Ron Hextall says goodbye to Philadelphia
The second we think we are getting some clarity, the waters become muddied once more.
On Friday, Ron Hextall made himself available for questions from the Philadelphia media in the hotel across the street from Skate Zone in Voorhees. Below is the full transcript of this conversation. Media questions in bold, Hextall’s responses in plain text.
I didn’t see this coming in any way. I was shocked and I was stunned.
When they first told you, what did they say were the reasons?
The only thing Homer said is that yours and my vision aren’t the same.
Did you ask what that vision was?
Did you have conversations with him leading up to it?
You have lots of conversations, in terms of, you know, what’s going on, what’s trademarked, and all those kinds of things, so yeah, you have conversations of course, but in terms of seeing this coming, no.
Ron, if you had to do anything differently, is there something you would do differently? As far as being aggressive in the trade market — they talked about that.
There’s really — where we started four and a quarter years ago, there’s kinda three stages. The first stage for me was cleaning up the salary cap, then you kinda move to a stage where it’s a little bit in between of implementing young players in the line up and growing as a team and getting better. And then there’s the third stage where it’s like, OK, it’s go time now. I didn’t feel right now that we were at go time. I didn’t feel like the Winnipegs and the Nashvilles and the Tampas, I didn’t feel like we were quite there.
Now in saying that, was I open to moving prospects and or young players for players who could help this season and beyond? Absolutely. We had some talks in the works at the time — numerous, and obviously Monday changed everything and whether something would have happened, I don’t know
Do you feel you were close to something though?
You never know if you’re close. I can assure you that I was being aggressive. You get to a point, the season started, the first 10 games, we had some heavy conversations then with other teams. And then the other teams went like this (hand motion) and all of a sudden they back off, it’s sorta the way it goes. And then you get to the 20 game mark and then all of a sudden it goes back to the same thing where, alright, we’re all looking now and saying we need to be better here, and we were one of those teams.
So it wasn’t a large group that is in the same situation as us, probably underachieving is a fair word, but you look at those teams and you talk and you see if something works out. So we did have some certainly active conversations.
Where did you think the difference in philosophy was?
Well, everybody — we all think differently. Myself and staff members and you talk to your staff members and your scouts and you try to get feedback from them and in the end obviously I’ve got to make the decisions, but we all think differently; philosophically. When I talked to Mr. Snider four and a quarter years ago, you know, he was on board. I think I’ve told this story before but he asked me the question ‘what do you need from me’ and I said patience. He looked at me and he said ‘do you think I’m not a patient man’ and I was like uh oh this isn’t going very well and then he kinda reflected and he said ‘you know, we won the first two Stanley Cups from being patient’.
So, he was on board, and I said to him in LA there it took us six years and there were some tough times, especially early in LA. It certainly wasn’t as tough here, we made the playoffs two out of four years. LA, we were a really bad hockey team early there. We got better every year and ended up winning in year six, in Chicago they built I think for seven years. Philosophically that’s kinda my vision. Did I want to speed things up? Absolutely. Absolutely. If something would have made sense for us, like I said short term and long term, we would have done it. Certainly wasn't willing to trade a early-20 year old player for a 34, 35, 36-year old player especially if they had term on their contract. I wasn’t going there. But I was certainly open to listening to other things and as I said we had a few things going on.
Paul used the phrase “unyielding” in describing your position in terms of the way that you approach things. How did you feel about “unyielding” and that you were going to stand by your approach and your way of thinking? Was there ever a time in the past four and a half years where you felt that tension start to creep in between yourself and some of the other executives?
No, I really enjoyed working with Dave Scott. He was easy to talk to. Homer and I have known each other a long time. Yeah, philosophically, obviously there was a difference, he stated it the other day. I think we were both after the same thing, I guess maybe we’d both think we’d get there a different way. I don’t really know all of the philosophical differences. You know, he even mentioned the other day, he’s very aggressive, and I’m I think somewhere in the middle when you look at the managers.
Like I said, for me there is the three stages that I talked about earlier. Clean the cap up and gather assets, and secondly development and implement young players and continue on, and then the third stage of, OK, we’re close here so now if we gotta sell the farm now we’re gonna sell the farm, but again, I didn’t feel we were quite at that stage.
In your mind did your position come with a certain amount of autonomy — did you see yourself as the guy that was going to make the hockey decisions and Homer was in a more advisory role?
Yes, I mean, yeah, that is the way that it was.
Do you think he thought of it the same way?
Yeah, I think so. I talked to Homer, like I said he wasn’t at Skate Zone a lot — maybe once a week — he’d come in and we would talk. But yeah, definitely, I was running the hockey.
How much do you think that this was Dave Scott’s call as much as it was Paul’s call?
I have no idea. I have absolutely no idea.
This summer he was real excited about JVR, it almost sounded as if he was expecting a big run, whether JVR made him that way, or touting the kids or whatever, it seemed like there was a disconnect with what you just said about the three stages.
Quite honestly I was pretty excited about this season too. Because if you think about it in September we’ve got Patrick and Konecny and Provorov and Gostisbehere and Sanheim, all these young kids that should be better players and should take the next step. Now we added a guy that scored 36 goals, so we figured you know if JVR gets us 25-30 goals that’s great, we’re going to be a better team. I mean, I certainly expected to take a step this year and it’s disappointing as hell that to this point we haven’t. But I look at our team on paper and you got a pretty good team. Now they could get it together starting Saturday and away you go.
This is a pretty good team and quite honestly I’m proud of my four and a quarter years here. We worked hard, scouting staff and management team and minor league coaches and all the players. We worked hard and I feel like we accomplished a lot. We created an analytics department, we created a sports science department, we had the gym built, had the development area built. We accomplished a lot of things and a lot of those things don’t show above the water, kinda like a duck — the feet are paddling like crazy but you don’t really see the results — and I feel like some of the results are starting to show themselves with the young players. But I’m proud of what we accomplished in terms of building the team, and building the foundation, and I think they’re in a good place.
Why aren’t they a good team and how much is that the coach?
It’s really — if there was a magical thing where you go bang we’re a good team — on paper that’s a good hockey team. Sometimes things don’t go exactly like you planned. Obviously special teams are the obvious thing, that’s really hurt. I think at one point there not too long ago we were -14 in goals for and against on special teams, I don’t know how many games, about 15 games in. That’s a big one. That’s a goal a game on special teams. And you go whoa. That hurt us for sure. 100 percent.
I think another part, there’s been some growing pains this year. TK, he played pretty well but he was snake-bit, and Patty, and Oskar, and Provy, and Ghost, Travis Sanheim — there’s a few more growing pains with our young players than I anticipated. I think that’s a big part of it. And then you get your goalies hurt right way, and we felt like Alex Lyon could possibly fight for a spot, and Stolie, and Alex got hurt in warmups before the Islanders unfortunately, and Neuvy gets hurt right away, and on top of that Ells gets hurt. There were a lot of things that just went the wrong way on us. We’re in the flesh business here and things don’t exactly always go the way you planned.
How much of that is the coach responsible for?
There’s responsibility on every one of us. Myself, as a manager, I put the players on the ice. Hak coaches the players, the players play. You can’t sit and say it’s this much the coach, this much the manager — we were all in it together, in the end we didn’t get it done.
How close did you think you were to stage three?
Like this season close?
I’m not sure yet. Like as of right now, you don’t see it. But you know what, it could change in two weeks. On paper, this is a good team. Again, the young players, if they get going to where they could go, the team just goes like this (hand motion). JVR’s back in the lineup so you add a 25-30 goal scorer. I look at Tampa and I always think about this because you’ve gotta be careful. I was not going to make a panic, short term move that maybe helped us this year but when our big window was there... I mean anybody can win any year right? We saw Carolina, Washington last year. They loaded up the year before, they lost, they win last year with a team that wasn’t as good as the one the year before. This is a really unpredictable game.
I didn’t want to do anything — remember when I came here and said this is all about winning the Stanley Cup? I went through it in LA and trust me, the first three or four years, they were hell. They were hell. And I mean that. It was hard, there was a lot of pressure to move young players. And we held firm and we struck when the timing was right and it ended up, you know what, we raised that cup. And let me tell you something, you do that once, it’s worth the six years of pain. For someone that is passionate about hockey, it is the greatest thing that you’ll ever do within the game of hockey. It is a special feeling. I am disappointed I couldn’t bring a Stanley Cup to Philly, that was always my goal. I think this team is poised to do something great and I’m sure the next guy will come in and make good moves and they’ll move on and hopefully win the Stanley Cup.
Do you wonder about the timing of this — did something happen in the last week or so that brought everything to a head?
Do you wonder why now as opposed to next summer or last summer?
Yeah, I do.
You mentioned the goalie injuries, and obviously part of that is bad luck. Elliott had surgery this year, Neuvy obviously has injury issues — why did you feel confident going into the season with them as your tandem?
The first thing you do is look around. Is there something we can upgrade? Vasilevskiy’s not available, and Holtby’s not available, so you’re not really going to get a top guy. So do you sign someone or do you trade for someone that is in the range of the guys you have? It’s easy to look back in hindsight and say oh Ells got hurt. I didn’t expect Ells would get hurt. He doesn’t have a history of being hurt. Everybody talks about the two injuries and the two surgeries, but they were tied together so you really have one injury. The abdomen comes because of the hip. He got the one fixed so he could play last year, he could have went in and gotten them both fixed and been ready for September but he wanted to play at the end of the year. Credit to him. He’s a high character guy, he’s a battler, and I think people forget the fact that he was pretty good for us until he got hurt. It’s almost like people talk about him like he can’t stop the puck and he was pretty good for us for five months or whatever it was.
I talked to some of the alumni and they said there was a disconnect between them and you and they thought that played a part in what happened. Can you address that? I think they were not allowed in the locker room and things like that.
I can. There’s a lot of things that have come out here, I don’t know where they’re coming from, but I’m like whoa. I will say this about the alumni, they had a game, I think it was against Pittsburgh, we were on the road and I was asked whether they could use the locker room or not. And it kinda went through my mind and I’ve got to be honest ... I didn’t think much about it and they said otherwise they can just use the NBA one and I said look let them use the NBA one, no big deal. In hindsight, I probably wish I would have thought that through a little bit more. I have a lot of respect for the alumni, obviously I am one. and I have a lot of respect for them. It bothers me if in fact they felt that way.
The other thing, the locker room. I don’t run a country club, I don’t believe in it. I don’t believe you win that way. You know watching out in LA how we did it, and how Clarkie did it, I believe in having tight doors. I believe in the sanctity of the locker room. I believe when the players are in the locker room they should be players, that’s when the team is bonding. I did, after games and practice days, I did close the locker room to people — fathers and kids could come in, obviously, and brothers — but one day I walked in and a guy had four buddies in our lounge on a practice day. This is a place of work, you guys go to work, you don’t bring your four buddies to work, right? There were some things that went on that I didn’t like and we changed some things as a result.
I like structure. I’m a structured guy. I believe in structure. I did see some other things, like I controlled the food and stuff, and I’m like, what? We hired a dietician and between her and Ben, they controlled our diet. The only thing, I met up front, we want to be healthy. You know, after games we want to eat anti-inflammatory food versus pizza, which is the opposite. So yeah we did change a few things like that, our guys went on a very healthy diet. And I believe in the 1% to try to help the players be the best they can be and give them the best chance to win. I see some of the things coming out and, aye yai yai.
Did you feel you had good communication with your advisors and scouts, people like that. There’s been talk that at times you and Chris [Pryor] were a two-man show, is that fair to say?
No, I don’t believe so. Everybody manages differently. My style of managing, I like to work. I wasn’t on the phone every day with our scouts. I had pro meetings this week with our pros, we have amateur meetings scheduled in January. I’d go out on the road with our scouts a little bit, particularly the amateurs. I know that’s been said. I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me that worked under me there, and the feedback has been terrific. I’ve asked some questions and I don’t believe that was an issue. Was it one or two guys, I don’t know. But I can tell you I’ve had more calls from the hockey world and texts from people who have worked for me that have been terrific. I don’t believe that.
But like I said, I didn’t spend every day on the phone talking to four scouts a day. I studied things, I’m a studier, I’m a numbers guy, I, you know, looking at age distribution charts and top six scorers on every team. just trying to figure out what’s going on with our team. So I would constantly — my style of managing is I like to work, not saying that the phone isn’t work, but I didn’t reach out to scouts every day and quite honestly I check with our scouts once in a while at meetings and stuff and we talk about things. and I talked to a few guys yesterday and communication was in my mind terrific. I think it’s when guys like to work for you and people tell you that, that’s the ultimate compliment for a manager.
How would you rate your drafts, in terms of the number of players, progress, and how far along they are in making it to the NHL. Is it on schedule for you?
Yeah. Our amateur staff is outstanding. Absolutely outstanding. Those guys work so hard, driving through snow storms, and getting to places - Prince George, and God bless, my hometown of Brandon, and everywhere. Those guys do a lot of work and they’re the unsung heroes, I’d tell them that every meeting we had. In terms of our drafts, prospects are prospects. But, I gotta tell you, we got enough where you go, there’ll be a lot of hits there. And some high-end hits, not just NHL players. I was extremely excited about our future and felt like we were gonna get better every year.
I think four and a quarter years ago we were the 28th-oldest in the league — it depends which day you do the calculations because you call a guy up, send a guy a guy down, you might move a couple spots — but I think we were 28th-oldest. And now we’re somewhere in the seventh [to] eighth-youngest range now. Some people thought we weren’t making progress but when you go from 28th oldest to seventh or eighth youngest and your point totals are staying stagnant or moving up, you’re making progress even though it’s hard to see.
Did you feel upper management agreed with your decision to be patient with Carter Hart?
Uh, yes. (questions started flying but Hextall stopped them to continue his thought) Carter Hart. How many 20 year old goalies come out of junior hockey and go to the NHL? Not very many. How many 20 year old goalies come out of junior hockey, go to the NHL, and become a star? It doesn’t happen. So the best thing to do with Carter was for him to go down and get some experience down there. he is a terrific young man. he’s a hard worker. he is dialed in and he’s one hell of a prospect
Ron, you’re a pure hockey guy, do you think part of this is the attendance has slipped and the marketing of the team, the fizz isn’t like it used to be — that went into this equation?
That’s a great question, I don’t know the answer to that. I really don’t.
When Dave Scott said, I guess you guys had bi-weekly meetings when you had home games at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, he used the phrase, and I don’t know what it is, that “the answers coming back weren’t real crisp”, do you know what he’s referencing there? Talking about you.
No I don’t. The one thing that I talked about internally was I gotta to keep my eye on the ball right now, but also next year and the year after and the year after. I did feel like we were getting close to the point of saying, OK, now we need to strike here, but I didn’t feel we were there yet. Some of the growing pains we’re going through this year with the younger kids. you look at the defense, that’s a young defense. You got Provy, he’s what, 21? Ghost is 24, Hagger is 22, Sanheim is 22 - that’s a young defense. It’s hard to win a Stanley Cup with a defense that age. I felt like there needed to be a little more maturity on the back end.
Again, I wasn’t willing to trade a young player and/or prospect for a guy in his mid-30s that might help us this year, might clog us up down the road, and his game is dropping. Philosophically, that’s kinda where I was at in terms of, again, trying to make our team better, I was on the phone Sunday trying to make our team better.
If there’s one or two things that you could have done to improve this team now, what could it have been?
Well, I was trying to do those things. You have to have someone else on the other end of the line that kinda wants to do the same thing, It’s not easy, I’ll be perfectly honest with you. Because remember, if you’re making a trade, there’s not a lot of teams that are looking — OK, we’ll give you this for futures. The deadline to later in the year is a different thing, but everybody right now is trying to figure out are we going to make the playoffs can we go on a run here. Like, so, you can’t sit here right now and go and say we’ll give you these two young pieces for this player. There weren’t teams that were necessarily willing to do that; now that could change in a month, two months. So all of a sudden you’re going player A for player A and they can go, oh here, plug in the hole here. So it’s tough during the season to do that. In saying that, I felt this was a point here where we needed to make a move and I was trying.
Did you ever get the impression that Paul Holmgren — he said you were never asked — but did you ever get the impression that maybe they wanted you to consider making a coaching change?
No, I mean your job as a manager, you have to look at everything; I have to look at everything, I have to evaluate everything, that’s my job. Coaching staff, amateur staff, development, minor leagues, like you have to evaluate everything, so did we evaluate the coach? Of course. Evaluate the assistant coaches? Of course. Evaluate the trainers? Of course. But no, there was no time where, you know obviously we talk about everything; trades, coaches, minor league stuff, calling guys up; you talk about everything but it was certainly never posed to me.
How did you feel negotiations were going with Provorov; do you think there was any tension about that with your bosses? It’s my understanding that you weren’t close, and he’s not playing very well, so I wonder if there was any tension about that.
No; no, I don’t believe so. I got a call from Provy’s agent last night, I think it was, (he) said he enjoyed working with me. We worked on Provy all summer; three months, on and off, and we couldn’t come to middle ground. There’s was absolutely no animosity or anything. I wanted to get it done, I think they wanted to get it done, but there wasn’t a middle ground there, so, OK, let’s let the year play out and then we’ll talk about it again. It wasn’t—he’s got a year left, he’s restricted, like, to me it was, I didn’t feel comfortable giving him the number, and he didn’t feel taking the number, so OK, let’s see how the season goes and we’ll talk about it again during next summer, or, in fact during the season.
I wasn’t opposed to talk during the season but typically once the season gets going they—it’s not like we broke off and there was tension, I mean I saw him out, when I was out west watching juniors this summer, he was there, and we talked a couple times and I don’t know how many conversations we had, probably 10, 15.
Do you surmise it’s on his mind? Because he hasn’t played to the level he’s played before.
Yeah I don’t know; that’s a, that’s a hard one to figure out. You see other guys—I don’t think so. Like Provy’s really strong mentally. If you look at one guy on your team that you don’t think would be effected by playing [in] the last year of his contract, I mean, he’s 21 years old, it’s not like—he’s got a huge future ahead of him and obviously he’s gonna make a lot of money, like, I don’t, I don’t think so, I think Provy, like [with] the way our team was going, sometimes he wants to do a little bit more and you end up doing less because you’re trying to do too much, I think. He really cares about his teammates, he really cares about winning, so I don’t think so. Like I said, if I had to pick one guy on our team that I felt like wouldn’t be effected by that he would be the first guy.
Homer said the other day that he didn’t really know how negotiations were going with Wayne Simmonds because you were handling it. How would you say they were going? Were you guys close, or?
No. Last time I talked to his agent was when we were in L.A. and we weren’t, we weren’t close. I don’t know how that was gonna play out, sometimes you gotta have a deadline for those things, so whether it’d be the trade deadline or the end of the year, June 30th, I don’t know how that would have played out, but there was a comfort level for us and a comfort level for him and we were a ways a part.
Was he a guy you were considering trading at the trade deadline if you couldn’t get it done?
I can’t answer that question, I don’t have an answer.
Were the number of years the biggest drawback with Wayne? The number of years on the deal.
And the cap. It was a combination.
Eventually you were gonna get fired, that’s your business, right? As general managers and coaches. Happens a lot quicker in the NHL than a lot of places.
I didn’t think like that, I was kinda hoping I would finish my career here, you know, get old, or am I already old?
So if you were with an expansion club — if you had been hired somewhere else — would this have been easier to take than what happened here?
Probably. It’s been a tough couple of days. Like, I think you guys all know much love I have for this franchise, so, happening here versus somewhere else—yeah, that hurts.
Do you feel betrayed, do you feel angry? How do you feel about the franchise two days removed?
You know there was obviously a difference in philosophy, both Dave and Paul said it, so I don’t feel betrayed. I can tell you this, I’m extremely proud of what we did here. Like, our staff worked so damn hard for four important years and we were making a lot of headway, and sometimes you don’t see it and I’m just as disappointed in the season. I certainly wasn’t, uh, I certainly wasn’t accepting. I was looking hard to do something because I knew there was a point where it was like, OK, a message does have to be sent here because this is not acceptable in Philadelphia, it’s not acceptable for this franchise. So, I was to that point. So in a roundabout way, yeah, it hurts more.
Why weren’t you at a point where you could tell Holmgren that? You guys have known each other 35 years, why, when it got this this point, wouldn’t you talk about these things?
We talked about that. The one thing that I said was, again, I wasn’t going to make a move for a guy in his mid-30s with term on his contract and give up young assets. I was adamant about that. Again, some of the way things have come out is, I—that’s not the way I saw it. Again, trying to make our team better by trading a couple young assets for a guy that could help us this year and next year, and so on, one hundred percent. If it made sense, we were gonna do it. We were looking hard.
So, again, I wasn’t sitting here going, OK, we’re going to wait for two to three more years, I mean in the back of my mind I felt like; when are we gonna get where we’re a top team with Nashville, and Winnipeg, and Tampa, I felt like we were a couple years from that. That doesn’t mean you can’t win, as we saw last year and other years where top teams get knocked off for whatever reason, but I didn’t wanna sacrifice pieces in two years that were gonna help us get to the promise land right now for a quick fix.
What about the aftermath has surprised you most? You talked about he alumni, you talked about the scouting staff, the people that worked under you; were you coming here today wanting to get something off your chest, you know defending your life kinda thing?
No, I came here today because I felt like I owed it to you people, I felt like I owed it to the fans, and, I guess selfishly a little bit of closure. So those were the three reasons that I’m standing here right now and it had nothing to do with whatever, whatever you referred to, no absolutely not.
Back to trades and signings, was (Jeff) Skinner a guy that you were active trying to get in the off-season or did you think it was too much?
No, we were—JVR, we felt fit in long term. We went after another guy, another high-end player on July 1st, and, according to his agent, we finished second. Which is great, might as well finish 31st. So we did get aggressive this summer, so we did feel like OK let’s push this thing, but free agents, to me, you can’t, the worst thing you can do is go, OK, we got JVR, we tried for this guy and didn’t get him, so now we’re gonna go down our list to the fourth or fifth guy and give him a five year deal for four or five million dollars; it’s gonna haunt us, so we kinda made our list and drew the line. Adding another middling player, we didn’t feel like that was right for the franchise.
There was a trade during the draft that didn’t come off, that Dave Scott referenced the other day that he was disappointed that you would work so hard at the draft and—I’d love to ask you who for who but you’re probably not gonna say that—was it along the lines of where your philosophy was not giving up these guys for something short term?
No that one was, that one was, I’m not gonna discuss the name, you know I am protective of our players, like these guys have houses, they’ve got girlfriends, they’ve got wives, they got kids, and people wonder why I don’t wanna talk about trades or put names out there, you see with other teams there’s a million names out there. It’s unsettling as a player, I was one of those players who, you start seeing you name in trade rumors and it’s a bad feeling so I was protective of letting too much information out, and there were a couple things that got out early in my tenure that really bothered me. Things that shouldn’t have got out, so I was protective of, essentially players’ lives, I mean you care about your players. And I know some people, especially in this day and age, they say that’s not right and stuff because that’s the way of the world, and I know it is. Why does that have to get out? I just, I don’t believe in that. That trade woulda—but it was a heavy, heavy, heavy, heavy price.