Ron Francis will become the first player from the Carolina Hurricanes to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday night. The former captain played 15 of his 23 NHL seasons with the Carolina organization, finishing second all-time with 1,249 assists and fourth in scoring (1,798), trailing only Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Gordie Howe. He is the franchise leader in games played, points, goals, assists, hat tricks and power-play goals. Francis is the only player to have his Carolina
jersey number retired.
Francis talked recently with carolinahurricanes.com writer Dave Droschak about his career and upcoming enshrinement:
You started playing hockey at the age of 3. What was it like growing up as a kid in Canada?
Francis -- On weekends I would play minor hockey on Saturday afternoons and come back home and watch Hockey Night in Canada. Sometimes during the games when there was a gap in the action my dad and I would talk about different things, the anticipation of the puck, showing me angles and distances and straight lines. We would always talk about the game.
How did you develop a pass-first, score-second attitude?
Francis – Well, my dad always emphasized both ends of the rink. Yeah, scoring goals was great, but stopping a goal was just as important as scoring one. By the same token, setting up a goal was just as important as scoring one. Those things started the foundation for my career and how I evolved from there.
You look at a lot of guys who have had great careers in the game and there is something you can say they do extremely well, whether it’s skate or handle the puck or shoot it or physical play. If you talk about me, none of those things really jump out, but I think my strength was what I learned as a kid about the game and all aspects of it and I was able to sort of work with other guys on my team and help their strengths. When I say I am here because of all the guys I played with I truly mean that. I think they all had a significant contribution to my success.
Did you dream of playing in the NHL?
Francis -- I can’t speak for all kids in Canada, but for me, I lived, breathed and ate hockey. I wanted to be in the NHL. That was my goal. A worst case scenario was I would settle for a college scholarship. In Canada, I would play ball hockey on the streets whenever I could and I would play ice hockey on a backyard rink, or a neighborhood rink, or someone else’s backyard rink -- whenever I could. That is one benefit you had in Canada that you don’t have in a market like Raleigh -- rinks in backyards to play in. When it’s 90 degrees it’s pretty hard to make ice. I remember playing ball hockey and we would travel to play other streets. We would do that all the time. I remember we would yell ‘car’ and move the nets out of the street and move them back on. One of my best friend’s wife, when we were short a player we would always grab her and throw her in the nets. She still ribs me about us making her play goaltender.
As a kid I always dreamed that someday I would be able to play in the NHL. As an extension of that dream you wanted to win the Stanley Cup. At least for me, it never continued to making the Hall of Fame. Fortunately for me I made it to the NHL, won two Stanley Cups and now the Hall of Fame is just like icing on the cake.
Your father worked in a mill for four decades and had to support his mother and two sisters at an early age. What kind of influence did he have on your career?
Francis – He used a swear world twice that I can remember in my entire life. The one time was when there used to be family tours of the mill, it was like come-to-work-day with your dad. There was part of the process of making the steel where the rail would come out and it was hot and steamy, and it came down this line and there is a saw that cuts the rails the lengths that they need. As this is going on there is a bridge that takes you over top of it. As the tour is going through the mill we came on top of the bridge and may dad make a point of stopping with me and let everybody get ahead. It was loud and it was hot and he said, ‘Do you see all of this? Make sure you go to school.’ And not in those certain words. There was something else thrown in there. From that point it was pretty clear that he wanted me to go to school or to do something different than work in the mill.
What was it like winning two Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh?
Francis -- It was one of the greatest teams ever. There are still guys out there playing from that team like Mark Recchi and Jaromir Jagr who are still playing who have strong cases for the Hall of Fame. Ulf Samuelsson and I were roommates for 12 years and after games in Hartford we would talk about whether we thought we could win the Cup each year. Each year we said ‘No’ but if we made the right moves maybe we could. We played three games in Pittsburgh and I sat there and looked at him and said, ‘Remember the discussions we used to have about winning the Stanley Cup? This team could win it. I really do think so. We have all the pieces. We’ve got a chance.’
I also kind of laugh now because one of the first conversations I had when I got to Pittsburgh was with coach Bob Johnson. He called me into his office and was as serious as could be and said, ‘You do know we’ve got a player here by the name of Mario Lemieux. He’s our No 1 center man. That doesn’t mean you can’t help us.’ I told him I was more than comfortable helping out in any way I can, that I just wanted to win. I thought it was kind of humorous that he wanted to have that conversation. I thought it was great, but I understood where we were. When you look back on that team, Jagr was one of our third-line guys. Even though he was 18 years old, that’s a pretty deep and talented hockey team. Those teams were special.
Why did you pick Carolina when you became a free agent?
Francis -- I said it at the press conference when I came to Carolina and I’m certainly not going to change my story now. I hate when guys sign a huge contract and they say money is not an issue. I am not going to lie to you. Money had something to do with it. At the time, there were three teams that were pretty serious, and Carolina was the better of the three. But at the end another team came in and matched the number, but this is where I wanted to be. I did my homework prior to coming to Raleigh, checking on the website the area as far as a place to live, the school system, the climate. I talked to people who lived here. And I always liked Jim Rutherford. It was a good place to raise my kids.
It was also good for me to come to a so-called non-hockey market and have the challenge of trying to sell our game. I liked that environment – and they were paying well, too. When I put everything in place it was the thing that made the most sense for me and my family.
What were the early years in North Carolina like for you and the team?
Francis -- I understood that selling the game was part of the reason they were interested in me, they wanted someone who had been in the game for a while and was a so-called name player. I’ll be honest with you, it was a lot tougher than I thought it was going to be that first year, the whole Greensboro commute. But the one thing this organization has always done that I’ve always been impressed with since I’ve been here is they just don’t go out and grab anybody. They like to do their homework to make sure they are quality individuals with good character who feel comfortable living in this community and being a part of the community. That, more than anything else, will help you sell the game and your team. When people come in contact with the employees and players, whether it’s at a school function or the hockey rink or a charity function, they want good guys. It creates that interest that maybe I want to go see them play, maybe I want to go check this thing out.
You got off to a slow start here. How frustrating was that stage of your career?
Francis -- I had 12 points after 40 games. I was ready to jump off the ledge. I remember having one conversation with Jim Rutherford that kind of put me at ease. He said it’s not that you’re not playing well, it’s that we haven’t figured you out yet. What saved me in that season was coach Paul Maurice put together a line of me, Gary Roberts on the right wing and Jeff O’Neill on the left. It was a life saver for me. But there is that process where you’re trying to learn the team and they’re trying to learn you. Someone like myself, my game is dependant on others guys scoring goals and as a playmaker. It was frustrating. There was pressure because the organization signed you for a large amount of money and your responsibility is to give them value. It was my obligation to do that, so when the results weren’t there it’s something I took to heart.
How special was the Cup run of 2002?
Francis -- I won two Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh and I know we didn’t win the Cup in 2002, but I can honestly say I’m every bit as proud of that team that didn’t win as I am of the teams that won the Cup. Really, if you looked at the make-up of our club nobody gave us a shot to get out of the first round, let alone the second round, or third round or Stanley Cup finals. It truly is an example of how much our sport is a team sport and a group of guys in a locker room pulling for each other and to be able to take on whatever role we needed them to take on, whether it was shot-blocking or checking people. To have that attitude -- then great things are possible.
We were out there before the games laughing and joking and looking into the stands and seeing all the people, the pure volume of noise to where you’re trying to take a face-off and you’re giving directions to a defenseman who is 10 feet away and you have to scream at the top of your voice because he can’t hear you. If we win Game 3, the triple overtime game, I still think we had a very good shot at winning the Cup. We would have been up 2-1 and in our building. I remember having a conversation with Brett Hull a couple of years after that and he said ‘You know what, that Game 3. …’ And I said, ‘Don’t even bring it up.’ Obviously he had the same mentality that I had and we were on the same page. Still, I’m extremely proud of what that team accomplished. We kind of just found our way, and then as things started snowballing we were able to sort of just play.
I remember in Pittsburgh when we won the conference championship and celebrating with it. We did the same thing in 2002. It was the thing to do because we had come so far. Now, it’s taboo and guys don’t want to touch it. In baseball, they celebrate everything. There is something to be said for that. This job is so hard and there is so much pressure on you to win and accomplish, to get to that point, when we won in the first round we were excited about it and we wanted to celebrate it. That didn’t take away from the fact that we knew we still had work to do. We knew we had to get back to business.
How did you know it was time to hang up the skates for good?
Francis – My wife Mary Lou always told me it was my decision and you have to make that. Ultimately each player kind of knows when it is there. For me, at 38, 39 and 40 years old, you understand you have to go year-to-year. In my mind, when I signed my last two-year contract I knew that was pretty much going to be it for me. I still loved the games, but the offseason stuff, getting on the bike and riding for six or seven days a week and lifting weights, that part I was getting tired of. Going into the last season I kind of knew, and I had Easton make me 250 special sticks that were numbered and they had red paint on them, and for every period I played in my last year I gave them to people who were important in my career. They were signed and numbered. I also had jerseys made up for my last game for my kids. I knew at that point I was done.
What was it like the night the Hurricanes retired your No. 10 jersey?
Francis -- I was scared to death going into it for a lot of reasons. One, I’m not one who likes to be the center of attention or the focal point. I had no choice that night. To have my boys skate with me and have my daughter on the ice was great. For whatever reason that night I walked into the rink and a weird calm came over me. Peter Laviolette and the team offered me to dress with the guys in the locker room before the game, which was kind of a nice touch. I walked into the locker room and all the jerseys had No. 10 and Francis on them. Over all the lockers the name Francis was there -- little things that people didn’t see. So, when I stepped on the ice I was kind of calm. For me, it was great to take that time and kind of kick back and enjoy it. It was really done first class. It couldn’t have been better. It was something that was very special.
In your eyes, why are you going into the Hockey Hall of Fame?
Francis – It goes back to the way I played the game. My strongest asset was that I thought the game very well. When I say that, I’m talking about anticipation, having hockey sense, but also being able to be a playmaker first and a shooter second. I played with guys who were goal scorers and were able to finish. I was able to create opportunities for them to get the puck to where they could shoot it and have that chance to score. When I did that I benefited from that success.
One of the things I’m most proud of is the consecutive 50-point seasons. That meant I came to work every day, much like watching my dad not miss any days of work at the mill. I’m sure there were days when he didn’t want to be there, yet he did it. I played 23 seasons and never once did I play 82 perfect games in a season. But my goal was always to play 80 great games, and then the two that I didn’t have it, to be play solid defensively and not hurt my team. I tried to use the talents I had to the best of my ability. I was fortunate to play with a lot of great plays who complimented the skills that I had. Add everything up and that’s why we’re having this conversation.
David Droschak is the former sports editor for the North Carolina bureaus of the Associated Press, the largest news-gathering organization in the world. In 2003, Droschak was named the North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year. The only writer in the Triangle to have covered the Carolina Hurricanes every season since the organization moved to North Carolina, he currently is a principal in the Raleigh-based public relations firm Hughes-Droschak Communications.