SAULT STE. MARIE, Ont. - Home, sweet, home.
That's what Sault Ste. Marie, affectionately known as The Soo, is for Carolina Hurricanes Executive Vice President and General Manager Ron Francis, who returned to his hometown for an exhibition match with the Buffalo Sabres.
"It's always good to get back home. You get a chance to see family and friends," Francis said on Wednesday morning. "When you're the local kid playing in front of the local fans, they want you to do well. I enjoyed my time here. The years I spent here were extremely valuable in helping me become a good pro."
Wednesday night marked the second straight preseason match that the Hurricanes and Sabres have played in a neutral-site location, bringing a marquee event to a small-town setting.
"It's great. You're almost going back to the grassroots of the game, going into markets where a lot of these guys are from, smaller hometowns and smaller cities," Francis said. "You see the excitement in the people who come to the rink to watch the games and the excitement around town. I think our guys have enjoyed that. It's a unique experience during training camp."
It's an added bonus when that small-town setting is Francis' hometown in a building that honors his No. 10.
"This is a city that was good to me and gave me a chance to work on my career, whether it was in youth hockey or junior hockey," Francis said. "To bring an NHL game back to this market is something the town is really excited about."
The city gave something back to Francis, too, re-naming a street in his honor. The portion of Bruce St. that borders Essar Centre between Queen St. and Bay St. was christened Ron Francis Way on Wednesday evening.
"That's obviously quite an honor," Francis said. "I grew up in this market and had my idols and guys I looked up to. They named a park after Phil Esposito and a football field after Rocky Dipietro. The Soo was fortunate enough to have a female astronaut, Roberta Bondar, and they named the pavilion after her. A lot of neat things have happened for a small town, and for them to feel that I'm worthy of having a street named after me is an extreme honor."
It was an overcast evening when, at the intersection of Queen St. and Bruce St., Francis helped to unveil the blue street sign that has "Ron Francis Way" written in white letters. An emotional Francis spoke to the gathered crowd, his brother Ricky, among many others, standing near.
There's something to be said about the poetic nature of the street name. The Way Ron Francis played earned him a Hockey Hall of Fame induction, top-five spots in NHL record books and numerous accolades, including the Lady Byng Trophy (sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct) thrice, the Frank J. Selke trophy (best defensive forward) once and the King Clancy Memorial Trophy (leadership/humanitarism/community work) once. The Way Ron Francis has led the organization in his two-plus years as the general manager embodies a ground-up, develop-from-within philosophy, echoing the way the Soo was integral in his growth as a young hockey player.
Now Ron Francis Way is a literal road next to a hockey rink, of course, forever preserving his legacy in Sault Ste. Marie.