PHILADELPHIA -- The uniforms have changed, from Flyers orange, black and white to the pale blue, white and red of the Quebec Nordiques.
But Flyers fans won't have any difficulty recognizing Ron Hextall, Mike Ricci and Steve Duchesne tonight when the Nordiques visit the Spectrum for the first time during the regular season since The Trade.
Hextall will be the masked man carrying a big stick and protecting Quebec's net. Ricci will be the pesky center, moving the puck and tirelessly working the corners. Duchesne will be the defenseman with creative moves in the offensive zone. (Kerry Huffman, also shipped to Quebec last June for Eric Lindros, has a shoulder injury and won't play.)
Since Hextall was a Flyer the longest (six seasons), he'll receive the most attention from fans. During his first three seasons, Hextall was a local folk hero as he helped lead the Flyers to the Stanley Cup finals twice. The fans loved his aggressiveness and his innovative puck-handling.
Hextall's last three seasons, however, were downers, riddled with injuries, a contract dispute and three consecutive playoff absences.
Although his name was prominently mentioned in a package to obtain Lindros, when the monumental deal was announced, Hextall acted reluctant to pack up his family and point his dog sled northward.
Funny how a new contract and a winning team can change a guy's mind.
"It was getting tough for me in Philadelphia," Hextall said this week from Quebec City. "The one thing I didn't realize was, mentally, the losing was starting to wear on me. I didn't realize it until we started winning here and I got the [winning] feeling back.
"Last year, when I let a bad goal in, we always lost the game. Here, if I let a bad goal in, no big deal; we're still going to win.
"I don't get down on myself every night like maybe I did in Philadelphia last year. I felt I let my teammates down and it started snowballing. I wasn't real confident. The team wasn't real confident."
Hextall, Ricci and Duchesne are major reasons the Nordiques have abruptly gone from losers that NHL teams wiped their skates on to contenders.
The Nords are second in the Adams Divison (13-8-5).
Hextall has a 12-4-3 record and 3.28 goals-against average. With nine goals and 17 assists in 21 games, Ricci is Quebec's fifth-leading scorer. Duchesne (eight goals and 24 assists in 26 games) is third in Nordiques scoring.
"When I got traded here," Hextall said, "friends said, 'You're not going, are you?' I never thought I wouldn't come here. I thought, at my age (28), it's a great opportunity to have a chance to win."
Before he went, though, he had his contract reworked.
"I'm going to have enough money when I'm done," Hextall said. "Winning the Stanley Cup is my main goal. The Flyers are headed in the right direction, but I think our rebuilding is ahead of theirs."
Hextall and Ricci say they have no bitterness toward the Flyers' organization for trading them.
Ricci, the Flyers' top amateur draft choice in 1990, was upset at the timing of the trade, because his father had died just two weeks earlier. "I'm happy where I am now," Ricci said. "This is a nice place to play hockey."
Said Hextall: "I speak a little French. It's kind of neat to be in a different culture and see how people live."
To no one's surprise, Hextall has become immensely popular in Quebec. He has received both Nordiques defensive player of the month awards.
"I told [the fans] I guess I'll have to score a goal to get the other
[offensive player] award," he said.