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Francis quietly built a monumental Hall of Fame career

Tuesday, 11.06.2007 / 10:31 AM / Hall of Fame

By Adam Kimelman - NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

Quiet superstar Ron Francis racked up the fourth most points in NHL history over a 1,731 game NHL career.
Name the NHL’s all-time leading scorers. The first three on the list are pretty easy: Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Mark Messier.

Now, guess who No. 4 is.

Phil Esposito? Nope.

Mario Lemieux? Not quite.

Rocket Richard?

Guy Lafleur?

Jean Beliveau?

Three strikes, you’re out.

No, it’s Ron Francis (VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS | PODCAST), probably the quietest superstar who ever has played the game.

In 1,731 NHL games, Francis finished with 1,798 points, including 549 goals.

On Nov. 12, he’ll join Gretzky and take his rightful place among the legends of the game when he is enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

"As a kid growing up in the Soo (Sault Ste. Marie), I never dreamed of making it to the NHL and never imagined holding the Stanley Cup above my head," Francis said. "I wouldn't be here without a lot of help from my teammates. A lot of great players made this possible and I want to thank the guys I played with over my career."

Those players included teammates in stops with Hartford, Pittsburgh, Carolina and Toronto. He served as captain with the Whalers, Penguins and Hurricanes. He was the second-line center behind Mario Lemieux in Pittsburgh for a pair of Stanley Cup winners, and captained the Hurricanes to the 2002 Cup Final.

Francis was taken fourth overall in the 1981 draft by the Whalers. While his pedigree from junior hockey was solid, he wasn’t the club’s first choice. Hartford management let it slip that they wanted Bobby Carpenter. The Capitals snatched Carpenter at No. 3, leaving the Whalers with a fortuitous Plan B.

He posted 25 goals and 68 points in just 59 games as an 18-year-old rookie, a harbinger of successful seasons to come.

Francis was just 22 when he was named Whalers captain midway through the 1984-85 season.

“It’s an honor any time you’re placed in that position,” Francis told NHL.com. “To say I was great in that position at that age is a lie. There are mistakes you make, things you need to learn, things you need to gain through experience.”

Having that extra leadership burden, though, never stunted his game. In nine full seasons with the Whalers, Francis was the model of consistency, averaging 27 goals and 83 points per season.

Midway through the 1990-91 season, coach Rick Ley stripped Francis of his captaincy, and not long after, on March 4, 1991, he was dealt to the Penguins, along with Grant Jennings and Ulf Samuelsson, for John Cullen, Jeff Parker and Zarley Zalapski.

“I think in the 1985-86 era, we were getting close in Hartford, but then we started going the other way and dismantling and that was disappointing,” he said. “Then I get traded to Pittsburgh and three months later I have the Stanley Cup. I’m a firm believer in that everything happens for a reason. Fortunately for me, as tough as the trade was at the time, it allowed me to win two Stanley Cups.”

What made the move so tough at the time was Francis’ wife, Mary Lou, had given birth to the couple’s first child just four weeks earlier. The three of them lived in a hotel efficiency for three months while Ron and the Penguins made their memorable Cup run.

Riding shotgun to Lemieux, Francis provided the missing piece in a puzzle that became a pair of Stanley Cup championship teams. He had 17 points in 24 games in the 1991 playoffs as he hoisted his first Cup. In 1992, he led all playoff performers with 19 assists, and finished with 27 points in 21 games as he became a back-to-back champion.

“Ronnie was a key part of those two Stanley Cup championships in Pittsburgh and was a major factor in our organization for eight years,” Lemieux told NHL.com. “It wasn’t only his skill, which was tremendous, but also his leadership, his work ethic and his character. He was an excellent player at both ends of the rink and a great faceoff man. He helped turn the Penguins into champions.”

And those championships last forever.

“I remember going over the boards at the old Met Center (in Minnesota), and Paul Coffey saying this is the greatest day of your life because they can never take it away from you.”

Francis said he was able to enjoy the second Cup more because he had more ownership in the team from being there all season.

“I think the first one was such a whirlwind,” Francis said. “I could enjoy the second Cup a little bit more because I was more of a part of it. We lost Mario and Joey Mullen in the second round and we were able to maintain, and Mario came back and scored the goal that won the Cup. There’s more personal satisfaction in the second Cup.”

In eight seasons in Pittsburgh, Francis cracked the 100-point plateau twice. He even supplanted Lemieux as Penguins captain when Mario took the 1994-95 season off to rest and recuperate from a number of injuries. He gave the captaincy back to Lemieux the following season, but continued to lead on and off the ice. When Lemieux retired in 1997, Francis again was the choice as captain.

He served with distinction for another season, but when he became a free agent for the first time in 1998, he went back home -- sort of. Since leaving Hartford, the Whalers had moved south to North Carolina and became the Carolina Hurricanes. They were in their second season in Raleigh when he signed on.

“That was part of the interest in my wanting to come to Carolina,” he said. “To teach the game and sell the game in a non-hockey market. I think this organization has done a real good job bringing in guys who are character guys who care about not only the success of the organ on the ice, but in the community. I think that more than anything has helped solidify our situation in Raleigh. I learned from Day 1 the fans here are very passionate about their sports and it was just a matter of getting them passionate in our sport.”

And for those playing with Francis, “The Triangle” could not have had a better teacher.

“He made the team a household name,” said Sami Kapanen, who played with Francis for five years with the Hurricanes. “He was great for fans to learn the game from. He was great with the media, working with them. He was so great for the whole organization.”

Francis averaged 27 goals and 83 points during his nine seasons with the Hartford Whalers.

Francis spent six seasons with the Hurricanes, including five as their captain. Topping his tenure was the franchise’s first berth in the Cup Final. Francis was both captain and star, finishing with 27 goals, 50 assists and 77 points in the regular season, and then added a team-best 16 points in the playoffs.

His efforts that season earned him his third Lady Byng Trophy (he also won it in 1995 and 1998) as well as the King Clancy Memorial Trophy, for his leadership and contributions on and off the ice.

“Being a star player, he made you feel comfortable being with him, playing with him,” said Kapanen.

He finished his career with the Toronto Maple Leafs, joining them at the trade deadline in 2004. When the lockout ended, so did Francis’ 23-year journey through the NHL. He officially announced his retirement from the game Sept. 13, 2005. He currently works in the Hurricanes’ front office as the club’s assistant general manager and director of player development.

Francis is most remembered for his quiet consistency, something that rubbed off on a number of players.

“He was so consistent every night,” said Kapanen. “Some nights he ended up not getting points, but he made sure he was doing other impact things as well. That’s something I learned over the years - you don’t have to score points to help the team, and that’s made me a better player that way.”

“I think in sports in general, it’s the guy who catches the touchdown or sinks the putt … that gets the notoriety or publicity,” said Francis, “but in a team sport like hockey, it’s important to have everybody contributing. I learned that more than anything in Pittsburgh. We had our superstars, like Mario and Jagr and Rick Tocchet and Coffey, but we also had our role players that without their input … we don’t win Stanley Cup. That more than anything opened my eyes that there are things you can do offensively and defensively. The main thing is to be solid in all areas of the ice. If you can prevent a goal, it’s just as important as scoring one. I took a lot of pride in different areas of my game.”

And it’s just not Kapanen who was influenced by Francis, and vice versa. All those people who helped Francis during his career will pop back into his head when he stands at the podium in Toronto.

“If you played one or two years, it’s probably easier to give that speech,” he said. “When you play 23 years, and there’re so many different people and so many different players that you met along the journey that in their own way, shape or form impacted your career and your life on and off the ice. I don’t know if there’s enough time to thank everybody. There are so many people I’ve met along the journey who are significant figures in my life. I’m looking forward to having that night. I think its going to be a culmination not just of my career, but of the contributions of so many others who helped me reach this position.”

 

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It's tough to realize, maybe, but it's something I'm happy and proud [of]. I've been fortunate to play with good teams too.

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