`Franchise' Ends; Finishes Among The Greats

Gordie Howe was one year into his retirement, Hartford was entering its third season as an NHL city and the Whalers were searching for an identity.

In 1981, they held the fourth pick in the NHL's amateur draft. They were eyeing Massachusetts high school standout Bobby Carpenter.

The Washington Capitals grabbed Carpenter with the third pick. The Whalers settled for Ron Francis, a soft-spoken teenager from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

The Whalers and their fans didn't know it at the time, but Francis turned out to have more in common with Howe than Carpenter.

After 23 seasons that took him from Hartford to Pittsburgh to Carolina to Toronto, Francis, 42, retired Wednesday. He played 1,731 games, third behind Howe (1,767) and Mark Messier (1,756).

He also finished among the all-time leaders in assists (1,249, second to Wayne Gretzky's 1,963) and points (1,798, fourth behind Gretzky' 2,857, Messier's 1,887, and Howe's 1,850).

His 23 seasons were fourth in league history and he scored 20 or more goals in 20 seasons. Only one player has more 20-goal seasons - Howe, who had 22 seasons with 20 or more goals in the NHL and five in the WHA.

"If it's possible to be the No. 2 man in assists and be underrated, Ronnie was," said Ray Ferraro, a Whalers teammate from 1984-90. "He was so understated. He didn't beat his chest and tell everybody how good he was. And he was almost elegant in the way he played."

Next stop for Francis is the Hockey Hall of Fame. Francis will be a candidate in three years and he will certainly be elected in his first year of eligibility.

Francis, nicknamed "Ronnie Franchise" in Hartford, will be part of a first-ballot Hall of Fame class with Messier, Scott Stevens and Al MacInnis, all of whom retired this month.

"I have no regrets," Francis said in a telephone interview. "It was a tremendous, fun ride."

If there is a regret involving Francis' career, it should belong to former Whalers general manager Eddie Johnston. On March 4, 1991, Johnston traded Francis and defenseman Ulf Samuelsson to the Pittsburgh Penguins in a six-player deal.

The Whalers made the playoffs in 1991 and 1992, but trading the best player in franchise history alienated fans and the team failed to qualify for the playoffs in its last five seasons in Hartford.

Francis, meanwhile, won two Stanley Cups ('91 and '92) in Pittsburgh.

"I grew up in Hartford," Francis said. "I started at 18 and was traded at 28. [Then] you win a couple of Cups in Pittsburgh. It was great."

Still, the trade came to symbolize the beginning of the end for the Whalers. There was a core of players who came of age in the 1980s and Johnston dismantled the team, with the Francis trade the final straw for fans.

"Eddie Johnston always said he was going to build a Stanley Cup winner," Ferraro said. "He didn't tell us it was going to be in Pittsburgh." Said former Whalers broadcaster Chuck Kaiton: "That was a pretty special group in the '80s. They meant a lot to the fans in Hartford. When they traded Ronnie Francis, it really hurt the franchise ... for a long time."

By the time the Whalers left Hartford in 1997, Francis was recognized as one of the best all-around players in the game. He won three Lady Byng Trophies for sportsmanship and one Frank J. Selke Trophy for his defense.

"I think anybody would certainly be honored to have their name mentioned with Wayne Gretzky," Francis said. "I don't really look at myself in that category, but hearing your name mentioned alongside [him] is something I'm proud I've accomplished, and I take that as a huge compliment."

Francis returned to his first organization when he joined the Carolina Hurricanes in 1998. He was a member of the Hurricanes team that went to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2002, but he finished the 2004 season with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"Getting a chance to play in Toronto, for a kid growing up in Ontario, was tremendous," Francis said.

While the NHL was dormant because of a labor dispute last year, Francis waited to retire. Like other aging stars who retired this month, he did not know he was playing his final game in '04.

"I don't feel cheated by the lockout," Francis said. "I'm not sure I would have played last year if there had been a season."

His retirement, like his career, was unassuming. It was announced on the NHL Players' Association website Wednesday morning. Francis issued a statement through the NHLPA, but there was no press conference.

"That's Ronnie," said former teammate Kevin Dineen.

"He was so understated. He was underrated and part of that may have been the cities he played in. If he was a New York guy or in Chicago or Toronto, his career would have had more buzz to it. But look at the numbers. He's one of the best."

- Paul Doyle
  Sept 15, 2005

The Trade

On March 4, 1991, one of the most one-sided trades in NHL history took place.

The deal: The Whalers traded center Ron Francis and defensemen Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings to the Pittsburgh Penguins for center John Cullen, right wing Jeff Parker and defenseman Zarley Zalapski.

Result: Francis and Samuelsson, two of the best Whalers ever, won two Stanley Cups as Penguins and continued to have solid careers; Cullen and Zalapski were busts in Hartford. Neither lived up to the hype and Zalapski was one of the first Whalers to openly bad-mouth the city of Hartford. Jennings was a journeyman defenseman and Parker was no factor for the Whalers.

Final Chapter: Raising Of No. 10

He played half his career here and, if it were up to him, he never would have left Hartford. He became a man here. He married one of our state's prettiest girls and became a dad here.

At a time when professional sports became a destination for the loud, vulgar and selfish, he insisted, first and last, on being a gentleman. He refused to embarrass himself even when all around him, coaches, general managers and owners insisted on embarrassing themselves.

And now after more than two decades, we look up and see Ron Francis is one of five men in NHL history to score 500 goals and set up more than 1,000 more. Rocket Richard didn't do it. Jean Beliveau didn't do it and neither did Bobby Hull. We look up and see Francis has more points than Orr, Trottier, Bourque and Mario.

We look up ... and we see nothing in our town to honor him.

The folks from MSG did the right thing last season when they dusted off the Whalers banners, the retired numbers and returned them to the Civic Center rafters.

Gordie Howe's No. 9 hangs above Wolf Pack hockey games and UConn basketball games because of the legitimacy the Howe family brought to the WHA. No. 9 hangs there today, essentially, as a lifetime achievement award.

John McKenzie's No. 19 is retired because of Howard Baldwin's attempt to one-up the Bruins as New England's hockey team. The idea never made sense.

Based on Whalers play, Rick Ley's No. 2 is the only retired WHA number that holds legitimacy. This is the great franchise irony, of course, because if any one player deserves to have his NHL number retired in Hartford it is Francis, and Ley, as Whalers coach, was a central figure in running him out of town in March 1991.

We needn't pick at old scars today. It does no use to point fingers anymore. At least in the penal system of our hockey heart, the guilty parties have long since been served capital punishment. Their reputations have been refried more times than beans at a roach-infested Mexican restaurant.

Ron Francis To those who once insisted Francis wasn't a winner: Run your fingers over his name twice engraved on the Stanley Cup.

To those who insisted he wasn't fast enough to keep up with the pace of modern hockey: The tortoise continues to run in his 22nd season.

To those who insisted he wasn't tough enough to dish out punishment: He was tough enough to absorb two decades of hits and still dish out 1,164 soft passes to goal scorers.

Ronnie played it smart when others played it dumb.

He played both ends of the ice when others chose one.

Others wanted to rip an opponent's face off in the first minute. He won the big faceoff in the last.

Only the overwhelming statistical evidence will put an end to the fact he is the most underrated player in hockey history.

But we already know all this, don't we, Hartford? There is no need to preach to the Brass Bonanza choir.

If we hadn't watched Francis' career so carefully, the twists and turns would probably be considered too bizarre for truth. Ed Johnston traded Francis and succeeded in giving the Penguins two Cups and in killing the Whalers franchise. Yet who among us didn't chuckle in disbelief when EJ ended up coaching Ronnie in Pittsburgh? Francis' only reaction was to handle it with poise and dignity. When the Penguins could no longer afford to keep Francis, he signed with Carolina. Again, who among us didn't chuckle in disbelief? Pete Karmanos' move to Raleigh will forever live alongside the trade in Hartford sports infamy. But there was Ronnie, nary a bitter word, Old Gentleman River just rolling along. Even if Whalers fans never fully forgive, surely there is a lesson to be learned in Ronnie's resilience and his dignity.

This is why we cannot miss out on honoring the athlete who most impacted major league sports in our town.

Surely, it would be fitting if the Rangers played the Hurricanes at the Civic Center in an exhibition game in October. It would be even more fitting to retire No. 10 to the rafters in a pregame ceremony. Assuming Francis plays another season, there is nothing to stop him from wearing No. 10 in Carolina red while No. 10 in blue and green is archived for the ages. The trivia would be rich. Who is the only player to have his number retired in one city and still play with the same number for the same franchise in another city?

Karmanos has not brought his team back to Hartford since 1997. Yet if he believes in his heart that he did what was best, this surely is his chance to show he is a magnanimous enough man to overlook the bitter words of five years ago and give Whalers fans their chance to honor Francis.

"Give me a few days to look into it," Wolf Pack general manager Al Coates said.

Coates said the Rangers already may have filled their exhibition schedule, and quite frankly that is not a good enough excuse. Exhibition schedules aren't sacrosanct. Honoring Francis would be big doings in Hartford, very big doings. It is a chance for both franchises to do something special for our town.

Picture it. Chuck Kaiton would host the ceremonies. Brian Leetch, the best our state has ever produced, would have to play for the Rangers. A few of the Wolf Pack, particularly Ken Gernander, who has carried the torch for hockey in this town, should play, too. Rangers captain Mark Messier and Gordie Howe, two of the four to score more than Francis, should be there. And if Pete Karmanos showed, man, I'd even grow a ponytail.

Brass Bonanza sure would sound good that night.

- Jeff Jacobs
  Jan 4, 2002