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Francis excited about unique challenge as first Seattle general manager

Ready to put experience at all NHL player, management levels toward building expansion team

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

Ron Francis retired as one of the greatest players in NHL history. At the time, Sept. 14, 2005, he ranked fourth in scoring with 1,798 points, behind Wayne Gretzky (2,857), Mark Messier (1,887) and Gordie Howe (1,850). He had won the Stanley Cup twice and made tens of millions.

He approached Jim Rutherford, then general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes, about getting into management and became director of player development a little more than a year later. The job paid $35,000.

"I said, 'Jim, it's not about the money. I want to learn about the business,'" he said. "And that's what my salary was, and I went out and went to work."

 

[RELATED: Francis timeline: From Hall of Fame player to first Seattle GM]

 

Here he was, on the way to the Hockey Hall of Fame, traveling to college and junior rinks to scout and help prospects.

"He worked as hard at that job learning what he needed to learn, hour after hour, like he never missed a beat from making $5 million," said Peter Karmanos, then majority owner, now minority owner. "And that's a very unusual person that can do that."

That's the person the Seattle NHL expansion team introduced as its first GM on Thursday. Not only does Francis have gravitas, he has humility, work ethic and varied experience.

"I couldn't think of a better person for that franchise at this point in time," Karmanos said. 

Neither could Rutherford.

"I worked with him for a number of years," Rutherford said. "I like him personally. I like how he works. He's a hard-working guy. He really knows the game. And to go into Seattle, where you have to build everything from scratch, I think that he's the perfect guy to do that."

Video: Ron Francis on building Seattle into a contender

Tod Leiweke, president and CEO of NHL Seattle, said this was perhaps the most important hire the team would make. The GM would be responsible for building a staff, an American Hockey League roster and an NHL roster before the team begins play in 2021-22 and would have input on everything from the new training center to the team name.

"We knew this [was] not a normal general manager's job," Leiweke said. "There are unique, unique challenges, so you have to find just the right person."

NHL Seattle retained a search firm in January and identified six criteria: an experienced leader and team builder; a relentless worker; a visionary who understood the competitive advantages of analytics; someone with relationships across the NHL; someone with a keen understanding of the NHL salary cap and the NHL Draft; and someone who could evaluate players.

Francis checked each box.

As a player, Francis was captain of three teams: the Hartford Whalers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Hurricanes. When Rutherford signed Francis as a free agent July 13, 1998, the Hurricanes had finished their first season after the team moved from Hartford to Carolina. They were similar to an expansion team in that they were establishing the NHL in a new market. Francis helped them make the Stanley Cup Final in 2002.

"I felt he could help Carolina but also bring credibility and character and leadership, and he did that as a player for us for a long time," said Rutherford, now GM of the Penguins. "And I knew that when he retired as a player that coming into the front office would be a good thing."

Francis went from director of player development to assistant GM, to associate coach and director of player personnel, to director of hockey operations, to vice president of hockey ops. He succeeded Rutherford as GM on April 28, 2014.

The Hurricanes didn't make the Stanley Cup Playoffs on his watch. They made some debatable selections in the NHL Draft. Goalie Scott Darling didn't work out after he was acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks on April 28, 2017 and signed to a four-year contract on May 5, 2017. After Tom Dundon became majority owner, Francis was reassigned as president of hockey ops on March 7, 2018, and his contract was terminated April 30, 2018.

Video: Francis' first steps with the new Seattle franchise

But the Hurricanes had missed the playoffs five straight seasons before Francis became GM and were on a budget. They unearthed center Sebastian Aho with the No. 35 pick of the 2015 NHL Draft, acquired forward Teuvo Teravainen from the Blackhawks on June 15, 2016, and signed forward Justin Williams as a free agent July 1, 2017. Aho, Teravainen and Williams were the Hurricanes' leading scorers last season. Not only did they make the playoffs, they made the Eastern Conference Final while Charlotte, their AHL affiliate, won the Calder Cup.

"In Carolina, he carefully laid a foundation of how to move that franchise forward, not just with the NHL, but with the AHL," Leiweke said. "He managed a franchise that was dealing with tight budgets and below-salary-cap spending in a nontraditional market. He did it by incorporating different viewpoints in decision making, and he was really one of the early adopters of analytics. Over the four years, Ron's draft classes were renowned. He showed patience in team building and belief in the process, and he learned the ultimate skill as a general manager of how to build a winner with less chips. He'll bring that skill here."

Francis has had a chance to reflect and re-energize, and now he will have a clean slate and plentiful resources. He will have a chance to apply everything he has learned.

"We were rebuilding (in Carolina), and that takes sort of setting a plan and a vision," Francis said. "It takes being patient and sticking to the plan and not changing kind of directions halfway through. I thought the guys that I worked with did an excellent job in sort of rebuilding that organization.

"I think as we move forward in this, there's a lot of decisions that have to be made in a lot of different areas. I think my experience wearing a lot of different hats and my experience sitting in the (GM) chair is certainly going to bode well as we move into that decision-making process here."

Time to get to work and start anew again.

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