LEWISTON – When Jonathan Bernier signed an entry-level contract with the Los Angeles Kings of the National Hockey League last month, some of the Lewiston Maineiacs faithful started shaking in their skates.

Bernier couldn’t be asked to play in the American Hockey League because he is too young, but now, under contract, the Kings could ask the 18-year-old netminder to step in at the NHL level at any time.

“Over my dead body,” Kings’ assistant GM and former Vezina Trophy-winner Ron Hextall said with a laugh. “The best place for him to grow is at this level. “

That should get Lewiston’s fan base to breathe a bit easier – for now.

Hextall, a 13-year NHL veteran who won rookie of the year honors in 1988, finished his career with 296 victories for the Philadelphia Flyers, Quebec Nordiques and New York Islanders.

Hextall was one of the first goaltenders to regularly play the puck with his stick outside of the crease, and is one of a few goaltenders to ever score a goal in a hockey game.

On Wednesday, Oct. 25, Hextall paid the Lewiston Maineiacs a visit after spending a few days in Manchester scouting the King’s farm team, the Monarchs.

“I spent three or four days in Manchester and it was easy to scoot on up here and check on Bernier,” said Hextall. “When we drafted him, I hadn’t seen him play much and had relied on my scouts.”

“I saw him in the stands during warm-ups,” said Bernier. “But even when they are here, I just have to stay focused and play my game. He drafted me because they liked me, so I just have to continue to play the game I play.”

Hextall and the Kings haven’t been disappointed.

“He’s got a lot of ability, his athleticism, his quickness. Technically, he’s a very sound goaltender,” said Hextall. “I’ve seen him play enough to know that he’s a special kid. With all of those qualities, as long as he continues to work hard, I think he has a bright future.”

Twenty years ago, Hextall had the same, bright future, but not the same goaltending background, something he said is a big advantage to current netminders.

“The biggest difference now is that kids grow up with goaltending coaches from a young age,” said Hextall. “My first goaltending coach I had when I first played in the NHL when I was 22. These guys are further ahead technically than we were in the 80s and early 90s. They’re better at a younger age.”

With the advent of goaltending coaches came an adaptation in the keepers’ style of play, said Hextall.

“(Vladislav) Tretiak (the great Russian netminder), I think, was the first goalie to really use the butterfly, and we all looked at him like, ‘What are you doing?'” said Hextall. “Certainly since then, the Patrick Roys and everyone changed everything. It used to be a shooter’s game. Now you have to make a really good shot to beat these goaltenders.”

One of the hardest things about being on the executive side for Hextall is not being on the ice when he feels his team needs help. But he enjoys the opportunity to watch young players like Bernier develop.

As for next season, Hextall left the door open for the young goaltender to see action in L.A. – barely.

“For a 19-year-old to play, you know, you can never say never, but we’re just going to have him concentrate on this year, we’ll continue to monitor him and we’ll see where he’s at next summer,” said Hextall. “That’ not in the plans right now, but again, you never know.”

Bernier, meanwhile, now has the proverbial carrot dangling in front of him, and he knows it’s up to him if he is to ever jump far enough to catch up to it.

“You always want to go up,” said Bernier. “You want to do what you can, but we talked about it at the pro camp. He just told me to play well and have a good year and we never know for next year.”

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