Francis deserving of praise

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 4:18 PM ET


 He might very well be the most understated superstar in all of sport and, if his marvellous career comes to an end tomorrow night, the Maple Leafs' Ron Francis will make a typically quiet exit.

 Yesterday's game was Francis' 1,902nd in the NHL, counting regular season and playoffs.

 Add in 24 seasons worth of exhibition and international starts and he has well over 2,000 games since he first suited up with the Hartford Whalers in 1981-82.

 Francis hasn't made any announcements about his future but, with labour trouble looming, it's a logical place to a put a punctuation point. He has said he will assess things in the off-season and make a decision.

 CUP RUN

 Had he stayed in Carolina with the Hurricanes, he would have had the season-ending spotlight deservedly all to himself, but that wouldn't have been in character either. Offered a chance to make a run at one more Stanley Cup, it was a no-brainer for him.

 "Every kid in Ontario dreams about playing for the Leafs at some point," Francis said in March when he arrived.

 "I think it's an opportunity, if this is going to be the end of my career, to finish it in a different way. I would be kicking myself for the next 50 years if I did not take the chance."

 There are dozens of ways you can try to take the measure of the career of the man they've called Ronnie Franchise, but perhaps the most amazing stat is his record of scoring 20 goals in each of 20 seasons. Only one man in history has had more 20-goal years. You may have heard of him, a guy named G. Howe, who did it 22 times.

 Francis' consistency is amazing. All those 20-goal seasons, yet he never scored more than 31 in any given season. Meanwhile, he was a playmaker's playmaker, accumulating assists at a rate that puts him behind only Wayne Gretzky in that category.

 And if it all ends tomorrow, he will have at least 1,940 scoring points (1,798 in regular play, 142 more in the playoffs), an average over 24 years of better than a point a game in the best league in the world.

 His accomplishments could fill an entire book, yet Francis' name does not come immediately to mind when the legends of hockey are discussed. He won two Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh, but as the foil to Mario Lemieux's greatness. The limelight has never counted for much in Francis' life, only the respect of his peers.

 If there is a reason for that it is Ron Francis, the man and leader, who friends and teammates and fans hold in such high regard. In a sport populated by many of the most humble of stars, Francis stands out for his character and modesty.

 Now 41 years old, Francis learned at a very early age that the world didn't revolve around himself. His brother, Ricky, 21 months Ron's junior, was born with a learning disability that gave Ron a perspective on life that most kids don't have.

 "I learned early in life to list my priorities differently," he said.

 Ricky is a world-class athlete who has won multiple medals in the Special Olympics as a nordic skier, but he embraces athletics of all sorts.

 Their dad, Ron Sr., once said his proudest moment as a father occurred when Ron took a one-day leave from the Pittsburgh Penguins to present medals at the 1997 Special Olympics World Winter Games.

 When it came time to hand out the medals for the 10-k cross-country race, Francis found himself draping the gold medal around his younger brother's neck.

 "Ricky has helped me to realize that, as much as I enjoy playing hockey and earning a living doing it, it's only a game and that there are other things in life more important than sports," Ron told The Toronto Sun's Terry Koshan that day.

 PROUD

 "Often when I go back to the Soo, I'm not Ron Francis, the hockey player. I'm Ron Francis, Ricky's brother. I like that. I get a lot of enjoyment watching him compete and I'm very proud of him."

 Francis has said in the past that at the end of his playing career he would not stay in hockey because he owes his family so much lost time.

 Fair enough, but the game will be smaller without him.

 Whenever he walks away from hockey -- tomorrow, next week, next month -- he will leave the kind of legacy that some of his peers short on quality but big on ego can only dream of.


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