When Ron Francis was named the first general manager of the National Hockey League’s newest franchise, the Seattle Kraken, it was a name people noticed. Not so much because of his management résumé, though today’s Carolina Hurricanes, who are amongst the league’s top teams, have his fingerprints all over their roster. Francis’ name is known across the league because of the great player that he was.
Captain, Stanley Cup champion, and winner of multiple individual NHL awards, he did it all over the course of his illustrious playing career. He certainly has his favorite memories, and while Kraken fans hope he’ll make the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder, it’s nice to look back and appreciate the great player that he was prior to becoming a coach, a scout, and eventually Seattle’s first GM.
Francis’ long NHL career spanned multiple teams, first with the Hartford Whalers, next finding glory with the Pittsburgh Penguins, returning to the franchise that drafted him after they’d become the Carolina Hurricanes, and finally making a brief stop in Toronto with the Maple Leafs. As a 1980’s draft pick, he played through some of the league’s highest-scoring years, but also in the so-called “dead puck” era of the ’90s and early 2000s.
During those seasons, where clutching, grabbing, hooking and slashing were regular experiences for an offensive star, he still managed some of his highest production, peaking at 119 points in 1995-96. Francis, as a member of the top 10 point producers in NHL history, scored plenty, and while it’s difficult to name the “greatest” three goals of a player who lit the lamp over 500 times, these below are some of his most memorable.
Francis Scores the Cup Clincher
The 1992 Pittsburgh Penguins were a juggernaut. Though they finished the regular season third in the Patrick Division, they boasted the league’s No. 1 and No. 2 scorers, in Mario Lemieux and Kevin Stevens, and they defeated both of the teams who finished the regular season above them on their path to the Stanley Cup Final. After dispatching the Boston Bruins in four straight games, the Penguins faced the Chicago Blackhawks for the league championship series. Chicago had won 11 straight games earlier in the playoffs and looked to be able to give them a real test.
That wouldn’t be the case. Up three games to none, the Penguins had an opportunity to take their second Stanley Cup victory in two years by a sweep. Chicago was a dogged opponent and each time Pittsburgh took the lead in Game 4, the Blackhawks would tie it up. Finally, mid-way through the third period, with a 5-4 lead at the time, Francis went in on a two-on-one with winger Shawn McEachern. Surely meaning no disrespect to the other player, who played over 900 NHL games himself, Francis opted to shoot and his goal gave the Penguins their first two-goal lead of the game. With Jeremy Roenick scoring one more for the Blackhawks in the game’s dying minutes, the Francis tally would hold up as the game, and Cup Final series winner.
While it seems likely that a team with Lemieux in his prime would have won that series eventually if it had stretched past Game 4, they never had to take that risk thanks to Francis. Hockey is a game of momentum and who is to say Chicago wouldn’t have found a way to come back into the series if they’d managed to take Game 4. Instead, the Penguins cemented themselves as a 1990’s dynasty and Francis got his second Cup ring, which would turn out to be his last.
Between the Legs Magic
With more than twice as many assists as he had goals, it’s only natural to think of Francis the passer or set up man. His incredible on-ice vision was rivaled only by the greatest of the great but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t finish. Amongst his 27 goals in the 1996-97 season was this beauty. Francis tracked the rebound from a Jaromir Jagr shot, made contact, on his backhand and in mid-air, and fired the puck between his own legs and into the Toronto net. Watching the play at real-time speed, we can see that it’s a true feat of athleticism, and a play not many could make.
Goals such as this might have felt commonplace in Pittsburgh at the time with Lemieux, Jagr and other future Hall of Fame players on the Penguins roster, but this one stands out even still. Much in the same way that Connor McDavid’s magical performances almost seem routine up in Edmonton these days, fans might not have fully appreciated what they were witnessing back then, but hindsight tells us that was one of the greatest teams ever assembled, and Francis belongs there amongst the legends he had as teammates.
Overtime Winner in Detroit
The 2002 playoffs were the true birth of the Hurricanes. Though the team left Hartford in 1997, construction delays and poor performance meant they had little local support the first seasons in their new home. When their unexpected Stanley Cup drive happened, it lit a fire in the hearts of North Carolinians that ultimately lead us to the electric atmosphere that surrounds the talented “bunch of jerks” we see today. The return of Ron “Ronny Franchise” Francis had a lot to do with that turnaround, and they leaned heavily on his abilities as they battled toward the Stanley Cup Final.
While Carolina had done well to get there, none thought they had a chance against the perennial favorite, the Detroit Red Wings. Game 1 was a back and forth affair, ultimately requiring overtime. It would be Francis, at 39 years of age, who potted the sudden death winner, stunning those watching as his team took a 1-0 lead in the series. While the moment of brilliance wouldn’t be matched, as the Hurricanes lost their next four against the Red Wings, it is still one of Francis’ great goals, and perhaps the last great moment of his Hall of Fame career.
Francis the player was hardy, playing in 75 or more games in 14 of his 23 seasons, but he was also an elite talent. The youngest captain in league history when given the honor in 1985, he wore the C in each of his main NHL stops. He was a true leader on the ice, and Kraken fans are hopeful that he can build a championship roster in Seattle. The Expansion Draft is less than a hundred days away and there’s a chance his best moves are yet to come.