Francis the smartest player

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 7:51 AM ET

Ron Francis pondered the list of inductees into the Hall of Fame: "MacInnis, Messier, Gregory, Stevens. It's an okay class."

And, then, he laughed. As always, he was being the master of the understated. Why change now? In 23 seasons in the hurly-burly, macho world that is the NHL Francis quietly and resolutely made his mark on the game, on the Stanley Cup and, perhaps most impressive of all, on the minds and hearts of fellow players and coaches.

It may be possible to find someone who doesn't like Francis, although you'd have to look long and hard, but the next time someone says they don't respect him will be the first time.

SMARTEST PLAYER

In Hartford, where he became known as Ronnie Franchise, his sweater hangs in the rafters alongside Gordie Howe's. In Pittsburgh, Mario Lemieux might've been the heart of two Stanley Cup teams, but Francis was its soul. All he did for Carolina was resurrect an entire franchise.

"He'd be the smartest player I've ever coached and that's not a knock on any of the other guys," said Toronto Maple Leafs coach Paul Maurice, who was four years younger than Francis when they began a six-year run together in Carolina in 1998. "He'd go to a spot you didn't think he should be and then, the puck was there! That's fine once. But he'd do it over and over again."

In many ways, he likens Francis' approach to the game and life with that of Mats Sundin. "They're both closet preparers. Both didn't make a big show of how hard they work. Didn't make a big show of how badly they want to win ... they'd both be happier if everyone else got the credit for what they did," Maurice said. "The numbers say they're clearly the elite and most important part of the team and franchise but they allow the people around them to be noticed when they could command the attention if they wanted to.

"I think they both quietly love the game more than anyone else who's running around telling you that they love the game. They love everything about it -- coming to the rink. Ronnie was never looking for a day off. He always wanted to be on the ice. He liked being around the room. He loved all parts of the game."

Francis was a model of consistency, averaging more than a point a game. Three Lady Byng trophies attest to his gentlemanly conduct. He is second to only Wayne Gretzky in assists.

"Playing in the Sault we used to watch the Leafs every Saturday night and I guess like lots of kids I dreamed of the NHL, but I never dreamed I would be in the Hall of Fame," Francis, now an assistant GM in Carolina, said. "It's tough to describe in words how I feel. It's such a small, select group."

Francis considered himself a blue-collar player and he did win the Selke trophy for his outstanding defensive play. That, says Maurice, makes his legacy all the more impressive.

"He's considered one of the best defensive players ever and yet he's a producer. There are very few people who did that. To be able to do both is really incredible and he did it for a long time. The year we went to the final in 2002 he led our team in points in the season and in the playoffs and he was also leading our shut-down line. So, he had a lot going. That's his greatness, and, he did both quietly."

QUIET GUY

Quiet. It is often mentioned in connection with Francis. "It's more my personality but I don't think it translates into my being any less competitive," Francis said. "I just went about things differently."

Better, some might say. "He's unassuming. He's very socially aware," Maurice said. "As a captain he's one of the few leaders I've known who would treat players differently based on their personality. Certain guys he'd get after directly and others he knew he'd have to handle differently. Usually, the leaders in sports don't change their personalities. They're either a hard-driving guy or they're not. but he has a really good sense of people and could find a way to get to a player."

The two Cups in Pittsburgh are his bright and shiny moments. "That's the ultimate but after you retire there are many small things you treasure, too," Francis said. He's still friends with Dave Keon, his first roommate in Hartford. "We still talk a lot. He was 41 and I was only 18, but we built a great friendship. It's interesting because I remember my last year in Carolina and one day I'm sitting in the dressing room and the guy next to me is Eric Staal; kind of a circle of life moment."

Regrets? Well, there were those 12 games with the Leafs in 2004 that marked the end of his career. "It was a thrill to wear the sweater, but when a guy goes into a market like that he wants to go when he's 23 not 43 -- I probably didn't have my best game anymore."

If he had played in New York, Toronto or even Los Angeles earlier in his career, Maurice said, "I do think he would've been looked at completely differently. But not necessarily because he was a flamboyant person. But by the people who really watched and studied the game and know the intricacies that come with being a great defensive player. He would've been appreciated more. It wouldn't have been just, well, he played with some great players."

Francis says he's "comfortable" that the bright lights of Broadway never shone his way. "It probably suited my personality," Francis said. "I don't like the limelight."

But, for one night in November, he will smile and make an exception as he steps into hockey immortality in the centre of the hockey universe.

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THE RON FRANCIS FILE

- Selected fourth overall at the 1981 draft by the Whalers, who initially wanted to pick American-born Bobby Carpenter. But Washington, picking third, took Carpenter and the Whalers took the 19-year-old from Sault Ste. Marie.

- In his first season scored 25 goals and 68 points.

- Midway through the 1984-85 season, he was made Hartford's team captain when incumbent Mark Johnson was traded to St. Louis. At 22, Francis became one of the youngest captains in NHL history,

- Francis was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 with Ulf Samuelsson for Zarley Zalapski and John Cullen; his trade from the Whalers to the Penguins was considered a coup for Pittsburgh, where he centred a formidable second line behind Mario Lemieux's first line.

- Won Cup titles in 1991 and '92 with Pittsburgh.

- Named captain of the Penguins in 1994-95 and had first of three Lady Byng Trophy seasons.

- In 1994-95 won the Frank Selke Trophy for his outstanding defensive play.

- In the summer of 1998, at age 35 and an unrestricted free agent for the first time, he signed with the Carolina Hurricanes, who had relocated from Hartford the previous season.

- In 2002 Francis led the Hurricanes to their first Stanley Cup final, losing to the Detroit Red Wings, and was the recipient of the King Clancy Memorial and his third Lady Byng Memorial.

- He surpassed the 500-career goal mark in 2002, finishing his career with 549 goals (21st in the NHL) and is second in career assists to Wayne Gretzky with 1,249.

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WHAT THEY SAID

"We went to the same high school (in Sault Ste. Marie). He was a big name guy in my hometown ... the first time we met was when we were talking about signing him (in Carolina) and all the coaches were watching the Pittsburgh-Montreal series and he sat down and dissected the entire series like a coach might, which is really rare."

-- Paul Maurice on the first time he met Ron Francis.

"He's a class act on and off the ice. He was a clean player and a great all-round player. He's very worthy of entering the Hall."

-- Scott Stevens on fellow inductee Ron Francis.

"When you talk about the total professional, someone who takes everything about his game seriously and who is a true team player, that's Ron Francis."

-- Mario Lemieux, the only teammate during Francis' two decade-long NHL career good enough to relegate Francis to the second line.


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