Legends of Hockey - Spotlight - One on One with Ron Francis
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One on One with Ron Francis

22 MAY 2009
A young Ron Francis as a member of the OHL's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. (HHOF)
With the imminent demise of the World Hockey Association, an agreement was struck for four franchises -- the Edmonton Oilers, the Quebec Nordiques, the Winnipeg Jets and the New England Whalers — to be absorbed into the National Hockey League for the start of the 1979-80 season.

The New England Whalers, renamed the Hartford Whalers, boasted a roster that included 51-year-old Gordie Howe as well as Dave Keon. During that season, Bobby Hull was also acquired.

As the franchise floundered in its early NHL life, it earned high draft picks to solidify its roster. In their third season, they used the fourth overall pick in the 1981 Entry Draft to select the player who would become the face of the franchise for a generation.

Ronald Michael Francis Jr. was born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario on March 1, 1963. The teenager was playing with the hometown Greyhounds when he made his NHL debut during the 1981-82 season. Immediately, the big centre made a difference. In his rookie season, Francis scored 25 goals and 68 points in just 59 games

The Whalers gradually gained respectability, in large part due to the production of Francis. Ron led the team in scoring five times in his nine seasons in New England. In the spring of 1986, Hartford achieved playoff status for the first time in six years, going to the Division final. In each of the next four seasons, with Francis leading them on, the Whalers made the playoffs but lost in the Division semi-final. Ron's best season in Hartford was 1989-90 when he collected 101 points on 32 goals and 69 assists.

Francis' career began as a member of the Hartford Whalers. (Robert Shaver/HHOF)
On March 4, 1991, Hartford traded Francis, Grant Jennings and Ulf Samuelsson to the Pittsburgh Penguins for John Cullen, Jeff Parker and Zarley Zalapski. While the Whalers made the playoffs in 1991 and 1992, trading the best player in franchise history alienated the team's fans and the team failed to qualify for the playoffs in its last five seasons in Hartford. Meanwhile, the trade produced immediate dividends for Pittsburgh and Francis. That spring, he and his teammates celebrated the franchise's first Stanley Cup championship, defeating the Minnesota North Stars in six games.

The Penguins won a second consecutive championship in 1992. Defeating the Chicago Blackhawks in four straight games, Francis scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal in a 6-5 triumph. His 19 playoff assists were best in the NHL that year. "I grew up in Hartford," confessed Francis. "I started at 18 and was traded at 28. (Then,) you win a couple of Cups in Pittsburgh. It was great!"

Ron's net worth to hockey was truly recognized in Pittsburgh. In a strike-shortened campaign in 1994-95, Ron finished fifth in scoring (including a league-best 48 assists in 44 games), won the Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward, the Lady Byng Trophy for being the most gentlemanly player in the league and finished with the best plus/minus ranking in the NHL.

In 1995-96, Ron finished fourth in scoring, leading the league in assists with 92 as he finished with a career-best 119 points. He was ninth in scoring in 1996-97 and seventh in 1997-98. He also earned his second of three Selke awards in 1997-98.

Ron Francis of the Pittsburgh Penguins lets a shot go during 1991 Stanley Cup Final action versus the Minnesota North Stars.
(Paul Bereswill/HHOF)
The Hartford Whalers' owner, Peter Karmanos, fled Connecticut in 1997-98 for North Carolina. There, in the heart of basketball (Duke University) and NASCAR country, the Hurricanes attempted to stake their place, with limited success. They missed the playoffs that first year, but there was reason to be excited. Keith Primeau, Gary Roberts and Sami Kaponen formed a solid foundation. In July of 1998, Ron Francis returned home (sort of), signing as a free agent with the Carolina Hurricanes. "I have two Stanley Cups under my belt, so my choice didn't have to be a team that could win it immediately, although that is still my goal," he said at the time. "There were a lot of factors I took into consideration. I'm not going to lie and say money wasn't one of them, but it wasn't the only factor. I felt I wanted to go to an organization I could help both on the ice and off the ice. (Carolina) is the place I felt made sense -- in a hockey sense and in a family sense. I was very interested in going to a city that I feel is a good place to raise a family."

The return of the prodigal son paid off handsomely, as the Hurricanes made the playoffs that spring, the first time in six years for the franchise. The team, with Francis as captain, went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2002.

That was a very special year for Ron. The Cup run was outstanding, but he was also honoured with two individual awards that spring. Francis was named the recipient of the Selke Trophy for a third time, and he was also recognized for his extraordinary contributions off the ice as winner of the King Clancy Trophy.

Inspired by his brother Ricky, a younger brother challenged by a learning disability, Ron had always contributed back to his community, going back to his junior days and continuing through his NHL career. "I think that sort of helped me mature a little bit earlier than most kids and maybe structure my priorities in life a little bit different than most people," he suggested.

From left to right: Rod Brind'Amour, Ron Francis and Glen Wesley of the Carolina Hurricanes hoisting the Prince of Wales Trophy in 2002.
(Dave Sandford/HHOF)
At the trade deadline in 2003-04, Ron was given one final opportunity to attempt to win the Stanley Cup. He was traded to the Maple Leafs by Carolina for Toronto's 4th round pick in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. "Getting a chance to play in Toronto, for a kid growing up in Ontario, was tremendous," Francis said, but the experiment was ill-fated. The Leafs crashed and burned.

With the league dormant in 2004-5 because of a labour dispute, Ron decided to choose that opportunity to conclude his brilliant career. As a result, his final NHL game came in one of the 24 games (12 regular season and 12 playoff games) he played in blue and white. "I remember being 18 and saying, 'If I could play 12 seasons, until I was 30, and get out of the game, that would be it.'"

Through 23 NHL seasons, the 42-year-old Francis played 1,731 games, third behind Gordie Howe (1,767) and Mark Messier (1,756). He scored 20 or more goals in 20 of his seasons. Only Howe had more 20-goal seasons (22) in the NHL. Ron also finished second in career assists (1,249 to Wayne Gretzky's 1,963) and fourth in career points (1,798, behind Gretzky' 2,857, Messier's 1,887 and Howe's 1,850).

Francis's number 10 from his Whalers' days was raised to the rafters at the Hartford Civic Center on January 6, 2006, and that same number, worn as a Hurricane in Carolina, was retired on January 28, 2006. In November 2007, Ron Francis was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

"It was a tremendous, fun ride," he smiled.

Kevin Shea is the Editor of Publications and Online Features for the Hockey Hall of Fame.