Ron Francis ponders the question before offering a “safe” answer. “Did the Hartford Whalers make a mistake trading you March 4, 1991?” The correct answer is a resounding, “Yes!” Of course it was a mistake trading Francis along with defensemen Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings to the Pittsburgh Penguins for forwards John Cullen and Jeff Parker and defenseman
Zarley Zalapski. The Penguins immediately went on a two Stanley Cup run.
“It’s not for me to debate,” said Francis, GM and executive vice-president of the Carolina Hurricanes. “I can tell you that I loved playing in Hartford. I grew up there. I started playing there when I was 18 and got traded about 10 years later. From a hockey standpoint, it certainly worked out for me. You win two Cups and have a lot of success in Pittsburgh, so it’s hard to complain about the move.”
The reason the question about the trade is relevant all these years later is because Francis is now charged with plotting the future of the Hurricanes, formerly the Whalers, and there is plenty of buzz that Carolina’s captain and best player,
Eric Staal, could be on the move. At 30, Staal has been slowed by nagging injuries the past few years and hasn’t been as productive as he was early in his career when he was considered one of the best two-way centers in the NHL. Still, the belief is he could fetch a bundle for a team that has been spiraling downward the past few years. The Hurricanes have missed the playoffs the past five seasons and seven of the past eight. --- Dinner was over and Ron Francis and his wife, Mary Lou, were busy clearing the dishes. His parents were anxious to visit Hartford to see Ron and Mary Lou’s first child, daughter Kaitlyn, but Ron’s future with the organization was up in the air, and he told his folks to hold off. Francis has been stripped of his captaincy earlier in the 1990-91 season, and talks for a new contract were going nowhere. Now he was being mentioned as trade bait. However, Whalers GM Eddie Johnston assured Francis he wasn’t going anywhere, so his parents made the trip to Hartford. “A week or 10 days before the trade deadline, they wanted to sign me because they were happy with me,” Francis said. “I said, ‘Let’s wait until after the trade deadline to do the new contract.’ And my agent was told I would not be traded. At that point, I thought I was staying.” The Penguins, meanwhile, had some serious Stanley Cup aspirations. They’d signed veteran right winger Joey Mullen and center Bryan Trottier in the off-season and had traded for veterans Gordie Roberts, Larry Murphy, Peter Taglianetti and Scott Young before pulling the trigger on the massive Francis-Samuelsson-Jennings deal. Upon receiving the news of the trade just three days after his 28th birthday, Francis said he went through the usual gamut of emotions: from being hurt and disappointed that the Whalers no longer valued him, to being excited about joining a new team that viewed him as a critical piece of the puzzle on a potential championship squad. This is a team that already had the likes of
Mark Recchi, Paul Coffey, Kevin Stevens,
Jaromir Jagr, Tom Barrasso, Bob Errey and, of course,
Mario Lemieux (though he missed most of 1990-91 with a back injury) before acquiring Francis. “He was such a professional,” Errey said. “The way he spoke and the way he managed his game were very professional. If you needed a goal, he’d get you a goal. If you needed a shutdown guy, he could do that. If you needed a big faceoff win or blocked shot, he’d do that, too. He wasn’t a guy who had blazing speed, but at the end of the day, he got the job done. “Even as a player, he carried himself on and off the ice like he was a manager. He seemed to put a lot of thought into everything he did.” Playing for a new team – a team with a chance to win – breathed new life into Francis’s career. Of course, there was that little matter of where he fit in on the depth chart. Francis was a No. 1 center, but suddenly found himself on a team that included Lemieux. “I remember the first or second day I get called into the office by coach Bob Johnson and he sat me down and asked how I was doing,” Francis said. “I said, ‘Great.’ He said, ‘I want to let you know we have this kid here, and his name is Mario Lemieux.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know.’ He said, ‘I just want to let you know he’s our No. 1 center.’ I laughed and said, ‘Bob, I’m fine with that. I just want to win. I’m here to help this team win.’ That year my line was Kevin Stevens on left wing and Joey Mullen on right wing – a pretty good second line in my eyes. The next year I played with Jaromir Jagr and Joey Mullen, so it was obviously a very deep team.” Francis enjoyed seven-plus fruitful seasons in Pittsburgh before returning to the franchise that drafted him fourth overall in 1981. The Whalers relocated to Carolina in 1997-98, and Francis spent six seasons with the Hurricanes before concluding his 23-year career with a forgettable stop in Toronto with the Maple Leafs. --- Francis scored 549 goals and had 1,798 points in 1,731 career games and was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2007. Having earned about $40 million in his career, it would have been easy for him to ride off into the sunset and take it easy through his golden years. But like many former high-profile NHLers these days, Francis longed to stay in the game. The feeling of elation he felt jumping over the boards in Minnesota after the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 1991 has never left him. “For me, it is my love for the game,” Francis said. “The game has been really good to me. It is what I have done my whole life so to stay in it and continue to be a part of it is fantastic. I love coming to work every day.” Francis, 51, wasn’t handed a top job in the Hurricanes organization. On the contrary, when he expressed an interest in learning the ropes to Carolina GM Jim Rutherford, he was informed the pay was paltry. “I told Jim it’s not about the money and he said, ‘OK then, I can pay you $35,000,’ ” Francis said. “That’s what I started for. It really wasn’t about the money at that point. I wanted to learn the business and be a part of it, if I was going to put the time and effort in I wanted it to be a good learning experience.” Rutherford said it wasn’t the budget that dictated Francis’s salary. “All the former players that come in and work for me start off at a low salary,” Rutherford said. “For me it is a test of how bad the person wants to get into the front office and into the game. As a player you come to the rink and work your four or five hours and then you leave. If you work in the front office you put in way more hours. Ron worked at all aspects of the game from player development, scouting, doing contracts. He was never in a hurry to get to where he is today and because of that he is very well prepared.” Francis joined the likes of
Brendan Shanahan, Cam Neely,
Patrick Roy and Ron Hextall who have chosen to stay in the game despite having earned millions of dollars in their playing careers. --- When the Whalers moved to Carolina and became the Hurricanes, Rutherford felt his club lacked leadership. So even though Francis was 35, he brought him home to teach the younger players in the organization how to be professionals. At the time, the GM did not think he was bringing back the man who would eventually take his job, but as time wore on, and as Francis showed more and more interest in learning how to manage the franchise, it became clear what lied ahead. “Once we got to the end of his career and I knew he was coming on board in the front office, I didn’t know if I’d be the one who had the say in Ron becoming the GM or if it would be the owner, but it was certainly in my mind that he would be the guy who would take my position,” Rutherford said. “He is strong mentally and he knows the game. He will do extremely well.” After taking over as GM, Francis had hoped to see a quick improvement in his team, but he’s been hogtied by injuries. Center
Jordan Staal missed the first 35 games with a broken leg, while other members of the Hurricanes have been out of the lineup for various periods due to injury: Eric Staal (five games),
Nathan Gerbe (four),
Patrick Dwyer (six),
Brett Bellemore (eight) and
Jeff Skinner (four). Since the lineup has been intact, the Hurricanes have played significantly better. Francis said he’ll take a few weeks to get a feel for the group’s upside before making any decisions to alter the lineup. As for what he expects from his team, Francis’s vision of the Hurricanes is probably the same as the 29 other GM’s and their teams. “I like a team that is smart, that skates well and competes hard every night,” Francis said. “And there are other pieces that have to be included. You can’t just have all skilled players; you’ve got to have guys that play certain roles. We want a team that competes and battles hard every night.” Which brings us back to Eric Staal. Francis finds himself in pretty much the same boat Eddie Johnston was in back in 1991. Does he trade his star? “There are some similarities, but there are differences, too,” Francis said. “I did not have a no-move clause in my contract, for starters. I think it is important when you build a team to have good players, obviously, but to also have good character guys who can lead your young players and Eric certainly fits into that category. We’ll see where things go, but at this point there is nothing on the horizon that would indicate we are trying to trade him.”
This is feature appears in the March 9 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.