A 19-year-old Will had accompanied his dad, Jeff, and their extended family to their cabin, a quiet spot located near the U.S. and Canadian border in rural northern Minnesota. Normally one of his favorite places to be, full of laughs and memories with siblings and cousins, this time something didn't feel quite right. Simply put, Will just didn't have his usual energy or spark.
At first, he and Jeff brushed it off. Maybe he was still tired from a long year with the USHL's Cedar Rapids Roughriders and a subsequent recovery from a season-ending knee injury. Or maybe he was fighting a spring cold that he just couldn't shake. Surely, Will, a strong, healthy hockey player selected by the Ducks in the NHL Draft a year prior, would bounce back without a problem.
But a couple days later, things still weren't improving. The outgoing and friendly kid who was always on the go suddenly couldn't get out of bed. So when Will was suspiciously absent from a family gathering around the dining table while taking an extended afternoon nap, Jeff decided he had seen enough. Maybe, he thought, we should play this one cautiously and get the kid checked out.
That night, March 13, Will went in for testing, which revealed his white blood cell count was dangerously high. Within hours, doctors confirmed a worst-case scenario: Will had Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL).
"He was just laying down and staring at his feet," Jeff remembered. "He just kept looking down. You hear that and you don't even know what to do. You don't know how to process it."
ALL, despite lacking a clear cause, is the most common form of cancer in children. According to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, it targets specific cells in the immune system, leaving the child particularly prone to other illnesses. Most make a full recovery from the disease, but only after enduring a rigorous chemotherapy treatment regimen.
So while people all over the world were reacting to the outbreak of COVID-19, Francis began his own complicated medical journey. He received an immediate blood transfusion and then loaded into the back of an ambulance alongside his old man for a four-hour drive to Minneapolis, where he quickly started his first round of chemo.
As much as he would probably like not to, Will remembers the lean days vividly, the seemingly endless treatments, the chemo complications, the nausea and the struggle.
It would have been easy, normal even, for him to become sullen or angry, wondering why some of the most exciting times of his life were being suddenly halted over something completely out of his control. He could have lashed out at those around him, searching for an answer as to why it had to be him in the hospital bed. Or he could have questioned himself, wondering if he would ever get back to the ice to chase his dream of playing in the NHL.
But as those who know him well will tell you, Will never did any of that. Instead, he consistently displayed an infectious positivity and an incredible sense of courage.
"There were a lot of question marks and uncertainty but with the support of my family, friends and faith, we were able to go about it the right way," the ever-humble Francis said. "Anything is possible that you put your mind to . I think I just used it to grow mentally. I grew as a person. There are some tough times, but you get through those obstacles with time and being consistent in your work ethic. That's how you achieve what you want."
That remarkable maturity beyond his years, as Jeff now fondly remembers, sometimes made it feel like the patient was supporting his parents through the process, instead of the other way around.
"He's just so emotionally and mentally strong," the proud father said. "And he's even stronger now as a result. I don't know what could knock him down.
"He's more mature than I am this point," he added with a hearty laugh.
For Will, one of the guiding principles on that difficult medical journey was the unwavering belief that he would return to the ice. He recalls immediately asking when he could skate again after hearing the news of his diagnosis, and the disappointment he felt when learning it would take months.
But what he didn't expect was the outpouring of support he would receive from those around the game, people he didn't even know, including Hockey Hall-of-Famers Bobby Orr, Scott Niedermayer, and the late Guy LaFleur, and Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf.
"It was something that was just so special," Will said, beaming with obvious gratitude. "It's just such a tight-knit community and so unique in that way. I heard from so many different people and had such great supporters. I think it just helped me tremendously."
Eight-hundred and forty-eight days after that disappointing diagnosis, Francis completed his final chemo treatment, ringing the symbolic bell on his way out of Fairview Masonic Children's Hospital.
For the rest of the day, somewhat poetically spent with family enjoying the Minnesota weather, Will was on cloud nine. The lethargy and grogginess of years prior were gone, freeing his path to return to the game he loved.
"Typically after treatment, he would want to go home and get some rest," Jeff said. "You know, he'd go in, take it and grind through it. That day, I think he was smiling until 10 o'clock at night. We went out on the lake with family and he jumped right in the water. It was just one of the best days you could ask for."
After taking a moment to bask in the glow of good health, and thanks to a little bit of fortunate time, Francis had little doubt about what was next - he was making the trip to Orange County to join his teammates at Ducks Development Camp, held last week at Great Park Ice.
Selected by Anaheim in the sixth round of the 2020 draft, Francis is a physical, 6-foot-5 defenseman who excels in his own zone and whose affable personality off the ice gives way to his fierce competitive nature on it, as evidenced by 131 penalty minutes in 59 USHL games during the 2018-19 season.
Francis stood out for that drive and determination throughout camp week, a natural role model pushing those around him to be at their best, something that was hardly a surprise to Ducks head coach Dallas Eakins.
"Adversity affects us all in different ways and I think adversity has certainly given him the mindset that he can achieve anything," Eakins said. "We use all these words like discipline and commitment, but those words mean something a whole lot different to him because it wasn't a hockey game or a career, it was his life."
Eakins recognized the Minnesota-Duluth bound defenseman at the camp's rookie dinner at Brewery X Biergarten inside Honda Center, taking the time to tell Will's story to coaches and teammates in a now-viral video.
"He had to be disciplined and he had to fight," Eakins told the group. "When we think about having a hard day, Will Francis knows what a hard day is."
"It just shows how much of a caring person he is and how genuine he is," Francis said of Eakins. "For a head coach to do that at a development camp is pretty special and I don't think it's anything I'll ever forget."
Eakins was quick to add, though, that the defenseman's presence at Development Camp was not simply a feel-good story. He was there because he earned the right to be and because the Ducks expect him to continue his ascent to the game's highest level.
"He could have come in here with the attitude of 'Hey, I'm just happy to be here', which would have been totally understandable," Eakins said. "But he came in with some obvious resilience and drive. Instead, he said 'Hey, I'm going to get better today.'
"I will say, I was amazed at how fit he was. I was amazed at how strong he was. What stood out to me in his game was his drive on the ice. He was going full tilt out there every time. He's a big guy and he can really shoot the puck, too."
Francis now heads back to his home state for the fall, eager to earn a full-time spot on the UMD blueline, but also focused on paying it forward to those who will find themselves in the same shoes he once wore.
And he'll do so with a whole lot of believers watching closely from afar, especially Eakins.
"I would not be the one," Eakins said, "betting against that young man."