After 40 or so years, Ron Francis began to believe he finally had enough of hockey. Let go by the Hurricanes in April 2018 and with his three children grown, he tried something new.
“I went and got my real estate license and was kind of doing that,” Francis said, as he waits on a flight from Raleigh, North Carolina, to Nashville, Tennessee. “Then Hockey Canada asked me to co-manage their Spangler Cup team, then they asked me to be part of their management team for the world championships in Slovakia. I did that, and that one kind of got to me a little bit. You kind of got the urge again, saying, ‘This is what I’ve done my whole life. This is what I like to do. Maybe I should rethink this.’”
So to borrow a memorable line from a forgettable film, just when Ron Francis thought he was out, they pulled him back in.
“You don’t get a chance to build a professional franchise from the ground up very often,” he said. “On one hand, it’s daunting. On the other, it’s a unique opportunity I’m excited to take on. You get to hire the people you want to work with, create the culture you want to create.”
The NHL’s 32nd franchise does not yet have a name, colors, an arena, practice facility, coach or player, but it will start in Seattle two years from now, and Francis, 56, once the sturdy cornerstone of your Hartford Whalers, will be its architect and builder.
“The people involved, from the ownership I met to the people in the organization, it’s just a great group,” said Francis, who was introduced as GM in Seattle on July 18. “Very classy, want to do things right. There’s just a great energy here, and it’s fun to be a part of.”
Francis plans to relocate permanently from Raleigh, where they like to think they own a piece of him, to Seattle early next year. This fall, he’s in airports a lot, traveling the continent to watch players at prospect tournaments, for meetings involving everything from construction to naming rights to league labor matters. His office is in an old brick building in Seattle that used to house an auto garage, and he’s sifting through hundreds of resumes, he estimates 300 texts, calls or emails a day. Francis hired Ricky Olczyk to be his assistant GM last week; his next order of business is building out a pro scouting department. And he has to establish an AHL franchise.
In 2018, Las Vegas reached the Stanley Cup Finals in the Golden Knights’ first year of existence, so there’s an example that success can be achieved quickly, and perhaps a little pressure to do just that in Seattle.
“Certainly, what Vegas did was very special and very unique,” Francis said. “If you go back and read some of the articles, their plan was to draft, develop and be patient, almost like a five-year plan. And then things turned for them. I used to joke, you’d want to be the second GM in Seattle because of the expectations that Vegas put on you. But you look at it and you say, ‘This is the challenge, but it’s not about Vegas. It’s about Seattle.’ With two years, we have a long runway, and we want to take advantage of all of it and not rush into anything.”
The Whalers were still fairly new to the NHL when they picked Francis fourth overall in the NHL draft in 1981, and through the next decade, he became a prolific scorer, consistent presence and captain on a team that has spawned a long list of successful coaches and executives. In NHL circles, they refer to the “Whalers Tree.”
Joel Quenneville coached the Blackhawks to three Stanley Cup titles and is now with the Panthers. Dave Tippett is coaching Edmonton, Kevin Dineen, Dean Evason, Ulf Samuelsson, Doug Jarvis, Steve Weeks, John Anderson, Brad Shaw and Paul Fenton are among the ex-Whalers teammates who have found long post-playing careers.
“I think it’s pretty remarkable,” Francis said, “the amount of guys who played in Hartford in the ‘80s that got into management, coaching, broadcasting, the agent business, you name it, and more impressive just how long they’ve lasted. We were growing up together during those days in Hartford, and there were times after practices we’d go up to Chuck’s in the mall and have lunch together or talk about hockey. Or after a game, we’d head up to Chuck’s and get a back room and get a bite to eat and talk about hockey. It was a unique group and a special group and growing up together and talking hockey, we wanted to stay a part of it.”
Francis, who met and married his wife, Mary Lou, while playing in Hartford, was sent away to Pittsburgh, where he helped win two championships – yes, they also like to think they own a piece of him – in that core-shaking 1991 trade. He later rejoined the franchise in Carolina, helping to reach the Finals in 2002, and ended up playing 23 seasons, piling up numbers that put him among the all-time greats, second only to Wayne Gretzky with 1,249 assists, and ultimately in the Hall of Fame in 2007. He joined the Hurricanes’ front office in 2011 and became GM in 2014.
There’s a street named for Francis in his hometown, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. And if he succeeds in Seattle, still another place may come to feel it owns a piece of him. But there is a reason Ronnie Franchise’s sweater No. 10 still hangs in the rafters at Main and Trumbull.
“There was a lot of passion for the team,” Francis said, “and it was a great relationship between the players and the community. It was certainly a sad day when the franchise left, and a lot of people are hoping at some point they get one back. The logo itself was one of the coolest logos with the ‘H’ kind of hidden in the tail. Normally, you would think things would fade over time, but I guess I’m not surprised that in that market people are still passionate about it. … I enjoyed my time playing there, made a lot of great friends, still stay in touch with people from that era. It’s always a special place for me, and if there was a chance of them getting (a franchise), I’d certainly root hard for them.”