Hurricanes’ Ron Francis opens NC sports hall to hockey

calexander@newsobserver.comMay 1, 2013 

— During a visit to the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame a couple of years ago, Ron Francis couldn’t help needling the hall’s executive director, Don Fish.

"I jokingly said to Don they had the football paraphernalia and basketball paraphernalia and tennis stuff," Francis said Wednesday. "I said, ‘There’s no pucks up there and no hockey sticks. We’ve got to change that.’"

Change has come. On Thursday, Francis will give the hall its first hockey representative as a member of the class of 2013. Sticks and pucks are in.

Francis’ selection was fitting. He was the Carolina Hurricanes’ first big free-agent signing after the team moved to North Carolina in 1997, turning some heads in the NHL and giving the franchise added credibility in a new market. As team captain, he helped the Canes reach the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in 2002.

After his playing career ended, Francis joined the Canes’ management team, making Raleigh home for his wife Mary Lou and their three children. He continued to help the sport grow and find its niche. He’s an investor in the team.

"One reason I signed here in 1998 that was intriguing to me was the chance to sell our sport in a new area," Francis said. "I said at the time I signed I firmly believe in our sport, I firmly believe it’s something people will like. To have me go into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame as the first member of hockey and the first member of the Carolina Hurricanes with such a prestigious group, it’s a great feeling to know that our sport has come a long way."

Francis is one of 11 inductees this year, a large class. The others are: former North Carolina basketball coach Bill Guthridge and UNC football star Kelvin Bryant; baseball’s Tommy Helms, softball star Wade Garrett; tennis champion Mildred Southern; and longtime high school football coach Marion Kirby and football standout Rich McGeorge.

Marty Sheets, who won hundreds of Special Olympics medals, is in the class of 2013. Being honored posthumously are Hugh Morton, the Grandfather Mountain owner and sports photographer, and journalist Bob Quincy of Charlotte.

The press conference Wednesday was filled with basketball talk. Even the grandson of James Naismtih, the man who invented the game, was on hand for a presentation to the hall.

But hockey finally has found its place -- in the hall, in the state.

"What an addition to the great sports tradition we have to bring a guy like Ron Francis into the hall," Fish said. "He’s the first but he won’t be the only one."

Fish mentioned former Canes captain Rod Brind’Amour, general manager Jim Rutherford and former defenseman Glen Wesley as others who should receive consideration.

"They’ve made a great contribution and we’re going to have a great run on hockey at the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame," Fish said.

For Francis, a native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, being inducted in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2007 was the ultimate.

"As a kid growing up and that’s your sport, it’s like a basketball kid growing up wanting to get in the basketball hall of fame,” he said.

Francis’ playing credentials included 23 seasons of sustained excellence, two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins, 549 goals and 1,249 assists.

Of his 23 NHL seasons, 16 were spent with the Hartford Whalers and Hurricanes. His Hurricanes’ jersey number, No. 10, has been retired since January 2006.

The Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup in 2006, becoming the first major-league franchise in the state to win a championship. Francis joined the front office as director of player development in November 2006, later serving as associate head coach and director of player personnel.

Francis, 50, now is vice president of hockey operations, working with Rutherford on all hockey-related matters.

The Hurricanes were honored by the N.C. sports hall last year, when winning the Stanley Cup title was made a part of the hall’s "Great Moment" series. Now, Francis is a member.

"I’ve been able to sell a sport I absolutely love to a new market," he said. "It’s great to see our sport and the Carolina Hurricanes organization become a part of the sports culture in this community and in the state.

“I wasn’t expecting this. I’m just thrilled they chose me to kind of lead the way in."

Alexander: 919-829-8945 Twitter: @ice_chip

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