Video: Ron Francis has second-most assists in NHL history
Open those record books and you'll find that Ron Francis became one the most prolific players in NHL history, residing in hockey's stratosphere alongside the game's greatest names. When, at age 41, he concluded his 23-season career in 2004 -- having starred in his own selfless way for the Hartford Whalers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Carolina Hurricanes and, very briefly, Toronto Maple Leafs -- his 1,798 points were the fourth most in NHL history; he trailed Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Gordie Howe. He was ranked 19th in goals with 549 and had 22 consecutive 50-point seasons, equaling Howe's record. He is second only to Gretzky (1,963) in assists and third behind Howe (1,767) and Messier (1,756) in games played.
Yet somehow, the 2007 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee is seldom top-of-mind when the very best NHL players are discussed. Francis accomplished it all with such efficiency and grace that he was easily the most overlooked superstar of his era.
"If it's possible to be the No. 2 man in assists and be underrated, Ronnie was," Ray Ferraro, a Whalers teammate from 1984-90, told the Hartford Courant in 2005. "He was so understated. He didn't beat his chest and tell everybody how good he was. And he was almost elegant in the way he played."
Games: 1,731 | Goals: 549 | Assists: 1,249 | Points: 1,798
He was also a leader, largely by example, both on and off the ice. His own unpretentious personality did not produce gobs of media attention, but Francis was quite content using his considerable talents to make those around him better.
"I understand that my game in itself was not dominating like a Gretzky or a Lemieux or Messier," he said in 2006. "I never had the physical talent or ability to dominate a situation, but I used my talents and drew from the best of my teammates' abilities." This was Francis's way of recognizing how he elevated others, one of his greatest traits.
A parade of top scoring forwards benefitted from Francis's knack for getting them the puck: Kevin Dineen, Sylvain Turgeon and Pat Verbeek of the Whalers; Jaromir Jagr and Joe Mullen of the Penguins; and Jeff O'Neill of the Hurricanes among them. Even Lemieux would play wing on Francis' line - each finishing with 92 assists in 1995-96 -- in a marvelous trio with Jagr on the other side.
When a 41-year old-Jagr joined the Devils in 2013, he told Rich Chere of The Newark Star-Ledger about playing with Francis and what he learned from him regarding being a pro.
"Five-on-five, Ronnie Francis was my centerman for seven or eight years in Pittsburgh. He probably assisted on most of the goals I scored," Jagr said. "He gave me that extra confidence. … Even if I didn't feel very well or if I played bad, I knew he could always make me look good. That's what I want to be for the guys I play with.
"I remember my first scoring title (in 1995). I needed to score a point. He had the flu. We'd played together for a long time. He shouldn't have played, but he played for me so I felt comfortable. I scored and won the scoring [title]. He told me after the game [how he felt], but he didn't show you that."
Francis also excelled in some of the game's subtle arts. His body positioning and quick hands made him one of hockey's best tip-in goal scorers. He checked top forwards as well as he produced points and did so cleanly, staying out of the penalty box. He was among the best faceoff men in the League, learning the tendencies not just of opposing centers but also the officials who dropped the puck. He also positioned his teammates to win the puck after it was dropped.
Most of all, Francis had a very high hockey IQ. "He sees things on the ice that sometimes as a coach you wait to see on video," Paul Maurice, who coached him in Carolina, told Bob Foltman of The Chicago Tribune. "He's an incredibly bright hockey man."
And he contributed mightily to the Penguins' two consecutive Stanley Cup championships, playing his best hockey at the most critical moments, especially in 1992 when Mario Lemieux broke his hand in the second round of the playoffs. "Our whole team hung in there but it was Ron Francis who steered the ship," Pierre McGuire, an assistant coach of those Penguins teams, told author Kevin Allen in the 2009 book "Then Wayne Said to Mario …"
Born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, on March 1, 1963, Francis came from a blue-collar background -- his father, Ron, worked in a local steel mill for 40 years -- that served as the source of his work ethic and demeanor. Staying home for junior hockey, he averaged about a point per game for the Soo Greyhounds before Hartford selected him at No. 4 in the 1981 NHL Draft. He began a second season in junior but, after averaging nearly two points a game, he was summoned by the Whalers to the NHL in mid-November of '81, where he was mentored by his roommate, future Hall of Famer Dave Keon.
A 25-goal, 43-assist first season got Hartford fans seeing him as the foundation for the club's future. They called him "Ronnie Franchise," and for nearly 10 full seasons Francis did just about everything for the Whalers. He led them in scoring five times and in assists nine times. At nearly 22 he was named captain in February 1985 and was pegged as the young, rising star who -- it was hoped -- would lift the small-market franchise to the Stanley Cup.
Then, quite suddenly, things changed after the 1989-90 season. The fans' love for him remained, but Francis' relationship with the organization frayed following a fourth straight disappointing first-round playoff knockout. Contract negotiations with new ownership and management stalled. Coach Rick Ley inexplicably stripped Francis of the captaincy. The Whalers and Francis drifted apart.
Coincidentally, for one week in late 1990, a Pittsburgh pro scout had watched the Whalers play three home games, looking for help on defense. He was most impressed with No. 10, who played a complete game, had energy and great vision, passed excellently, possessed a good shot and cleaned out opposing centers on faceoffs. He wasn't the fastest skater, but showed great balance and, at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, was very hard to knock off the puck. The scout thought he'd be a terrific second center in Pittsburgh behind Mario Lemieux.
As the 1991 trade deadline neared and Hartford badly sputtered, the Whalers called around, telling teams they'd move Francis. Penguins general manager Craig Patrick pounced, acquiring him and much-needed physical defensemen Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings on March 4.
"Funny, how I went from the best thing since sliced bread last season to totally on the outs over the summer," the normally reserved Francis told the Hartford Courant when he learned of the trade. "But I'm pleased I was able to put it out of my mind and play well the last few months."
So the 27-year-old Francis, just entering the prime of his career, went to work for the Penguins. Two weeks later, after playing three games with his new team, he told Samuelsson, "Ulfie, I think we can win the Stanley Cup." He was right.
"Certainly, we weren't a championship-caliber team, in my opinion, until we made that deal," Patrick told the Penguins website 15 years later. "It was very important for us because it gave us two top centermen. Ronnie was playing No. 1 center in Hartford and to bring him here to play with Mario, when you have two guys like that, it's pretty special to have that in this League at any time."
What didn't happen in Hartford, happened in Pittsburgh -- Francis played a critical role in winning the Stanley Cup that spring and the following season too. In '91, he scored seven playoff goals, all at even strength, four of them game-winners. In the crucial Game 4 of the second round against the Rangers in '92, he had a hat trick, capped off by the overtime winner, prompting neighbors to festoon the tree in front of his house with hats. He led the NHL with 19 playoff assists that season, and the last of his eight goals was the Cup-winner against the Chicago Blackhawks.
"He had an uncanny ability to elevate at big moments in games," McGuire said. "When big games came up, his name was always on the scoresheet and always at big times in those games. He stood out in all eight playoff series."
Francis quietly starred in Pittsburgh for seven full seasons, always leading by example and twice serving as captain. He led the NHL twice in assists, was twice awarded the Lady Byng Trophy for sportsmanship, won the Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward once and finished second in Selke voting another time.
Then, in 1998, he signed as a free agent with the relocated Whalers franchise, now in North Carolina -- in part, he said, to build hockey interest in a nontraditional market. He played five-plus seasons with the Hurricanes, leading them in scoring twice. In 2002 he won his third Lady Byng Trophy for sportsmanship and the King Clancy Trophy for leadership and humanitarian contributions in the community. He was the Hurricanes captain for five seasons.
In 2002 the Hurricanes made their first Cup Final, and Francis led them in playoff scoring with 16 points. Of his six goals, three of them won games, including Game 1 of the Final against the Detroit Red Wings, when he scored in overtime, the biggest goal in Whalers/Hurricanes history to that point.
"His reaction to it was much like any other goal he scored," teammate Aaron Ward said. "He didn't make a mockery of it or jump up and down. He just put his stick up in the air like any other goal."
"Ronnie was a player who was the same every day and that's what amazed me," teammate Kevyn Adams said.
But Francis could surprise, too. Three weeks after the '02 Final, with Detroit having prevailed, Francis got together with Hurricanes equipment manager Skip Cunningham, who was with the Whalers when the teenage Francis broke into the NHL in '81. An appreciative Francis had mounted the puck from the overtime goal and the scoresheet on a plaque and made it a gift for Cunningham.
"Class," Cunningham said. "There's no other word for it."
He was always "Captain Class."
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