As a player, Ron Hextall wore his emotions on his blocker. He had grit, grind, and more than a hint of irrationality, famously abandoning his crease to go after Chris Chelios on one occasion, two-handing Glenn Anderson another time, and swapping blows with Toronto goalie Felix Potvin another time.
Three seasons into his career, Hextall had amassed more than 300 penalty minutes. He set a tone with his team.
As the general manager of the team he scrapped for, Hextall wears little emotion, scribbling notes to himself from his perch high above the ice at the Wells Fargo Center, moving about the areas surrounding the Flyers dressing room after gasping wins and ugly losses with the stoicism of a Swede.
His actions, whether through drafts, signings, trades, or simply dealing with the media and public, are measured and carefully plotted. He has been the epitome of rational thinking, and it has set a tone, too. The team he has assembled finished its 19th game Thursday, a 3-0 loss to the New Jersey Devils, still without a fight on its ledger.
It is the longest season-opening stretch without a fight in team history, topping the 15-game start of the Flyers' inaugural season, 51 years ago.
Oh, the irony.
That inaugural team had 10 wins and four ties in its first 19 games, finished 31-32-11, reached the playoffs and lost in seven games to the St. Louis Blues. Those Flyers lost to that same team in four games the following season, prompting much anger from their young owner, Ed Snider, and a sea change in team philosophy. It is no exaggeration to state that the Broad Street Bullies were born in the slightly enraged, slightly irrational mind of the man who would come to be known by generations of players as simply "Mr. Snider."
These 9-9-1 Flyers, whether it be their passive and unsuccessful penalty kill, a tepid power play they too often praise for presentation, or sometimes absentee first periods, would likely fire up the old man, too. But there will be no such epiphany from Hextall, or the Comcast-Spectacor ownership group above him. They see growing pains where many of their fans see a culture of rationalization, bordering on contentment. And for a while now, those fans have been voting with their wallets.
In the 19th game of that first season, attendance at the old Spectrum was a little more than 11,000 for a 7-2 victory over Los Angeles. That was a more honest count back then, measuring turnstile numbers, not tickets sold. Anyone in attendance Thursday, or two days before for a 2-1 loss to Florida, can testify that the near-sellout figures listed in the box score each night did not represent actual attendance. Not even close.
The game has changed, of course. Taping one's hands is not allowed. Interfering and grabbing players as they seek to gain speed in their own zone or move through the neutral zone have always been a penalty, although it took the success of these very same Devils over the previous two decades for the NHL to pay attention to its own rule.
That diligence seems to have wavered this season, however, as more latitude has been given to defensemen fronting a player chasing a dumped puck, or simply trying to gain the zone. The Devils put on a clinic after grabbing a 1-0 lead in the second period Thursday, prompting Scott Laughton to say afterward, "Seems like the last 20 years they've been playing like that. Got to find a way to find chances and get through them."
There's only one way I know of, and his coach hit on it hours before.
"We need more of that grit, more of that grind," Dave Hakstol said. "… There's room for a lot of guys to step forward in that area."
Consider the Devils' first goal Thursday, the first ever for third-line rookie Joey Anderson. Anderson took a pass in the high slot and rifled it past Brian Elliott. It appeared that, with a little more grind, Jake Voracek could have interrupted that play, but that indictment fit several other dangerous New Jersey plays that, thanks to some acrobatics that ultimately could sideline the 33-year-old Elliott again, did not end up in the back of the Flyers net.
On the other end, the Devils consistently used sticks, bodies, and yes, on this night, the iron surrounding their net. But there were no uncontested wraparound tries splitting their goalie in half, and a few second chances, too.
Simply put, the Flyers too often resemble Wednesday-morning office workers. Or, if you like, the man who has assembled them. Where others see same old, same old, he sees building toward a more consistent future, to a team with a specific personality or culture.
He's a patient man, Mr. Hextall.
Those who have made his YouTube highlights must-see TV?