BOSTON -- The template for generating interest in hockey at the grassroots level that Emile Francis created more than five decades ago remains the foundation for every NHL team today.
"Here's a Canadian [from North Battleford, Saskatchewan] who comes to New York City in 1964 and he's concerned about helping the local kids," U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member and close friend Lou Vairo told NHL.com. "What Emile Francis did is an unbelievable achievement that people all over hockey, and that includes America and elsewhere, should respect. What he helped do for hockey at the grassroots level, in my opinion, was worth more than 20 Stanley Cup titles."
Francis, 89, was honored with the Wayne Gretzky International Award at the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony Thursday at the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel.
"What Emile did for youth hockey in creating more fans and players in support of the game at the grassroots level was fantastic, and I think it's probably fair to say that it's something nobody had ever done at that level or to that degree prior," USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean said. "He did it consistently wherever he went throughout his career."
The Wayne Gretzky Award, established by the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 1999, pays tribute to international individuals who have made major contributions to the growth and advancement of hockey in the United States.
Vairo, who introduced Francis as the ninth recipient of the award, said there is no one more deserving.
Francis said his interest in building interest in hockey at the grassroots level came after a casual encounter during his early days as general manager of the New York Rangers.
"I remember early on when I was [general manager] we were about to play the Montreal Canadiens, who had just won a few Stanley Cup titles, and I was worried about getting embarrassed so I went for a walk," Francis said. "I went on Ninth Avenue, made a right and came across all these little heads roller skating in Hell's Kitchen. I'd never seen anybody on roller skates in my life and thought 'What is this?' "
It was at that point Francis got the idea of building a grassroots program that not only would teach youngsters how to play hockey but ultimately bring them to Madison Square Garden to watch the Rangers.
A retired NHL goaltender, Francis played six seasons for the Chicago Blackhawks and the Rangers. He began his coaching career in 1961 with the Rangers' junior team in Guelph, Ontario; he was named general manager of the Rangers in 1964 and took over as coach the following year. Francis still holds Rangers records for games coached (654), wins (342), winning percentage (.602), playoff games (75), and playoff wins (34).
"The first year he came to New York, he reached out to a group of us that had formed the Greater New York City Ice Hockey League and said he wanted to help the youth of New York," Vairo said. "He came down with players and management personnel from the Rangers and conducted clinics, and started the New York Metropolitan League. I would not be in hockey if not for Emile Francis; he opened the door for Americans and helped thousands of players, coaches and officials."
Francis created the Metropolitan Junior Hockey Association, the longest-operating junior hockey league in the United States.
He joined the St. Louis Blues in 1976 and served as executive vice president, general manager and coach during his seven seasons with the team. During that time, he founded the St. Louis Metro Junior B League.
In 1978 Francis hired Keith Blaise as the first director of amateur hockey development for the Blues. Blaise, who was inducted into the St. Louis Amateur Hockey Hall of Fame Class of 2015, was charged with the responsibility of working with local amateur hockey leaders to help grow the game.
"There's nobody in the NHL that has done a more sincere and genuine job to work at the grassroots level and develop the sport of hockey than Emile Francis," Blaise said. "When he got to St. Louis, he built upon what he started in New York and the St. Louis Blues sponsored a junior team and put together a sustainable junior league in the St. Louis area; it was unheard of at the time.
"We conducted clinics for coaches and players, and worked closely with the different leagues throughout the area."
Francis became general manager of the Hartford Whalers in May 1983 and spent 10 years with them before ending his NHL career as team president in 1993.
"Emile Francis just felt it was the obligation of the team to spread the gospel of hockey in its market and to him that meant getting very engaged in support of amateur programs so that you could create more kids playing on the ice," Ogrean said.
In addition to his work at the grassroots level, Francis transformed the Rangers into a perennial NHL contender during his tenure. His best season was 1971-72, when he led the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 22 years.
"The Rangers never had an unsuccessful season under him," Vairo said. "They always achieved their maximum potential and would probably have two or three Stanley Cup wins except that every single year they'd lose their best player to a freak injury in the final week of the season; like Brad Park, Jean Ratelle or Dale Rolfe. They still competed but couldn't win it all because they didn't have their best players."
Francis was also chairman of the general managers committee for 10 years, served on the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee for 18 years and was a consultant to the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States.
He won the Lester Patrick Trophy in 1982 for his contributions to hockey in the United States, and that same year was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the Builders category.