In the 1980s I was fan of the Hartford Whalers. They were my second team, behind Vancouver of course. They were kind of the Canucks of the east, although in all honesty they were probably a bit better. They were just unfortunate not to play in tough Adams division.
Unless the Whalers were playing the Habs in the playoffs (remember goalie Frank Pietrangelo's magic in 1992), I rarely got a chance to watch Ron Francis and the Whalers that much in the 1980s. Even though he is the ultimate Hartford Whaler, in many ways I best remember him for his years in Pittsburgh.
Francis joined the Penguins late in 1991, just in time to help the Penguins capture their first Stanley Cup. It was one of those rare blockbuster deadline trades that actually resulted in a championship. Of course these were the peak years of Mario Lemieux, and Jaromir Jagr was bursting on to the scene as well. Watching Francis on TV was a whole lot more easier with the Penguins, as CBC showed them often.
That was when I finally got the chance to truly appreciate Francis. In many ways he was a nearly flawless hockey player. He was a true thinker on the ice, always in perfect position offensively and defensively. He thought the game as well as anyone, and with his vision and soft hands he was a Picasso on the ice, setting up beautiful plays. Was there ever a better line in NHL history than Francis centering Lemieux and Jagr?
Francis returned to the Whalers franchise in 1998, and played with the relocated Carolina Hurricanes for 6 seasons. Sadly, and for reasons I still don't understand, Carolina traded Francis to Toronto late in his final season, 2003-04. Carolina was out of the playoffs and I guess they wanted to let Francis have a shot at the Stanley Cup. Francis must have okayed the deal beforehand, but somehow Francis should have ended his career with the WhalerCanes franchise.
With the lockout costing the loss of the entire 2004-05 season, Francis retired. When play resumed in 2005-06, the Hurricanes won the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. I was really happy for the Hurricanes, who played an entertaining style and won over my praise. But somehow I always felt a little bit odd about captain Rod Brind'Amour getting to hoist the Stanley Cup. This is no slight against Brind'Amour in any way whatsoever, but somehow that should have been Ron Francis lifting that Cup.
Ron Francis recently sat down with members of the media. Here's the highlights:
Dave Keon as my roommate, so that was a pretty good place to start. You know, Dave took me under his wing and, you know, we built a friendship that I'm proud to say still continues today. And certainly that was great."
On his initial thoughts on being traded from Hartford: "When I got the call, I was kind of, you know, a little bit surprised and disappointed, obviously. When I got to Pittsburgh and saw the opportunity that was there, I got pretty excited about it."
On whether leaving Hartford was the turning point of his career: "Well, I think it certainly helped get a little more individual notoriety. I think we went to Pittsburgh where three months later we ended up winning the Stanley Cup. And again the next year when you play on a team with a lot of talented players and you have success like that, I think ultimately, you know, they look for reasons and they start looking for different guys on the team. As a result, we all individually benefited from that sort of notoriety. So it certainly didn't hurt going to the Stanley Cup"
On what he is most proud of in his NHL career: "I think you mentioned the early consistency, for me the fact that I was able to be consistent over my career is something, probably, that I'm most proud of. "
On giving his Hall of Fame speech: I always said put me in front of 40 or 50,000 people and play hockey, I'm comfortable there. Put me in front of 50 people to talk or get in front of, and that's where I'm probably the least comfortable. "
Here's a YouTube tribute to "Ronnie Franchise."
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