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Hurricanes honor Ron Francis, retire his No. 10

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Ron Francis donned the familiar sweater and
led the Carolina Hurricanes on the ice one final time, then took a
victory lap around the rink to a standing ovation.

When he was done, his wife and three children joined him near
center ice, as did his parents, his brother and a handful of
friends.

"Having my family on the ice with me tonight makes the
celebration complete," Francis told the crowd at the RBC Center.
"There's no better group I could have asked to share this ride
with. You are simply the best."

The Hurricanes retired Francis' No. 10 on Saturday night before
playing the Atlanta Thrashers. The end of his 23-year career
officially came in September, when he announced he wasn't coming
back following the lockout.

And his former teammates had their own tribute on "Ron Francis
Night" -- they each skated in warmups with a replica Francis
sweater, complete with the "C" on the shoulder that designated
his status as captain.

"I think just the fact that we have a Hall of Famer in our
midst, with this franchise and this team, is special," current
captain Rod Brind'Amour said earlier in the day. "We don't have a
Stanley Cup yet, we don't have anything like that to hang out hat
on, but we have a Hall of Fame player."

The touching pregame ceremony featured a video montage of
Francis' career, and he and his family were given a vacation
package to a ski resort in western Canada. Finally, a banner with
the number was raised to the rafters and became the first part of
the team's Ring of Honor.

"I think the organization did a tremendous job in all facets of
this stuff," Francis said afterward. "The guys wearing the
jerseys was a nice touch. On TV, it looked pretty sharp."

Among those in attendance were NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
"When you think of his accomplishments on and off the ice, the
dignity, class and durability that his career represented, it's
truly phenomenal," Bettman said. "He deserves the recognition
that he's getting."

Francis began his career as the fourth overall pick of the
Hartford Whalers before getting traded to Pittsburgh, where he
helped the Penguins win back-to-back Stanley Cups. He returned to
his original franchise as a free agent in 1998 -- only it was
located in North Carolina and was called the Hurricanes.

He still makes his home in the area.

"I've been very happy with the decision I made," Francis said
a day before the ceremony. "I hate when guys just say it's the
money has nothing to do with it, certainly the money had something
to do with it. I'm glad when I got down here and started living in
this community, it was everything I hoped it would be."

When Francis stepped away from the game, he was second to Wayne
Gretzky with 1,249 assists, and ranked among the NHL's career
leaders with 1,731 games (third), 549 goals (19th) and 1,798 points
(fourth).

Perhaps just as important as those numbers were the impact he
had on the sport in a nontraditional market such as Raleigh. He led
Carolina to the Stanley Cup finals in 2002, and even losing to the
Detroit Red Wings in five games hardly silenced the buzz about the
team from Tobacco Road.

It's back this season -- the Hurricanes entered Saturday with the
most points in the league, along with an 18-point lead in the
Southeast Division.

"Like a lot of people, I think this is the deepest team that's
ever been in Carolina," Francis said. "I honestly thought they
could win the division at the start of the year. Quite honestly, I
wasn't expecting them to be challenging for the overall lead."

None of the current members of the team were worried about
losing their focus because of the ceremony.

"I think it's the furthest thing from a distraction, I think it
brings an excitement," said center Kevyn Adams, an alternate
captain. "We've played a lot of games in a short stretch here, and
this should certainly be something that brings out a spark in us,
no doubt about it."

A standing-room only crowd didn't hurt, either.

"Unfortunately, it cost me a lot of money to fill up the
building," Francis quipped. "For me, it's been a great time here.
I enjoyed my time on the ice, and I've enjoyed seeing more and more
people get interested in the game of hockey."