They don’t call him Ronnie Franchise for nothing.
Ron Francis was drafted by Hartford fourth overall in the 1981 NHL Entry Draft. He played with the Whalers for 10 seasons and the Hurricanes for six, holding a number of franchise records in games played (1,186), points (1,175), goals (382) and assists (793).
Since retirement, he’s worn a number of hats within the organization’s front office. He began as the director of player development before being promoted to assistant general manager. A year later, he juggled an associate head coaching role with his front office title of director of player personnel. He landed back in the front office in 2011 as director of hockey operations and was recently named the vice president of hockey operations.
Not to mention, his No. 10 hangs in the rafters of PNC Arena, and he’s one of 14 local-based minority investors in the team.
The Ronnie Franchise moniker is rather fitting.
“I’ve been pretty fortunate since I retired that Jim has let me learn the different facets of the business,” Francis said. “It’s something that I like doing and keeps me busy, so I enjoy it.”
Having experienced both roles, Francis will be the first to admit that he prefers the management side of a hockey organization more than the coaching aspect.
“I like the assignment of going out, trying to find talent, analyzing it and trying to fit the pieces together,” he said. “I also think working with Jim (Rutherford) and Jason (Karmanos) in that regard is more of what I like to do than being downstairs on the ice coaching everyday.”
Francis’ tenure behind the Hurricanes’ bench began on Dec. 3, 2008, when he came on board with Paul Maurice’s second stint as head coach. Keeping one foot in the front office as director of player personnel, Francis assumed the role of associate head coach until the conclusion of the 2010-11 season, something he called a “great experience.”
“You understand firsthand what coaches go through on a daily basis – all the issues they deal with, the prep work they’re doing, and you gain a respect for how tough their job is,” he said. “It’s a little easier to deal with them when you’ve had that experience yourself.”
The captain of the Hartford Whalers and drafted by the organization 10 years earlier, Francis was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins on March 4, 1991. Defensemen Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings were packaged with Francis in exchange for forwards John Cullen and Jeff Parker and defenseman Zarley Zalapski.
Francis and the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 1991 and 1992. The Whalers were never the same.
“I don’t know if you’re ever prepared for a trade,” Francis said. “It hurts in the sense that I watched my dad work at the steel mill in town for 41 years. Every day he went to work and was loyal to what he did. These are the values that my parents instilled in me: you’re employed by someone, you work hard for them and give them everything you got.
“When you get traded, it’s almost like you weren’t good enough or it wasn’t enough, so it’s a little bit of a blow, but it was probably magnified somewhat by the fact that my wife and I had our first child a few weeks earlier. It was an exciting time, and then all of a sudden your world gets turned upside down. From a hockey standpoint, I got to go play on a team that was extremely talented and accomplished what every kid wants to do, and that’s win the Stanley Cup. In the end, it worked out pretty good.”
At the conclusion of the 1997-98 season, Francis was 35 and a free agent. Conversations with Pittsburgh management indicated they were ready to move on, so Francis started exploring his options.
He began researching potential destinations on the Internet. Though the Hurricanes were still a year away from opening their new arena in Raleigh, the Triangle caught his eye: Research Triangle Park, great universities, top medical facilities, a great quality of life for raising a family, being two hours from the beach and three hours from the mountains.
It’s the sales pitch of the area he can now give to players today having once discovered it himself.
“It just made a lot of sense to me,” Francis said. “Certainly money had something to do with it, but their offer was competitive, and when you factor in everything else that went along with the offer, to me, this was the place to go.”
Francis never stopped loving playing the game.
At age 39, Francis re-signed with Carolina for two years. He knew it would likely be his last contract, and heading into the 2003-04 season, he was preparing for his swan song.
“I kind of felt going into my last year that that was it. I still loved playing the actual games themselves. But for me, there are a lot of other things that go into it,” he said. “It was more the wait time or down time that was getting to me. I just felt like it was maybe time for me to get on and do something else. But right to the end, I never had a problem getting up to play a game. I always loved to play.”
He had Easton produce 250 special sticks to be used throughout his final season. His plan was to then give them – broken ones aside – to people he met along the journey. He still has a few to this day.
“I knew it was going to be my last year, and I thought it was a neat thing. As you travel around to different cities, I had different friends in different markets. I could use a stick that night and give it to them,” he said. “I also had jerseys made up at the end of the season that were embroidered inside the jerseys to each of my kids, so I wore them at the end.”
In an effort to capture his third Stanley Cup, Francis was traded to Toronto on the trade deadline in 2004. Following the work stoppage, he retired on Sept. 14, 2005 at age 42.
In the year between retirement and coming back to work for the Hurricanes, Francis took his first real break from the sport he had played since he was a three-year-old in Saul Ste. Marie, Ont.
“I basically just took some time to myself and got away from it. I always said when I retired, I wanted to have some time to relax,” he said. “It was a chance for me to get away, relax and unwind a little bit.”
In his 23-year NHL career with Hartford, Pittsburgh, Carolina and Toronto, Francis played in 1,731 regular-season games, ranking third all-time behind only Gordie Howe and Mark Messier. He accumulated 549 goals and 1,249 assists (1,798 points) to rank him fourth on the all-time league points list and second only to Wayne Gretzky on the all-time league assists list.
No active player is remotely close to eclipsing Francis in any of these categories, but he knows that could change.
“Records are made to be broken,” he said. “I feel very fortunate that I was able to play a very long time, and through the longevity, it gave me an opportunity to do that.
“Numbers are great, but you don’t accomplish those numbers without getting to play with a lot of great players both on the ice and in meeting a lot of great people through this game. I think I’ve been blessed in both regards. As a guy who thought pass first, shot second, I got to play with a lot of great goal-scorers. I made a lot of great friends over the years, and played with a lot of great teammates. Hopefully they feel good about what my numbers say because they all contributed to them in their own special way.”
With the career Francis recorded, it was no surprise that on Nov. 12, 2007, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame alongside Mark Messier, Al MacInnis and Scott Stevens.
“To get a call from the Hall, you think of the thousands and thousands of players that have played this game and how few are in the Hockey Hall of Fame. It’s just an incredible honor,” Francis said.
Nearly two years prior, the Hurricanes retired Francis’ No. 10. Every Canes player wore a Francis jersey in warm-ups, and a patch commemorated the night on the game jerseys. In a stirring pregame ceremony, Francis skated around in full Hurricanes garb one last time before watching his jersey make the voyage into the rafters, his family by his side.
“I thought the entire night was top-notch. There wasn’t a stone they left unturned from how they treated not only me and my family but friends that came to town,” Francis said. “I thought it was neat while we were skating around the ice – you can’t hear because people are clapping and stuff – I look back at my boys, and my one son looks up and says, ‘Dad, this is so awesome!’ and gave me the fist-bump.
“It was a great night that my entire family was very appreciative of and we’ll never forget.”
If you ask Francis to recall these moments, he remains humble. The numbers and the awards, he said, are not what he dreamed of when he imagined a career in the NHL.
“You grow up, and you have dreams of what you want to accomplish. For a lot of us in Canada, your dream is to play in the National Hockey League,” he said. “That’s really what mine was – I wanted to play in the National Hockey League. And I was hoping at some point I’d be fortunate enough to win a Stanley Cup. Those are the goals you set. All the accolades that come later, you don’t dream about, you don’t hope about, it just happens.”
Hockey in North Carolina
While the Hurricanes permanent home, the then-Raleigh Entertainment and Sports Arena, was being built in Raleigh, they played two seasons in the Greensboro Coliseum, a building occupied by the ECHL’s Greensboro Monarchs (and then the AHL’s Carolina Monarchs) for seven years prior.
As a sport, hockey wasn’t entirely unfamiliar in the state, but professionally, it was far from being a staple.
Francis signed with Carolina a year into their two-year Greensboro term. As did others on the team, Francis and his family purchased a house in Raleigh, making the constant trip to and from Greensboro.
“It was an interesting challenge because it wasn’t a pure hockey market,” Francis said. “The challenge was to try to sell our game in a market that was a non-hockey market and get people interested. I think this franchise has done a good job of that.”
A trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2002, hosting the NHL Entry Draft in 2004, a Stanley Cup championship in 2006, a deep run to the Eastern Conference Final in 2009 and hosting All-Star Weekend in 2011 have certainly galvanized the success of the franchise in the Triangle. Couple that with the passionate fan base, a fan-friendly game atmosphere and players that love playing in the area, and it’s no surprise that the Hurricanes have become an integral part of the rich sports fabric in North Carolina.
“It didn’t take me very long to realize one thing about this market: it has very passionate sports fans. Whether they rooted for NC State or UNC or Duke or any other university in there area, they are extremely passionate about sports teams,” Francis said. “For us, it was great to bring such passionate fans to our arena. I always felt that if we could get people in our rink for 2-3 games to watch it live, we could get them hooked.”
Hand-in-hand with the rise of professional hockey has been the growth of youth hockey. Though Francis’ two sons missed the popularity spike in the state, Michael participated in the Canes Conditioning Camp in June.
“In general, the volume of kids that are now coming in to play is just great,” Francis said. “I think the Raleigh Youth Hockey Association does a great job with their programs here in the market as far as learn-to-play and then starting them and growing them as they go along, giving them opportunities. I firmly believe that it won’t be a long time until you start seeing kids drafted out of North Carolina, which would be great.”
After founding partner Thomas Thewes passed away in September of 2008, owner Peter Karmanos sought local-based investors for the Hurricanes.
Four years later, Francis became one of the 14 minority investors based in North Carolina.
Ronnie Franchise, indeed.
“This is a guy (Karmanos) who gave me an opportunity to come down here and play. He’s treated me extremely well the whole time I’ve been down here,” Francis said. “And I just felt it was a chance for me to give a little back to him, this team and this market which has been great to me and my family. That was the easy part.
“I’m a firm believer that the city of Raleigh is only going to continue to get bigger and better. People are more and more finding about what a great place it is to live and how wonderful the people are here. Our hope is that through hard work, we can put a product on the ice that people want to see, we can have success and we can do it over a prolonged period of time.”