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Friends, fans flock for Francis

by Dan Rosen

Known as one of the game’s classiest players, Ron Francis made friends in every city he played in during his 23 years in the NHL and 38 as a hockey player.
TORONTO -- Ron Francis remembers somebody telling him Hockey Hall of Fame induction weekend would be “like having a wedding without the wedding.”

Ain’t that the truth.

Francis has spent the last 72 hours in Toronto finding friends from all walks of his hockey life. They’re here from his hometown, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., from Hartford, Pittsburgh, Raleigh, N.C., as well as those who are still settled in the Toronto area.

Known as one of the game’s classiest players, which is how the bio on his plaque begins, Francis made friends in every city he played in during his 23 years in the NHL and 38 as a hockey player. Their turnout here for his greatest personal achievement, his enshrinement into the Hockey Hall of Fame, has been overwhelming.

“A lot of people have come into town, which is great for me because at the end of the day they’re the people that helped this journey along and the people that make it special,” Francis said Monday morning inside The Great Hall. “I think if you talk to any of the guys, we’re happy to be on display this weekend. It’s quite an honor.”

The Great Hall is somewhere Francis has been numerous times throughout his 44 years, from when he was a young hockey player living in Sault Ste. Marie to even various times over his summer breaks after NHL seasons.

He can remember walking through, admiring all the artifacts and exhibits such as the goalie masks in the glass cases near the entrance, but never once did he think of seeing his plaque hanging with all the game’s greats.

It is now.

“Look at this room,” he said of The Great Hall. “I’ve been here many times looking and just impressed with what a great and special room it is. To know that my plaque will be in here and my kids and my grandkids can come in here and see it is a great honor.”

When Francis first learned that he was going to be enshrined, Hall of Fame Chairperson Bill Hay asked him not to reveal the news to anyone until after the 3:30 p.m. press conference that June day earlier this year.

Francis, though, couldn’t hold his excitement, so he broke his promise to Hay rather quickly.

“I had to make a couple calls before 3:30,” said the player who currently is fourth all-time in the NHL with 1,798 points, third in games played (1,731) and second in assists (1,249). “I was a little too excited to keep it to myself.”

He hasn’t been short on excitement this weekend either, but Francis said the best part about his experience here in Toronto goes on during the quiet times, when the inductees are being shuttled from one event to another, or when they’re waiting for the next event to start.

It’s more than that they start swapping stories and reminiscing. Jim Gregory has been leading the charge, Francis said.

“It’s kind of neat because at the different events we get here early, and when we’re running around we spend time together, so you hear a lot of different, funny stories,” Francis said. “That’s what is so great about this sport; there are so many things that happen throughout the course of your career that you just shake your head at and laugh at. You sit around at breakfast here having a coffee and a bite to eat, and you start swapping some of those stories and it never ceases to amaze you how funny they are.

“So far, to this point, I have been very pleased that I could kick back and enjoy what we’re doing.”

Francis is a unique inductee because he’s the first Hall of Famer representing the NHL’s new generation of warm weather hockey cities.

He grew up as an NHLer in Hartford, later moved to Pittsburgh, where he won two Stanley Cups, but now he makes his home in Raleigh, where he spent close to six full NHL seasons as the Carolina Hurricanes’ captain, leading them to the Stanley Cup Final in 2002.

“I hate when guys say money had nothing to do with it because obviously money had something to do with that decision (to come to Carolina). I was a free agent, so that factors in, but I also was intrigued to go to a so-called non-hockey market and sell our game,” Francis said. “I found out real quickly how passionate our fans are just about sports in general in that area, and the trick was getting them hooked on ours.

”I think our 2002 Cup run and the Stanley Cup run a couple of years ago when we won it has gone a long way of solidifying that market in the NHL.”

Francis still sells hockey in Carolina from his position of Assistant General Manager and Director of Player Personnel. Only, when he walks into the office later this week, he’ll walk in as a Hall of Famer.


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