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Sunday Long Read

'The Cat' looks back at his remarkable hockey career

From goalie to coach and executive, Hall of Fame member Francis has made major impact on sport

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / Columnist

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The remarkable hockey career of Emile "The Cat" Francis whispers more than shouts in the rooms of his sun-splashed home a half-hour west of downtown. 

There are plaques, trophies, carvings, certificates, photographs, a New York Rangers jacket and jersey on a dining-room chair, all blending naturally with the elegant furniture.

In his lived-in, book-lined office is a framed, autographed piece of art by the late, legendary expressionist LeRoy Neiman, who sketched Francis behind the bench at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 26, 1965. On another wall hangs a photo of him shaking hands with President Ronald Reagan.

So many tangible reminders of a life in hockey that spans nearly eight decades. But what Francis, 89, cherishes more than the keepsakes are his sharp, richly layered recollections of colleagues, friends and former players, many still with him, too many of them gone. The most precious mementos in his life are not the things he holds in his hands, but the abstract, sepia-toned souvenirs he has locked in his memory.

"Family and faith and friends," Francis says simply and emotionally of the three guiding forces in his life.

"Because of them, and because of that, I was allowed to take part in what I think is the greatest game in the world," The Cat says, a catch in his voice. "I've thought that all my life. This is the greatest game going, and I've been fortunate to have had a chance to be part of it."

He was born Emile Percy Francis on Sept. 13, 1926, in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, and grew up on the Canadian prairies during the Depression, a hockey fan for as long as he can remember. It was while playing goal as a junior in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, in the mid-1940s that he picked up his famous nickname; a local sportswriter suggested the teenaged newcomer was quick as a cat in goal.

Francis says with a laugh that he's probably better known as "The Cat" than Emile, the name given to him at birth by his French-born mother. Little did he know that he would become a pioneer of the sport, dramatically reshaping the goalie's catching glove - which, he jokes, has become a "bushel basket" -- as a junior-age player by having a leather cuff stitched onto a first baseman's mitt.

The economy-size (5-foot-6, 145 pounds) powder keg followed a long and winding road during a playing career that lasted 18 seasons in six leagues. He was a student of the game while tending goal from Vancouver to New Haven, Conn., developing the coaching and management skills that, together with the leadership abilities honed in the Canadian army, would lead him to greater fame as coach and general manager of the Rangers and St. Louis Blues and GM of the Hartford Whalers.

Francis says sharing his hockey knowledge was a constant undertaking.

"From the time I was a player, with all the teams I was with, I was always asked to sell the game," Francis says. "I talked to the Rotary Clubs, church groups, schools, I gave clinics, took my pads and explained what hockey was about. I've done that all my life."

Before becoming the management face of the Rangers from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s, he played a huge role in the development of future stars Rod Gilbert and Jean Ratelle on the Rangers-sponsored junior team in Guelph, Ontario, before all graduated to the NHL.

"The first practice I ever held in Guelph, I looked at (Ratelle and Gilbert) and said to myself, 'What the heck are they doing here?' " Francis says. "I thought, 'They're going to be the guys who turn the fortunes of the New York Rangers around.'"

The Cat was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder in 1982, the same year he was honored with the Lester Patrick Trophy for his sizable contribution to hockey in the United States. Last December, he received the Wayne Gretzky International Award from the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame for his influential work in promoting the sport in America.

As with many in his shrinking family of NHL contemporaries, you couldn't invent this man today. The more you listen, the more it dawns on you that his real-life stories are more fantastic than fiction.

Francis was 8 years old, having just lost his father and being largely raised by an uncle, when he attended his first hockey game. Without the 25 cents for a ticket, he boldly approached hulking Flin Flon Bombers defenseman Butch Stahan, who had suited up at the town's hotel for the walk in full uniform to the nearby arena for the game against North Battleford.

Stahan agreed to tuck the small lad under his overcoat and smuggle him into the rink. Francis, who scrambled out from under the player's lapels, was hooked for life.

"The ushers saw me, but there was no way they were going to catch me," he said with a wink.

Francis opted to be a goaltender so he could play the full 60 minutes and get his money's worth for the nickel he'd shell out for his share of the ice rental.

He was scouted by Tiny Thompson, the retired Boston Bruins goaltending legend who played an instrumental role in his life, and eventually landed with the Chicago Black Hawks (as they were known then) for 73 games from 1946-48. As a 13-year-old, with a photo of Toronto Maple Leafs star Charlie Conacher taped on his bedroom wall, Francis had dreamed of playing for Chicago; when he arrived, Conacher was his coach.

"I'm sure that was fate," Francis said. "I liked Charlie long before I played for him. He was just a real good person, through and through. But I never told him about that dream."

After being traded to New York in 1948, The Cat played 22 games with the Rangers during the next four seasons. But he didn't lack for work, toiling continent-wide in the minors through 1960.

Francis lost a mouthful of teeth in his maskless time; that included eight knocked out with a single puck while with the New Haven Ramblers of the American Hockey League. A team manager sent an aide to a local bar to fetch a tall glass of brandy to deaden the wounded goalie's pain while he was stitched up before returning to the net.

"It put my nose over there," Francis said of the puck he never saw, nodding to the left, "and my eyes were half-closed. I looked at myself in the mirror walking back out to the rink and I didn't know it was me."

Francis had his nose broken eight times during his career. He also had more than 200 stitches threaded into his face, and had shoulder, hip and knee surgery.

"And I was lucky," he said, laughing again.

The Cat would try everything to improve his play. He even risked a fine during his second NHL season for fraternizing with an opposing goaltender, the Bruins' Frankie Brimsek.

"The best goaltender I've ever seen was Terry Sawchuk," he said of the Hall of Fame member, who played the final 11 games of his NHL career for Francis in New York in 1970 before his death less than two months later. "The second-best was [Boston's] Frankie Brimsek."

When Francis' catching hand, his greatest asset, began to betray him, he sought Brimsek's help. The Bruins goalie agreed to meet in the arena bar, agreeing to Francis' request as they skated by each other at period's end one game.

Brimsek knew of The Cat's offseason love of baseball and suggested that he stay in the crease and not charge out of his net, as he might attack a ground ball from shortstop.

"And Frankie suggested I use his No. 12-lie goal stick, not the No. 11 I was using," Francis said, speaking of the angle of the blade relative to the ice. "He told me it would lift me up a little higher, improve my balance and help me to cover more of the net.

"We finished our beer, but Frankie's advice stayed with me forever. He could tell from 200 feet away what I was doing wrong. There were only six goaltenders in the world playing in that league and he tells me that."

By then, Brimsek and other goaltenders at every pro level had adopted Francis' modified catching glove, fashioned out of a New York Yankees George McQuinn-model first-baseman's mitt.

"They were awkward, big, and heavy," Francis recalled of the primitive gloves worn by goaltenders of the day before he had a shoemaker sew a cuff onto his McQuinn-model mitt.

Francis hadn't a problem with the glove in junior and the minors, but a few months into his NHL career with Chicago he was confronted by Detroit general manager Jack Adams. Adams complained to referee King Clancy, who decreed the glove was too big to be legal. Francis simply told Clancy, "If I can't use that glove, you don't have a game tonight. That's the only glove I've got."

He wore it on the condition he take it to NHL President Clarence Campbell for inspection in Montreal, Chicago's stop the next day.

"Campbell had me there for an hour," Francis recalled. "He starts off, 'Where did you get that glove? Where did you buy it? Who put the cuff on? What did you pay for it?' His last question was, 'Why do you want to use it, to go all that trouble?'

"I said, 'Because the goal gloves aren't worth a nickel. My hand is sore after every practice and every game. With the webbing, the puck will go in there and stay in there. I got it to protect my hand and to make me a better goalkeeper.'

"Campbell got up and left and I was sure he was going to ban it. But he came back in and said I could use it. The gloves were on the market within a month, (manufacturers) CCM, Rawlings … I didn't have a patent because I didn't even know what a patent was."

Francis' retirement in 1960 gnawed terribly at him, but his coaching and managerial skills were in great demand and a tug-of-war for his services quickly developed. He finally chose the Rangers, running their junior operation in Guelph before being brought to New York as the assistant to general manager Muzz Patrick and finally getting the GM job himself in the fall of 1964.

The Rangers had qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs four times from 1951-64 and didn't win a series. With the fiery Francis in the GM's office (and often behind the bench) before his dismissal midway through the 1975-76 season, New York made the playoffs every season from 1966-67 through 1974-75. The Rangers went to the 1972 Stanley Cup Final but were without Ratelle, their star center, who went down with a broken ankle late in the regular season; the Bobby Orr-led Bruins won the championship in six games.

It's as close as Francis came to winning professional hockey's ultimate prize.

"We did it all that season except win the Stanley Cup," he said.

Every part of his life, he says, comes back to what has never failed him in the arena or at home: a hat trick of family, faith and friends.

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