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From TV to Real Life

They didn't meet until this year, but new GM Ron Francis and CEO Tod Leiweke make a natural pair

by Art Thiel / @NHLSeattle_ /

Unlike most candidates he interviewed for the general manager's job, Tod Leiweke's long experience with the National Hockey League as a fan, recreational player and club executive did not include any previous encounter with this particular applicant.

"I'd only met Ron Francis, you could say, in my living room on TV," he said, experiencing like most fans vicariously the 23-year playing career deemed worthy of a first-ballot enshrinement into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

So the first handshake before breakfast in Vancouver earlier this year produced a bit of a lump in the throat for an executive long used to sports royalty.

"I have to tell you, it was thrilling and slightly intimidating," Leiweke said. "But I got over the intimidation part."

What Leiweke, CEO of NHL Seattle, could not get over was that after Francis hung up skates in 2004, he re-entered the management side of hockey at the lower levels.

"He wasn't just one of the greatest to play the game -- he was captain of three different teams," Leiweke said, referring to Francis's years with the Hartford Whalers (captain at 21), Pittsburgh Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes. "With his legacy, he could have retired and opened a car dealership.

"Yet when he decided to stay in the game, what's really remarkable was he worked his way up through the Hurricanes organization -- hockey ops, player development, an associate head coach for three years, then general manager for four years."

Whern his eight-year advance culminated in the 'Canes GM job in 2014, he took over a team with fewer resources than other teams.

"He was operating a team well below the salary cap, so he had to learn the hard parts of the business," Leiweke said. "The job is not about flashy free agent signings. It's about drafting and development."

Drafting and development paid off for Carolina the past spring. The 'Canes ended a nine-year playoff drought with two series wins-including a sweep of the New York Islanders--and a berth in the Eastern Conference finals. But Francis wasn't there, having left the club a year earlier following a sale to new ownership that ousted him.

As of June 30, Francis was a free agent, and the kind of rare dude that impresses Leiweke - an experienced, commanding figure with something to prove. A little like the previous time in Seattle when Leiweke was running a sports team and hired Pete Carroll.

"I felt strongly then, as I feel now," he said, "that we have a fantastic leader."

But let's slow-roll the analogy. The job of general manager of an expansion franchise, which became official Thursday morning when Francis signed a multi-year contract with the yet-to-be-named Seattles, is obviously far different than that of an NFL head coach.

In fact, the Seattle GM job is different than any NHL GM job.

So different Leiweke had to make a case to majority owner David Bonderman that Francis needed to be hired two years out from first puck drop in October 2021.

Lewieke explained his pitch: "Because he's the right guy, we choose to bring him in a year early to be better prepared to get it right. It's not like any other GM job because he's going to be in charge of building two teams (including a new American Hockey League expansion minor team in Palm Springs, CA) as well as a coaching staff, training staff and the training center at Northgate. And he'll be in the group that decides on the name."

To those who say Carolina's playoff drought during Francis's front-office tenure is hardly an endorsement, Leiweke said,

"The team that reached the conference finals had his fingerprints all over it," he said. "And Carolina's American Hockey League team won a championship."

NHL Seattle didn't rely exclusively upon Leiweke's acumen. A global organizational-consulting firm, Korn Ferry, was hired in January to evaluate GM candidates against a list of seven criteria. The list did not capture a small part of Francis' player resume that may figure prominently as a sports executive with large charge in Seattle.

Francis three times was voted winner of the NHL's Lady Byng Memorial Trophy that goes to one player each season who exhibits "the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability."

Francis indeed has signed up in Seattle for a formidable task, requiring considerable grace under fire. So 23 seasons of pro hockey, which includes two Stanley Cup championships, was superb training.

So far, he has not been asked to pick up a shovel and help with the Seattle Center arena project, perhaps because Leiweke and ownership knows he would say yes.

"The arrows all pointed to him," Leiweke said. "He has phenomenal reputation as a high-character guy, a great player who has become a skilled executive. In a lot of ways, given the people I talked to, it was a no-brainer."

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