Ron Francis never had to battle self-doubt when going 1-on-1 with the fiercest of NHL defenceman during his stellar 23-year playing career.
But talking about himself while addressing large audiences? That’s another matter, entirely.
“I always said put me in front of 40 or 50,000 people and play hockey, I’m comfortable there,” Francis said during a conference call Tuesday. “Put me in front of 50 people to talk or get in front of, and that’s where I’m probably the least comfortable.”
Francis is going to find himself back in the spotlight in a big way next Monday when he, Al MacInnis, Mark Messier, Scott Stevens and Jim Gregory are inducted into Hockey Hall of Fame. Each of them will be called upon to deliver a speech during the ceremonies and deciding exactly what to say and how to say it can be tricky stuff.
“I’m still crossing a couple T’s, and dotting a few I’s here,” said MacInnis. “I think it’s one of those ones where you don’t want to miss anybody that’s been very important in your life and your hockey career. You want to make sure you touch on all areas of your hockey career from your youth to your parents and all the way through to the end.
“When you play 23 years there’s a lot of help along the way and a lot of different people.”
Highlighting one person while omitting another, even inadvertently, can lead to hard feelings, but a laundry list of names can leave an audience bored stiff. The challenge is to keep things interesting while getting in all the necessary thank yous in a reasonable amount of time, and it’s not easy.
Just ask the winners who drone on and on and on during the Academy Awards, for example. Bad speeches can end up just as memorable as good ones.
“Well, it’s not finalized,” Francis said of his speech, laughing. “I guess that should tell you something. It’s really tough when you try and sit back and look back on your career. You know there are so many people that have touched your life both on the ice and within your career in the NHL whether it be owners, GMs, coaches, players, trainers, all the way down. And that doesn’t even account for all of the people that you encountered outside of the game that you met along this trip, too.
“For the most part I think I’m OK with it. There are a couple of paragraphs I’m really wrestling with. I know there are going to be some guys there and some guys that can’t make it, and how do you thank certain people without offending other people is the biggest challenge.
“That’s probably why it’s still not done.”
MacInnis, the longtime Calgary Flames and St. Louis Blues defenceman best known for his booming slapshot, has decided against stressing out over the speech. His has been ready for a while and he plans to heed some advice he’s received from previous inductees.
“You’ve got to realize that you have to enjoy it when you get there,” said MacInnis. “I don’t think you can get too worked up about it. Yes, you can get a little nervous and you have butterflies.
“But I pretty much have my speech all ready, and I feel comfortable with it. And you know, I’m hoping once I get there and get settled in and see everybody, I think the enjoyment will come out rather than getting too worked up about it.”
Francis, the playmaking centre who starred for the Hartford Whalers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes, has also received no shortage of advice on how to handle the induction events. The speech, though, is an individual thing and he’s made it his own.
“I think everyone has to speak from past experiences,” said Francis. “You speak from your heart. You speak from your emotions.
“There are different people that influence you. It could have been a family member, I think it could have been a coach. That’s what you have to build your speech around, on the people that kind of influenced you and inspired you and gave you the opportunity to play the game.
“That’s what I tried to build my speech around.”
The best speeches tend to reflect the speaker’s personality. Francis, for instance, won’t be cracking any jokes when he hits the stage.
“I think my personality is to play it a little more straight, trying to do this speech and get through it in a timely fashion,” said Francis. “To get all of the things you want to get in there, you have to be more straight to the point and straightforward.”