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Francis lends voice of experience to Hurricanes

by Mike G. Morreale /

"Ron's been phenomenal. He has that positive energy and a real knack for helping out in making the right plays and finding that open ice in the zone. He has a great knowledge for the game and that has not only helped me, personally, but a lot of other guys."
-- Eric Staal on Ron Francis

PITTSBURGH -- Ron Francis never forgot those lessons learned on the road with teammate Dave Keon as an 18-year-old rookie with the Hartford Whalers over two decades ago.

It was a period in his life when the pressure of playing in the NHL could have gotten the best of him, but, instead, was soothed somewhat by a venerable presence and a voice of reason. Keon played 18 NHL seasons, including his final three with the Whalers before being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1986.

Now, as the associate head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes, Francis has to many young players what Keon was to him, especially Eric Staal.

"Ronnie clearly has a great relationship with Eric (Staal) because he understands what goes through the mind of a top-end player, since he was one himself," Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice said.

"It's interesting because when I was 18, my roommate in the NHL was Dave Keon and Dave was pretty good to me in those first few years -- teaching me the ropes and stuff," Francis said. "When Eric came in (in 2005-06), I knew he was a very talented kid and I just wanted to have a friendly relationship with him so that he could come to me any time he wanted to discuss anything at all. Maybe it's something he's seeing that we, as coaches, aren't seeing, but it's just great to work with the young players."

Staal has always viewed Francis as his personal confidant in those tough times throughout the season.

"Ron's been phenomenal," Staal said. "He has that positive energy and a real knack for helping out in making the right plays and finding that open ice in the zone. He has a great knowledge for the game and that has not only helped me, personally, but a lot of other guys."

Francis has been a hot topic of discussion in Pittsburgh this week as Carolina takes on the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Finals. “The Igloo,” as Mellon Arena was once dubbed, was the site of several great moments in Francis' career.

Like May 9, 1992, when he scored a hat trick, including the game-winner 2:47 into overtime, to give the Pens a dramatic 5-4 triumph against the New York Rangers in Game 4 of the Patrick Division Final. The victory was the first of a single-season playoff record 11 consecutive wins that led to the Penguins' second straight Stanley Cup.

"The Rangers game in here was memorable for me, for sure," Francis said. "We had lost Mario (Lemieux) and Joey Mullen and no one had given us a chance against the Presidents' Trophy winner, so scoring a hat trick in this building was special, especially when you're able to score one just over your blue line; something that doesn't happen very often."

Perhaps even more memorable following that hat trick was the reception he received when he returned home that evening.

"A couple of neighbors hung baseball hats on a tree out in my front yard and all through the night, I heard horns honking and when I woke up the next morning, there were 30-40 baseball hats hanging in that same tree," Francis said. "I certainly never forgot that."

Maurice, who actually coached Francis for five-plus seasons during his first stint with the Hurricanes from 1997-2004, said he is extremely fortunate to have a legend by his side.

"Ron's going to do whatever he decides he wants to do when this is all over," Maurice said. "If it's management he wants, then at some point he'll be a general manager or if he wants to coach, then at some point he could do that -- he could do that next season if he wants, but I hope they'll wait that long.

"Ronnie sees the game the way few people do," Maurice continued. "He did it as a player when he'd come down to my office and say 'Hey, this is what I'm seeing with our hockey team,' and he's doing the same thing now as a coach. He has a great grasp of things that are just outside central vision. He picks up the smaller plays and, for me, that's invaluable. When I'm focused on matchups, having Ronnie come down and being able to trust completely what he says is so valuable. It's nice to have a guy that's come off playing and has had so much success because he's very positive about our players to me."

Maurice said Francis has a new way of assessing today's players and it has benefited everyone within the organization.

"More often than not, Ronnie will tell me to give a guy a chance because he feels he can do it and get us going," Maurice said. "I know he's done some work and has a belief and it's not just being positive in the locker room and pumping a player's tires, but instead of finding faults, he's able to say, 'Hey this guy's got it going.' It's almost a new way of looking at the game and it's why you see a number of our players excel even though they might be names you didn't expect."

Bruins/Hurricanes Playoff Gear Hurricanes Gear Penguins Gear Francis played with the Whalers for 10 seasons before joining Pittsburgh in March 1991. He spent seven full seasons with the Pens, winning Stanley Cups in 1991 and '92. He rejoined the Hurricanes, the organization that drafted him fourth overall in 1981, when the franchise relocated to Raleigh, signing as a free agent in July 1998.

In 16 seasons with Carolina, Francis played in 1,186 games and scored 382 goals, 793 assists and 1,185 points, all franchise records. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2007. For his career, Francis netted 549 goals and 1,798 points in 1,731 regular-season games.

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