Gamble pays off big

SCOTT FISHER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:14 AM ET

Las Vegas is known for producing professional athletes.

But most of them make their millions at the poker table.

Chris Francis is well aware what his home town is known for.

"Maybe gamblers, but not hockey players," the Portland Winterhawks forward said.

Francis is changing that perception.

The 20-year-old centre might be the first born-and-raised Las Vegas product to play hockey at such a high level.

One has to wonder how he developed his skills in the desert. There can't be that many rinks in Sin City.

"There's only two," Francis said. "What I did -- and

I didn't plan on this at all -- but when I was 16 and playing midget hockey out there, my coach was the owner of the ice rink I played at, so

I applied for a job there.

"So whenever there was dead ice, I got to go out there for free and just skate around.

"So I basically got to skate every day. I think I was the only guy."

The fact he played hockey is extraordinary. Most people in Vegas don't even watch the game.

The Francis family was different.

"My dad and mom were big Kings fans when they grew up in California when (Wayne) Gretzky was around," he said. "So when I was about five, they took me to a Kings game.

"The next week, my parents put me in roller-hockey, so I was skating around the house and stuff. When I was about eight,

I started on ice."

Growing up in the City of Lights was a unique experience.

But while Francis avoided the casino lifestyle, he said there was plenty to do.

"People say, 'OK, you're not 21, you can't do anything out there,' " he said. "But when you have friends, you're a typical kid and you do everything a kid out here would do, except (most kids) wouldn't play hockey every day like they would do here.

"It's just that it gets really hot in the summers."

Young Francis attended more hockey games than most Canadian kids.

"When I was younger, they had the IHL Las Vegas Thunder, and they'd play in the Thomas & Mack Center," he said.

"So I'd go to a couple of those games.

"And, every year, they'd have the Frozen Fury, between Colorado and L.A., and I'd go to that game every year.

"I'm only about four hours away from California. I played roller-hockey all my life, so we always had tournaments out there.

"So when I was out there,

I always went to a Ducks game or a Kings game. So, I got to watch a lot of hockey when

I was young."

His passion for Canada's game certainly made him stand out among his American peers.

"I went to a school that none of my hockey buddies went to. I was on the other side of town as everyone else, so it was kinda rough.

"But I played football, so

I did just fine."

Francis is in his fourth season with the Winterhawks, which means he lived through some lean times.

The 'Hawks have been the league's punching bag for the past few seasons.

"It's my fourth year and the first three years weren't fun at all," he said with a smile.

As the losses piled up, Francis focused on improving his game.

"The first three years weren't that bad because you're still learning the game.

"You think 'OK, next year's going to get better.' And it didn't, so you think 'OK, next year's going to get better.'

"You just have to keep your head up and keep going."

Francis credits new owner, Calgary businessman Bill Gallacher, for this year's 8-5-0 resurgence.

"Bill Gallacher has done a great job," he said. "In the locker-room, there's big-screen TVs. He's taken care of us and makes us feel like we're welcome there.

"We're going out there and returning the favour by playing hard."

scott.fisher@sunmedia.ca


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