Sault Legends: Ron Francis

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Ron Francis is a guy that has rolled with the punches and comes out gracefully. Finishing just two shy of 1,800 points in 1,731 games, Francis started the way he finished his career, averaging more than a point per game.

On October 5th, the reason why I am choosing to do a column on Francis now, is because the bottom of Bruce Street is going to be named Ron Francis Way preceding the NHL exhibition game at the Essar Centre.

Ron Francis came up in conversation with Gene Ubriaco recently whereby Gene was sure that Francis was in the first Hockey Clinic for Northern Ontario as a youngster. A clinic which was started by Ubriaco and also saw players like Dave Taylor come out of it and was also taught by Jerry ‘King Kong’ Korab and Chico Maki.

Being taught by some of the best didn’t hurt because after winning 2 Stanley Cups, being a 4-time all-star, winning the plus/minus award in 1995, winning 3 Lady Byng Trophies, a Frank J. Selke Award, a King Clancy Memorial Trophy and being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2007, Francis has lots for which to be proud.

I remember as a youngster getting a souvenir puck with Ron Francis on it when he played for the Whalers and was starting to become their star. I still have that puck in its original, yellowed now, plastic case. As a kid I used to say “he played for the Greyhounds. He’s from here,” when I would show my friends the puck. Even they thought he was an underdog back then, like he was treated for much of his career.

Ron Francis played less than a year and a half with the Greyhounds before joining the Hartford Whalers in the NHL early in the 1981-82 season. He was selected fourth overall at the 1981 NHL Entry Draft. He was not originally going to be picked by the team but he rolled with it like a true player.

The 19-year-old rookie had 25 goals and 68 points his first season. He even roomed with Dave Keon and the two became good friends.

Midway through the 1984-85 season, he was made team captain when Mark Johnson was traded to St. Louis. At 22, Francis became one of the youngest captains in NHL history, scoring 25 goals and 80 points a season, but midway through the 1990-91 season coach Rick Ley stripped him of the ‘C’ without an explanation. But good fortune would have him with the Pittsburgh Penguins shortly after. It was a hard go for his time with the Whalers as the new team didn’t make the playoffs for four seasons and then were usually knocked out early by the Original Six teams.

In Pittsburgh he played behind Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr. He became not only a goal scorer but one of the best passing centers and two-way players in the league. Pittsburgh won back-to-back Cup titles in 1991 and 1992, and Francis twice reached the 100-point mark. Even in the playoffs he got a point a game, and for 1994-95 he was named Penguins captain while Mario Lemieux recovered from injuries. Taking another blow the following season, the ‘C’ was stripped again from him and given back to Mario.

Francis is perhaps the quietest superstar in the league. He reached 500 career goals in 2002, is one of only a few to record 1,000 career assists, and climbed into the top 10 of all-time scorers, yet not much recognition came with it like Howe or Richard.

In the summer of 1998 he returned to the Carolina Hurricanes, which was where the Hartford Whalers had relocated the previous season. In 2002 Francis led the Hurricanes to their first Stanley Cup Final only to fall to mighty Detroit Red Wings. He received the King Clancy Memorial Trophy and his third Lady Byng Memorial.

Francis went on to play parts of six seasons in Carolina before being dealt to the Toronto Maple Leafs at the 2004 trade deadline. Following a lock out year in 2004-05, which was another blow to Francis, he called it a career in the summer of 2005. In November 2006, Francis returned to the Carolina Hurricanes as the club’s Director of Player Development.

He will be in town for the NHL exhibition game on October 5th to cheer on his Hurricanes. Hopefully, I could meet the man I grew up admiring as a quiet star.

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