The National Hockey League arrived in North Carolina in 1997. Ron Francis
, one of hockey’s all-time greats, followed a year later, becoming a pioneer for the sport in the state.
Now, Francis, who serves as the vice president of hockey operations for the Carolina Hurricanes, is a pioneer for the sport in the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, as he becomes the first hockey player to be inducted.
Francis, 50, is among 10 other inductees enshrined in the Hall of Fame’s 50th annual class.
“The Carolina Hurricanes mean so much to the state of North Carolina and our sports history,” said Don Fish, the executive director of the Hall of Fame. “Ron is a part of that heritage. It was time to include a champion. Ron Francis changed the face of hockey in this state.”
“It’s a tremendous honor and not one I take lightly,” Francis said. “This is a pretty impressive sports hall of fame, and to go in their 50th year is great.”
Stated simply, the mission of the Hall of Fame, which inducted its first class in 1963, is to “celebrate excellence and extraordinary achievement in athletics.” Francis certainly fits the bill.
In a storied career spanning 23 seasons with Hartford, Pittsburgh, Carolina and Toronto, Francis scored 549 goals and tallied 1,249 assists. His 1,798 points rank fourth in NHL history behind only Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Gordie Howe. Francis, a two-time Stanley Cup Champion with Pittsburgh (1991, 1992), spent 16 of his 23 seasons with the Hartford/Carolina franchise, establishing team records in games played (1,186), goals (382), assists (793) and points (1,175).
On Jan. 28, 2006, the Hurricanes retired Francis’ No. 10 jersey, and in 2007, Francis was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
While his contributions to and accomplishments within the game of hockey itself are noteworthy and commendable, his commitment to the Hurricanes and growing hockey in the Triangle is perhaps unmatched.
“I tell people that it seems like yesterday when it was 1998 and I signed here,” he said. “What intrigued me about the whole process was moving to a new market and the opportunity to sell our game. It’s our game that I firmly believe in, and it’s a tremendous sport. It’s been great to me in my life, and it was an opportunity for me to come back, give a little back to the game and promote it. Here we are 15 later, and I’m going into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame as a hockey player.”
Before Wednesday’s press conference, amidst a myriad of basketball and football greats, Francis was talking with Mildred Southern, who is heralded as the matriarch of tennis in the South. Southern said she was surprised to be inducted because she was a tennis player.
“I said, ‘Mildred, how do you think I feel? I played hockey,’” Francis joked.
In many ways, Francis could be considered the patriarch of hockey in North Carolina.
“He helped build an incredible foundation, and although he wasn’t there for the Stanley Cup, it was a Stanley Cup victory because of what he had done previously,” Fish said. “Being the first hockey player inducted is indeed an honor and well-deserved.”
Hockey was first formally recognized by the Hall of Fame in 2012, when the Hurricanes’ 2006 Stanley Cup Championship was honored as one of the Great Moments in state sports history.
And there will be more accolades to come. Likely soon to join Francis and the 299 others in the Hall of Fame will be Rod Brind’Amour and Jim Rutherford, who have already been nominated and considered as inductees.
“To be honored and have the opportunity to step in is tremendous, and I know I won’t be the last,” Francis said. “It’s great to be the first part of the team heading into the hall.”
As Francis paved the way for hockey in North Carolina, he has so paved the way for the sport in the Hall of Fame.
“We’ll see, over the course of history, a continual flow of hockey players that will be included in the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame,” Fish said.
“I think it’s only going to get better and better,” Francis said about the future of the sport in the state. “You see it in the youth hockey numbers. You see it in the level of teams that our community is putting on the ice. They go to different national tournaments now, and they’re not getting beat by six or eight or 10 goals; they’re competing, and they’re winning. I think that bodes well for the future of our sport going forward.”
Sport in the state of North Carolina has a rich and celebrated heritage. Francis had a foundational role in hockey’s success in the state shortly following the turn of the millennium. One day, perhaps hockey will be reminisced in the Hall of Fame with the fondness of other sports.
“Today is the first step, and it’s a good step for the organization and our sport,” Francis said.
“It’s a sport that is relatively new in time but is so popular,” Fish said. “No question about it: hockey will be recognized forever in this state.”