NHL Seattle general manager Ron Francis played 23 seasons in the NHL and has worked another decade-plus as a hockey executive. Yet he never missed a Christmas at home with his wife, Mary Lou, and their three children. That's thanks to the NHL establishing a three-day winter holiday break from games.
"I was always able to be home," says Francis, speaking from his North Carolina home on a speaker phone with Mary Lou and the couple's three adult children, Kate, Michael and Connor in the room, home for the holidays. "There were times when our team had to fly out the next morning at 8 a.m. to make a road game."
The 30-plus years of Francis holiday cheer certainly established a number of family traditions.
For one, the family dines out on Christmas Eve. For years, it was Nina's, an Italian restaurant. These days, it is a steakhouse, Sullivan's, where the Francis five gather. They will be joined Tuesday night by both grandmothers, Mary's mom, Sophie, and Ron's mom, Lorita.
"Our family [and house] has always been the nuclear unit for Christmas for the family," says Kate. "We spend it together."
Everyone attends 7 p.m. mass on Christmas Eve, long ago foregoing the midnight mass routine.
"We did that one year," explains Kate. "We accidentally picked a midnight mass in Spanish."
On top of that, Kate says, "one of the boys dropped a [lit] candle and nearly set the church on fire."
Let's keep it between us which brother's candle hit the floor.
On a safer note, Mary Lou, aka Santa then and even now, gifts each child a new pair of pajamas as per Christmas tradition.
"Everyone looked good on Christmas morning that way," says Mary Lou. ""We still do the PJs, though Kate requested cool athletic wear starting a few years ago. She didn't like the goofy PJ pants too much. One year we went with Roots onesies [from the Canadian apparel company]."
Happy murmuring ensues over the phone line.
Mary Lou isn't referred to as the "family Santa" for nothing. She spent many Christmas Eve overnights wrapping presents. She admits to being so, ahem, wrapped up, that she forgot to charge the video camera.
"I would plug in the camera and make the kids wait at the top of the stairs [to get some charge in the battery camera]," says Mary Lou. "They would be champing at the bit."
Mary Lou makes beef tenderloin for Christmas dinner. This year-shhh, it's a surprise for Ron's mom, Lorita-Mary Lou and Ron have already prepared homemade pasta and will be using it to make Mama Lorita's lasagna recipe.
Grandma Lorita is responsible for a favorite memory for Connor, the youngest Francis sibling.
"My favorite part of Christmas morning comes right after we open gifts," says Connor. "My grandma makes a recipe called 'Beaten Eggs' with simple ingredients of eggs and sugar. It maybe doesn't sound good to some people, but it's delicious."
The recipe involves mostly egg yolks (one egg's white for every three yolks) plus sugar beaten in a blender until foamy or thickened up. For culinary scientists out there, the sugar changes the chemical structure of the protein in the eggs without the usual heat of cooking. The result is delicious, Dad agrees.
"We mix in Nesquik and sometimes cereal such as Rice Krispies," adds Ron.
Michael, the middle child, has his own favorite holiday tradition: Pickup hockey games in the family driveway or local rinks. The driveway games are more a family affair, maybe with a few neighbors. The rink games involve more people.
Michael's scouting report on those games: "I like the driveway because my dad doesn't try as hard and we can beat him. On the other hand, if we play at the rink, I can beat Kate because she's not exactly a solid skater."
The pickup games are played Christmas Eve and sometimes again on Christmas. What's a Francis family without a bit of hockey, even if the NHL is on hiatus?
"It's part to get some exercise," says Ron, "and part to give Mary Lou some time alone."