2007 Hockey Hall of Fame -- Ron Francis bio
AP Photo/Bob Jordan
Francis transitioning into new role
By Scott BurnsideFor the first six months after Ron Francis decided 1,731 regular-season games and 1,798 regular-season points were finally enough, he spent his time fretting about what he was going to do next.
He wondered about his hobbies and his interests and his future.
Finally, his wife, Mary Lou, asked him, "What are you doing to yourself?"
Then, and only then, Francis did what he wanted to do to begin with -- get away.
"For the first six months, I probably drove myself crazy and my family crazy," Francis said in a recent interview with ESPN.com. "I think you run through all the things both in the game and away from the game that you might do.
"During that first six months, I was spending so much time thinking about that, I forgot that my goal was really to take a year and get away," Francis added. "And I ended up doing that."
So, Francis really retired, played some golf, traveled, helped coach one of his two sons' hockey teams, watched his 16-year-old daughter Kaitlyn play volleyball and helped coach her softball team. Then, before last season, two years and four months after Francis last played an NHL game, Carolina GM Jim Rutherford called and asked whether he wanted back in.
"That's what drove me back to work -- my golf game was so bad," Francis joked.
There were options, as there always will be for a player who played more games than any other NHLers except of Gordie Howe and Mark Messier and whose 1,249 assists are second only to Wayne Gretzky. Francis could work with local businesses as a kind of team ambassador or he could get closer to the action and step into a role in player development.
"That was way more interesting to me," Francis said.
After spending time at training camp a year ago and helping out with the Hurricanes' power play, Francis formally accepted the title of director of player personnel.
This fall, when assistant GM Jason Karmanos abruptly left the team, Rutherford asked Francis whether he'd be interested in accelerating his management career track. He was.
"This came out of the blue," Francis said. "I'm really excited. I wasn't really planning on being here at this point."
Does Francis, who had such confidence and poise for 23 NHL seasons as a player, worry that he might not be able to do the job? That he might not have the right stuff?
Francis asked himself, and Rutherford, those questions, specifically whether Rutherford thought he was ready.
"He felt comfortable in that regard," Francis said.
For many players, the issue of whether they retired too early, or not early enough, haunts them long after they retire. Not so with Francis.
"I kind of knew in my heart. I knew that was it," said Francis of his final season, which saw him traded to Toronto at the 2004 trade deadline.
After the lockout, he never had that nagging twitch when he walked into the RBC Center.
"There was none of that, 'Darn, maybe I should still be out there. I can still play' feeling," Francis said.
If there is a challenge for elite players such as Francis, fellow inductee Al MacInnis, Luc Robitaille and Steve Yzerman, all of whom have taken management roles in recent years, there is an equal challenge for the teams that take them on.
What if the players don't work out? What if they can't do the job?
Imagine the public relations nightmare of having to fire or squeeze out an Yzerman in Detroit or a Francis in Carolina?
Luckily, that is a problem that exists only in the theoretical for Rutherford and the Hurricanes.
"The public perception of this is never good. But you'd have to do it [make a change]," Rutherford said in a recent interview. "You don't totally know until that former player takes that step [whether it's going to work out]. These jobs are not easy. They're hard work."
Rutherford said he was pleased Francis took time to separate himself from the game.
"You approach things differently when you move into the front office," said Rutherford, who played 13 NHL seasons as a netminder. "It's not just about getting the job. It's about how you approach it and what you want to do with it."
Rutherford showed Francis a list of prospects, from the top end to the low end. Then, he told Francis he wanted him to monitor their progress, step in if they looked as if they were faltering, talk to them, take them to dinner and generally make them better players.
Then, Rutherford said to Francis; "I'd like you to tell me how you're going to approach this."
So, Francis drew up a schedule, showing how he was going to get to the prospects.
"And he did it. He didn't stray from what he set out to do," Rutherford said.
Francis saw some of the kids seven or eight times.
Rutherford recalled one meeting in which Francis was discussing a young player, Noah Babin, who hails from the hockey hotbed of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Finally, Rutherford asked whether the Hurricanes should sign him.
"And he said, 'Yes, I recommend it,'" Rutherford recalled. "But Ronnie was nervous about it. He didn't do it just to do it."
As a player, Francis was used to seeing only the end product of all the work that goes into drafting and developing a player. You show up at the rink, and there's another fresh-faced kid sitting in the room. How hard could it be?
But in talking with scouts, including director of pro scouting Marshall Johnston, Francis got a bird's-eye view not just of the development end of things but also of how it is intrinsically tied to the business end of building a team.
Even the physical element of what scouts do -- traveling great distances, often through harsh weather, dealing with flight cancellations and delays -- made Francis appreciate what his colleagues had been doing in anonymity for years.
"It was a real eye-opener," he said.
Francis was among the first of his generation to chart this path. Last season, he ran into Yzerman on the road. They chatted a bit, old Central Division foes whose teams often went toe to toe in the playoffs, whose careers crisscrossed a hundred times, maybe more.
"From my standpoint, I think it's great," Francis said of the trend of great players moving into management roles. "I think it's great for the game that you have guys that want to stay in the game."
Francis's determination hasn't just landed him a job, it also has changed how Rutherford approaches development. Because Francis was so diligent in his first assignment before becoming assistant GM, Rutherford hired former netminder Tom Barrasso to work with his young goaltenders in the same way.
"This has really opened my eyes to doing more in development," Rutherford said.
Learning the ropes isn't necessarily the biggest challenge for people like Francis who are looking at turning Hockey Hall of Fame careers into something else in the hockey world; the issue is more the desire to learn the ropes.
Francis said it's something you can't take lightly, so he and his wife sat down and talked before he decided to take the personnel job.
"This is not just a, 'Oh, let's do it for a year.' This is obviously a serious commitment," Francis said. "We'll see where it takes me."
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
• Teams: Hartford (1981-91), Pittsburgh (1991-98), Carolina (1998-2004), Toronto (2004).
• Games: 1,731
• Goals: 549
• Assists: 1,249
• Points: 1,798
• PIMs: 979
• Francis started his career with the Whalers before being traded to the Penguins in 1991. He won two Cups in Pittsburgh. He is now an assistant general manager with the Hurricanes.
To me, Ronnie's best years were with those Pittsburgh teams, when they won two Stanley Cups. You had Jaromir, Francis and Mario Lemieux on the same team. That's pretty unbelievable talent. That's Edmonton-esque. I think he's the most underrated hockey player to play in NHL. When we're talking about the greatest hockey players ever, no one mentions Ronnie Francis. But if you look at his numbers, he's top 5 in everything. And yet, no one thinks of Ronnie Francis in those categories.
GALLERY2007 Hockey Hall of Fame
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