SEATTLE -- When Seattle NHL general manager Ron Francis was three years old, his mom took him along to the rink to register young Ron's four-year-old brother for the youth hockey program in Sault St. Marie, Ontario. Another friend with a four-year-old and three-year-old accompanied Mrs. Francis to register her older boy as well.
They start young in Canada.
Well, maybe even younger than we think.
As it turned out, the youth hockey organizers asked Mrs. Francis and friend, "what about the other two boys?...We're short two players."
That launched the hockey career of Francis, who among other accomplishments ranks second all-time in NHL assists, fourth in NHL games played and fifth in total NHL points (goals and assists). It also ignited a lifelong passion for Francis.
"Hockey has always been fun for me," Francis told a gathered crowd of Seattle and Pacific Northwest area hockey organizers Tuesday night. The attendees represented the far and wide reach of hockey in the region.
The evening represented a chance to get to know Francis better as a person, plus discuss how NHL Seattle can bolster the already strong grassroots efforts for the sport in this area. The night's conversation is just the start of what promises to be a fruitful relationship for all involved.
Francis talked privately with attendees for the opening half-hour of the event, getting to know folks and hearing about concerns and exchanging ideas for growth.
"I was talking with some gentlemen earlier," said Francis during a question-and-answer presentation on stage. "I heard lots of kids [local hockey players] get to a certain age level, then they leave town [to pursue further development as potential college and pro players].
"You want to have those programs here and keep those kids in town. We can develop right here [in the Pacific Northwest]. Hopefully, we can find ways to work together on that."
For his part, Francis is just as focused on players at every level enjoying the sport as players. He emphasized practice as the time to cement the joy and passion and skills development.
"In a game, if coaches are doing their jobs, a player touches the puck for maybe five minutes total," explained Francis. "In practice, if coaches doing their jobs, every player touches the puck for 45 minutes. You tell me where those kids are going to get better."
"If we put kids first, develop their talents [and love the game], it's amazing to see the strides they can make."
Francis has first-hand experience all levels of hockey to make his case-something that attracted NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke and ownership to name Francis as the first GM. Along with playing for his hometown elite Junior A Sault St. Marie Greyhounds as an amateur, Francis played, coached and work his way to the general manager role for the Carolina Hurricanes.
When Francis retired as a player, he worked two years with the Raleigh Youth Hockey Association. He even started a youth hockey team that played fewer games to make more time for practices, which were restricted to only one school night and then twice on the frequent weekends when the team didn't have games.
Francis said he signed as a free agent with Carolina, which had moved from Hartford, CT, to Raleigh, N.C., not only to return his original franchise after winning two Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh, but also "for the chance to sell the game of hockey in a new market, to show people what hockey is all about."
Youth participation grew three- to four-fold during Francis' time in Carolina. He made a point to compliment the group Tuesday about the NHL Seattle franchise benefitting from a thriving hockey mindset here in town and the Pacific Northwest.
"We already have those hockey fans here," he said. "We don't have to educate [everyone] in the market. Anytime you can sign up 10,000 ticket deposits in 12 minutes, you are in a hockey market."