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Hall of Famer Ron Francis leaves legacy with his contributions off the ice

TORONTO - A career that included two Stanley Cups and nearly 1,800 career points got Ron Francis into the Hockey Hall of Fame, but he could just as easily have been honoured for something he's always considered more important.

A little known fact about Francis is that he was one of the NHL's great humanitarians during his 23 seasons in the league.

"Ron Francis's legacy won't be in hockey, it will be all the peoples lives that he's touched outside of it," said Paul Maurice, who coached Francis with the Carolina Hurricanes and is from his hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. "He's a very special person in that regard."

Francis never saw anything special about it.

"Personally, it's almost like it's not a big deal," he said Monday before being inducted into the Hall. "It's something we should all be doing in society as a whole."

The 44-year-old became interested in charitable work at a younger age than most. His brother Rick has learning disabilities and competed internationally at the Special Olympics.

Seeing what his younger brother had to go through stuck with Francis and was in his mind after he joined the Hartford Whalers as a teenager in 1981.

"When I made it to the NHL and felt comfortable with where I was, that was a part of my lifestyle that I wanted to add," he said. "I've been fortunate over the years to be able to do some fun things with some people in tougher situations."

He started out working with the Special Olympics in both Hartford and Sault Ste Marie. After joining the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991, he started the Ron Francis Night Out program that gave kids from a local hospital and their families the chance to come to an NHL game.

They would be picked up in a limo and taken out for a nice dinner before watching the game from Francis's private box and having a chance to meet him and get autographs after.

Francis brought the program with him to Raleigh, N.C., when he signed with the Hurricanes as a free agent in 1998 and continued it until he retired following the 2003-04 season.

He's also organized golf tournaments and served on the board of children's charities, among many other charitable efforts over the years.

"I can't share with you a lot of the things I know he did because he didn't want them shared," said Maurice, who is now coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. "He was very private about that."

Even though Francis never promoted his off-ice work, he was recognized in 2002 with the King Clancy Memorial Trophy for leadership and humanitarian contributions.

His stellar career also included a Selke trophy (1995) for top defensive forward, three Lady Byng trophy wins ('95, '98, '02) for gentlemanly play and the two Stanley Cup rings he won in Pittsburgh ('91, '92), but the Clancy award was just as significant.

"I've always played hockey my whole life and I got to play in the NHL and won championships and had a lot of honours for that," said Francis. "To get honoured for something else was great. It was very special."

His night out program has since been taken up by other Hurricanes players. Francis jokes that the kids aren't impressed to meet him anymore because he doesn't suit up and take the ice.

Instead, he's moved to the front office as Carolina's assistant general manager. Even with the demands the job places on him, charitable work remains important enough to Francis that he takes great pride in the fact that so many current Hurricanes players are involved in the community.

No player has ever worn a Carolina jersey with more pride than Francis, who is the franchise leader in all major offensive categories.

"He loved the big game, he loved the energy that was around it," said Maurice. "He also knew when we would be going into a Tuesday night road game where there wasn't the same excitement that he might have to step up and energize the club a little bit.

"But Ronnie Francis's greatness - as great of player as he was - wasn't really tied to the ice."

Francis received an ongoing benefit from his charitable work - it always kept him grounded no matter what had happened on the ice.

"I think we get so caught up in our little world sometimes and think that everything is life and death," said Francis. "You go out there and you work your hardest and some nights it doesn't happen and you lose a hockey game.

"But then you walk outside the locker-room and there's a seven-, eight-, nine-year-old kid that's fighting for their life. The hockey game seems pretty trivial at that point."


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