SEATTLE — Ron Francis has all kinds of eye-popping statistics attached to his Hall of Fame career. He averaged more than point a game, is second in NHL history in assists behind Wayne Gretzky and fifth in career points.
When CEO Tod Leiweke and the ownership group of the Seattle NHL expansion team looked at his playing resume, though, they were most impressed by another statistic: Francis was voted captain by three teams for 14 of his 23 years, first earning the role at age 21.
That leadership ability spurred them to hire Francis on Thursday as general manager of the yet-to-be-named team – well ahead of their schedule.
”Ownership made an incredible commitment . in supporting this idea of let’s do this a year early,” Leiweke said. ”If we’re really here working for our fans, let’s reward their belief. They said we’re willing to make this commitment a year early. We’re willing to bring on a general manager earlier than any other expansion team in the history of the NHL and that gift of an additional year will serve us well and give us a chance to scout and build and plan. But we had to find the right person.”
They believe the 56-year-old Francis is that person, announcing his hiring at a news conference that was attended by the mayor and a state senator. He’ll have complete control of building the organization under Leiweke. He said he’s already drawn up an organizational chart that will guide hiring as the team prepares to open play in 2021 as the NHL’s 32nd franchise.
And he’s already started daydreaming about how his team will look.
”I think if you look at my past experience, it’s a team that’s fast,” Francis said. ”I think it’s a team that needs to have skill and hockey sense. I like a team that’s extremely competitive. And for me I think you need a team that has character. It’s easy to be a good person when things are going well. When things get a little bit tough, that’s when character rises to the top and pulls you through those tough times.”
Character defined Francis’ playing career. Jaromir Jagr, his teammate on the 1991 and 1992 Stanley Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins, called Francis perhaps the most underrated player in NHL history. After starting his career as the No. 4 overall pick in the 1981 draft for the Hartford Whalers, he played for the Penguins and the Toronto Maple Leafs before returning to the Whalers in 1998 after they moved to Carolina.
He guided that team to the NHL finals before retiring. He joined the Hurricanes’ front office and worked through a number of jobs under Hall of Fame GM Jim Rutherford, including assistant GM and associate head coach. He was promoted to GM in 2014 when Rutherford left for Pittsburgh and held that position until an ownership change in 2018, a year before Carolina played in the finals.
Francis said he was depressed after leaving the Hurricanes, but found his drive again while working at the Spengler Cup and with Hockey Canada during last year’s world championships.
”Getting around the NHL players again, the NHL coaches and stuff, the passion started burning again and I thought, ‘OK this is really where I want to be,”’ Francis said. ”And when Tod called, I looked at the opportunity and said, ‘What a great chance.’ We get to build it from the ground up. We get to establish our culture and how we want to do it. I think it’s a unique opportunity. It doesn’t happen every day.”