March 17, 2004
(TORONTO) -- It's difficult to calculate why certain athletes or franchises make a home in your heart.
As a kid, apart from hailing your local heroes, there are those sporting entities that capture your imagination, love 'em or hate 'em. The Leafs are that kind of franchise, inspiring emotional responses from fans across the country, the continent, and the globe.
If you grew up in the second half of the 1950s, you might have been enamoured by the Doug Harvey-led Canadiens, or in the 1970s of Bobby Hull, Clarke or Orr. But the players that capture our imagination as kids are often the ones who strike us by the expression of their hockey card photo, or ones that connect to us by their self-assured manner in a post-game interview, or how they kick their skates while battling during a faceoff.
|Francis played 11:58 in his first game. |
(Graig Abel Photography)
They might not lead the league in scoring, they might not lead off the evening sports report, heck, you might not even get to see them play live. But there you are, a Canadian kid, addicted to sticks and pucks, growing up in Toronto, home to arguably the most ardently loyal fans in the world, and your favourite player isn't Bill Derlago or Miroslav Frycer. Your favourite player isn't even a Leaf.
He's a Hartford Whaler.
I'd like to say I don't know why I idolized Ron Francis from the start, so I could drip nostalgia and fantasy across this piece, but I know perfectly well why he was an instant favourite; 68 points in 59 games.
The year was 1982.
I was seven years old and a stats freak even then. I knew better than to worship anybody on a rival Wales Conference squad, but somehow the Hartford Whalers seemed distant, almost trivial. Where on Earth was Hartford anyway?
The 1981-82 season had finished, and the Blue and White had won just 20 of 80 contests (let me remind you, this was before overtime losses, back when there was no way to hide our 44 stinkers that year), and we were just two points removed from being the worst team in the conference.
Frankly, I HAD to look outside the organization for a glimmer of hope. It was the year we lost Sittler, and our most promising rookie was Jim Benning, who wasn't exactly keeping me up at night.
No, the 1981 NHL Entry Draft would go down on record as strong on defencemen (Al MacInnis, Chris Chelios) and weak on forwards (Doug Smith #2 overall). Dale Hawerchuk was the top selection and - no surprise - led all rookies in scoring while nabbing the Calder Memorial Trophy.
But it was Francis who caught my imagination. There was something about his game, about the way he held himself, about his potential. Even as a teenager, the groundwork was there for the 6-3, 200 pound workhorse who would come to be known as a gentleman.
The roots were there for a player possessing all the offensive skill in the world, who was content to set up his teammates, battle on special teams, and backcheck with ferocity and genuine interest. The foundation was there for greatness.
|Francis has been teamed up with Owen Nolan. |
(Graig Abel Photography)
I'm going to fast-forward, past my gushing praise of the mid-80s Turgeon-Francis-Dineen line, past the back-to-back Cups in the Steeltown shadow of Mario the Magnificent, past the 92 assist season of 1996, and past the welcome return to the franchise that raised him, even if it had moved south.
I'm going to fast-forward to May 23, 2002. There we were, Ron and me. Eastern Conference Finals. A gritty Toronto team, a little dinged up, but generally favoured over the upstart Carolina Hurricanes. (What? Carolina? They have a team now?)
Looks like the Leafs' notorious streak would be over, and the Blackhawks would have to find someone else to join them in group therapy. Still, we found ourselves down 2 games to 1, headed to an all-important Game 4 at home. Win this, and we can beat 'em in 6 in our building. Lose ... well, winning three back-against-the-wall games was not something we could chance.
That was when Ron Francis did what Ron Francis always does. We outplayed them, we outmucked them, but to no avail. Francis would set up one goal and pot another in a 3-0 victory that cemented their momentum, leading to Carolina's triumph in the series and a Stanley Cup birth. I remember, as the end of the game drew near, the stillness in the building.
It wasn't the same jaw-dropping shock as Gretzky's seventh-game dismantling of the Leafs in 1993, but it should have been. We were once again humbled by one of the all-time greats.
And then came Tuesday, March 9, 2004 -- Deal Day. Amazingly, all it took was a fourth-round draft pick for Sault Sainte Francis to return home.
Francis is nearing the end of the line at 41 years old, but fittingly he is a Maple Leaf, playing on the team he rooted for while growing up, the team he said "every kid grows up dreaming of (playing for)."
Ronnie, for the record, some of those kids grew up dreaming you'd play for the Leafs too.