Remember Ron Francis? He was the player who joined the Penguins’ roster at the trade deadline of the 1990-1991 season and helped Pittsburgh win its first Stanley Cup in franchise history, and then helped Pittsburgh win its second cup the following year. Francis played seven seasons in a Penguins’ uniform and two stints as the club’s captain.
Well, Ron Francis is back in the old Mellon Arena, only this time he is behind the bench – the Carolina Hurricanes bench, that is.
“It seems like a long time (since I played here in the early ‘90s) now, but I certainly have good memories of being in here,” Francis said following the Hurricanes’ morning skate on Monday. “I played quite a few good hockey games here and I’m looking forward to watching some good hockey games here again.”
A few of those good hockey games include his two favorite games at the Mellon Arena as a Penguin.
It seems like a long time (since I played here in the early ‘90s) now, but I certainly have good memories of being in here. I played quite a few good hockey games here and I’m looking forward to watching some good hockey games here again. - Ron Francis
The first moment was when Francis assisted on Kevin Stevens’ overtime game-winning goal against the Washington Capitals in Game 2 of the Patrick Division Final on April 19, 1991. The Penguins won the game, 7-6, and went on to win the series, 4-1.
“The overtime game against Washington with Kevin Stevens scoring,” Francis recalled, “(I remember) going down the left side and faking the shot and then going over to him and scoring.”
The second moment he recalled was the hat trick he netted in Game 4 of the Patrick Division Final to help the underdog Penguins best the Rangers, 5-4, in overtime on May 9, 1992.
“We lost Mario Lemieux and then Joey Mullen early in that series and nobody really gave us a chance against the Presidents Trophy winners that year in the Rangers,” Francis explained. “Scoring a hat trick that night in this building, including one from our blue line which doesn’t happen every time, that was certainly memorable.”
Francis tallied a goal in the second and third periods and he then converted on the power play to score the game-winning hat trick goal at 2:47 in overtime.
“Back at my house that night a couple of neighbors had hung some baseball hats in the tree out front in my front yard, and there were horns honking and stuff,” Francis recalled. “When I woke up in the morning, there must have been 30 or 40 baseball hats hanging in that same tree. That is certainly a good memory from that time.”
After his seven seasons with the Penguins, Francis signed as a free agent in 1998 with the Carolina Hurricanes, the same organization that drafted Francis in the first round in 1981, although then they were the Hartford Whalers.
Francis retired from hockey on Sept. 14, 2005. In 23 years in the NHL he played 1,731 regular-season games and tallied 549 goals and 1,249 assists in that time to rank fourth all time in NHL history with 1,798 points - trailing only Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Gordie Howie.
The Hurricanes hired him as the director of player development in 2006. He served a stint as the assistant general manager and currently serves as the associate head coach.
“I initially came into it saying that I didn’t want to be a part of coaching,” Francis explained. “I initially started with the organization as a director of player development, which was kind of interesting. It sort of evolved over time and (Hurricanes general manager) Jim (Rutherford) has been very good about letting me learn different facets of the business and I think it’s important. This year he asked me to step in behind the bench and help here for the balance of the season.”
The Hurricanes value Francis’ unique, detailed vision of the game.
He sees the game the way few people do. He did it as a player… He has a great grasp of things that are just outside of central vision. - Paul Maurice
“He sees the game the way few people do,” head coach Paul Maurice said. “He did it as a player… He has a great grasp of things that are just outside of central vision.
“Ronnie will come down more times than not and say, ‘give this guy a chance, I think he can do this, this guy has got it going.’ So, it is a real kind of positive spin for our players.”
As one of the greatest forwards and faceoff centermen to play the game, Francis also has a lot of insight to share with some of Carolina’s up-and-coming, top-shelf talents, particularly Eric Staal.
“There are very few people in the world who truly understand those top-end players,” Maurice said. “Clearly he has a great relationship with Eric (Staal) and understands the game in a way that I don’t.”
“Ron has been phenomenal since the moment that he came onto the bench,” Staal added. “He has that positive energy and a real knack for plays, even in the midst of a game, to help you out and find some open ice in the offensive zone. He has a great knowledge for the game. That has really helped myself personally and a lot of our offensive guys.”
One thing is clear though, while Ron Francis is happy to be back in Pittsburgh for some playoff hockey, he is focused on one thing.
“First and foremost I’m here to help our team be successful,” Francis said. “That’s my main focus. There will be plenty of time to catch up with a lot of old friends during the course of the summer. I may talk to a few people over the phone but most of my focus will be on this hockey club and doing what we can to be prepared and ready to roll.”