 playoffs against Washington. On that occasion, on April 11, I did see it. I was glad it was the Capitals, not the Bruins who had their goalie sitting on the bench when the puck went into the empty net.

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