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Francis still pursuing Stanley Cup

by John McGourty

Former Hurricanes captain Ron Francis is now pursuing another Stanley Cup as a member of the team's front office.
The transition to life after hockey can be difficult for retired players. It's not unusual to see them spend a few years working in a team's front office before going off to another line of work.

Top NHL players make good money in their careers, and if they invest wisely, they may not ever need to work a 9-to-5 job. But for most people, life must have a purpose and a challenge. It's fun to play golf and go fishing, but most people can't find satisfaction doing those things on a daily basis.

Some of the smartest players start businesses during their careers that they can pursue after retirement.

Ron Francis (VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS | PODCAST), who retired at the start of the 2005-06 season and will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame Nov. 12, has always had his eye on life after hockey. Francis opened a restaurant when he played for the Hartford Whalers and he's had his real-estate license for almost 20 years. He also is a member of the TrustAtlantic Bank Board of Directors.

Yet, after a year in retirement, Francis rejoined the Carolina Hurricanes last year as director of player development. Then, last month, Hurricanes Assistant General Manager Jason Karmanos stepped down and Francis assumed those duties, reporting to General Manager Jim Rutherford, who recently signed a five-year contract extension.

Francis credits Rutherford for luring him back to hockey and finding interesting work for him to do. He vows to bring the same passion and commitment to his off-ice work as he did his on-ice job.

That's a considerable amount of passion.

Francis, 44, a native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, played 23 seasons in the NHL for the Hartford Whalers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Carolina Hurricanes and Toronto Maple Leafs, and won two Stanley Cups along the way. Francis is the fourth-leading scorer in NHL history with 1,798 points and ranks second with 1,249 assists. His No. 10 was retired at the RBC Center on Jan. 28, 2006, and at the Hartford Civic Center on Jan. 6, 2006.

Francis won the Lady Byng Trophy three times, played in four NHL All-Star Games, won the 1995 Frank J. Selke Award as best defensive forward, led the League in plus-minus in 1994-95 and was the King Clancy Memorial Trophy honoree for humanitarian endeavors in 2002.

Francis has been pursuing the Stanley Cup since before he went to grade school. He was asked if he'll continue that pursuit as a front-office executive.

"That's kind of the direction I'm heading in," Francis said. "I stepped away a little bit and then Jim Rutherford called me last year and we talked about a couple of directions. The director of player development job interested me. We talked again this summer with coach Peter Laviolette and I was looking forward to getting on the ice with the team, working with the power play and some other things. It was a huge surprise to me when Jason resigned. I'm very thankful that they felt I was ready and able for this challenge and I'm looking forward to it.

"I hope to bring energy to the job. When we discussed this proposition, I had some questions for Jim. I told him I'm excited and ready and he agreed. He said the thing he looks for in players who move into the front office is how they go about it. Are they happy to have the job and do they work hard at it? I felt I did. I intend to be a good choice for this position going forward.

"My personality inclines me to do my best no matter what I'm doing. I'm trying to learn this job the best I can as fast as I can and I'm lucky to have Jim Rutherford steering me. I definitely feel like I can put my personality into play in this position."

"For six months, I drove myself and my family crazy, wondering whether to return to hockey or get into other ventures," he added. "I've always been someone to look at different business opportunities. I realized I had to get away and do nothing and relax for a while. That's what I did, and then Jim gave me this opportunity.

"As a player who started skating at age 3-1/2 and then played 23 years professionally, I know most about hockey and feel most comfortable in hockey. It makes perfect sense to get back, so here I am."

The player-development job involved a good bit of travel, smaller rinks and lonely hotel stays, but Francis benefited from the experience.

"We have amateur scouts who find and draft guys and pro scouts who monitor the NHL and the AHL," Francis explained. "My job was to take the kids we had in our system and monitor them closely, watch them play and get to know them. I talk to them and their coaches to make sure they aren't having issues off the ice.

”We educate them in their game and teach them about nutrition and how to be a professional on and off the ice. I did that with our kids in juniors and at Albany. I reported back to Jim and Director of Pro Scouting Marshall Johnston. We have to make decisions on whether to sign kids and I was asked for my input. The relationship with Jim and Marshall is really good. We sat down and were really comfortable with each other. Basically, the job of director of player personnel is to get kids from the draft into the NHL."

Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos is a solid businessman who knows how to run organizations. He and Rutherford have been loyal to each other for more than 30 years and they've profited from their association. Still, we are all mortal, so some wonder if the owner isn't doing a bit of succession planning. His son has learned the front-office jobs and one day will be in position to run the team. Francis was asked if he and Rutherford have discussed succession.

"We haven't really gotten to that," Francis said. "It's been a whirlwind and I'm trying to get my hands around all the duties in this job. I wasn't expecting to be in this position and it happened quickly. I'm hoping that when he's ready, Jason gets back into the management of this organization. He's extremely bright, a good person and a good hockey player. But I don't know his future plans.

"As for me thinking about replacing Jim one day, well, Jim is running this ship until he decides not to. Then they can make a decision. My job is to do my job extremely well. If that time comes and they consider me, great, but I'm not thinking about it at this point."

Francis was a gifted playmaker with a ferocious desire to win.

As a hockey player, Ron Francis combined a strong, 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame with a brilliant mind, a forceful personality and a ferocious desire to win. He's still fit at 44 and still a fluid skater. He enjoys working on the ice with younger players eager to learn.

"My on-ice duties have been interesting," Francis said. "I went on the ice with a couple of junior teams. Tom Rowe, our coach at Albany, asked me to help him with the power play. Afterwards, I'd take kids aside and drill them in areas they need, talk with them, take them out to dinner and discuss hockey. Tom also let me go behind the bench if I wanted so I could get a feel for that. It was very interesting and I appreciated it.

"I was also on the ice at training camp this year, working on the power play, attending meetings and practices. It's been good and I've got a lot of irons in the fire."

Ron has a younger brother, Ricky, who had to deal with learning challenges and it added a level of stress -- and love -- for his parents. As a result, Ron was mature beyond his years. He turned down college offers to turn pro to help with family finances.

Family has always been first and foremost with Francis and his charitable contributions and efforts have been exemplary. Ricky turned out be competitor, too, winning a Special Olympics gold medal in downhill skiing. Ronnie always has been proud of Ricky, and vice versa.

Francis is looking forward to his induction and knows it's a great moment for his parents, his brother, his wife Mary Lou, daughter Kaitlyn and two sons, Michael and Connor.

"Off the ice things are going very well," Francis said. "My parents were just down here for a vacation. They're doing well. My brother waited for me to retire and then he retired from competitive Special Olympics. He played softball this summer and now he's in some bowling leagues. My cousin, Mike Liut, I just ran into him in Washington and we had a fundraiser this summer in Hartford with a lot of the Whalers old-timers.

"Look at what the players on that team have done since in hockey: Dave Tippett is the head coach in Dallas; Joel Quenneville is head coach in Colorado; Randy Ladoceur is an assistant coach in Toronto; Dean Evason is an assistant coach in Washington; Brad Shaw is an assistant coach in St. Louis; Steve Weeks is an assistant coach in Atlanta; John Anderson is head coach of the AHL Chicago Wolves and Kevin Dineen is head coach of the AHL Portland Pirates. Ray Ferraro did network color commentary and Paul McDermid is part of the ownership of the OHL Owen Sound Attack. Stu Gavin is in financial analysis and Mike Liut is a player agent."


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