RALEIGH — A few years ago, Ron Francis was spotted pushing a cart of equipment bags down an arena hallway before a Carolina Hurricanes road game.
Francis smiled as he helped out, quipping, “In this organization I have to wear many hats.”
Now, Francis wears another: Hurricanes general manager.
Once the Canes’ captain and the face of the franchise – called “Ronnie Franchise” – as a player, Francis officially became the general manager on Monday as Jim Rutherford stepped down after 20 years as GM. Francis also will serve as executive vice president.
Rutherford, 65, will remain as team president but in an advisory role, said Canes owner Peter Karmanos Jr., who announced the moves. Rutherford, who has two years remaining on his contract, will continue to represent the team at NHL meetings, Karmanos said.
Still to be determined is a decision on Canes coach Kirk Muller, who attended Monday’s press conference at PNC Arena, and his staff.
Francis, 51, said he had no reservations about taking over a position he has been groomed for in recent years as assistant general manager, director of player personnel and vice president of hockey operations. He also went behind the bench as associate head coach, gaining another perspective.
“I think you always have concerns,” Francis said. “It’s such a big job. There’s a lot of things that go with it. But I kind of set my mind to it a few years ago when I started getting into this side of it and learned about the different facets of the business. You hope that some day this is where it leads you to.
“Here it is. Here’s my opportunity. I’ve worked hard to get this chance and I’m ready for the challenge and in doing everything I can to make this organization successful going forward.”
Rutherford became president and general manager in 1994, when he joined Karmanos and the late Thomas Thewes in buying the NHL’s Hartford Whalers. He oversaw the franchise’s relocation to North Carolina in 1997 and put together teams that reached the Stanley Cup final in 2002 and won the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 2006. He is one of the league’s longest-tenured general managers.
Rutherford showed no emotion on Monday during the press conference, seemingly relieved the announcement had been made and the transition completed.
“I’m really pleased with the direction we’re going,” Rutherford said. “Ronnie (Francis) has paid his dues. He’ll be a good general manager. Twenty years was a long time for me. I’ve thought about this for a few years and certainly the time was right for this now.”
Rutherford said his decision to give up his GM duties was given much thought and not a product of a disappointing season.
Rutherford was given a four-year contract extension in 2011 that was to end after the 2015-2016 season.
“He’s always been a class-act person and somebody I won a Stanley Cup with, so I have the utmost respect for him,” Canes captain Eric Staal said of Rutherford. “I can’t say enough good things about him because of winning a Cup with him … and everything he’s done.”
Rutherford signed Francis to a free-agent contract in 1998, bringing added credibility to the organization as it sought to establish its niche in the state’s sports landscape. He traded for Rod Brind’Amour. He was a part in drafting such players as Eric Staal and Cam Ward who starred in the Cup run in ’06.
Decision on coach
Francis’ first major move will be in handling the coaching staff. The Hurricanes have missed the Stanley Cup playoffs the past five years, finishing 10 points out of playoff position this past season.
Muller, who won a Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens as a player, had no head-coaching experience in the NHL when he replaced the fired Paul Maurice as Canes coach in late November 2011. His second season with Carolina had a January start and 48-game schedule because of the NHL lockout. This season, the Canes finished 36-35-11, leading to questions about Muller’s future.
Rutherford, knowing he would resign, didn’t want to make the call on Muller. Francis was in Finland last week for the Under-18 World Championship.
On Muller, who has one year left on his contract, Francis said, “I’ll probably get into that here in the next week or so.”
Two other front-office moves were announced Monday. Mike Vellucci was named assistant general manager and director of hockey operations, and Brian Tatum was promoted to assistant general manager.
Vellucci, 47, was general manager and head coach of the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League, a team owned by Karmanos. Tatum, 40, just completed his 16th year with the Canes organization and mostly recently was vice president of team operations.
Francis was drafted by the Whalers and played 10 years for Hartford before being traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins and winning two Stanley Cups. He was 35 when he was signed by the Canes in July 1998.
Francis provided leadership. He provided points. He led the Canes to the Stanley Cup final in 2002 and his jersey – No. 10 – has been retired and hangs in the PNC Arena rafters.
Francis, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, retired as a player in September 2005. A little more than a year later, he rejoined the Canes organization as director of player development and wore many “hats.” Now, he’s general manager.
Francis praised the job done by Rutherford and his help in learning the myriad front-office responsibilities.
“Having said that, I am my own man,” Francis said. “I played in the league a long time, I was fortunate to be on championship teams, I was captain for a while and understand what it takes to be a successful team. I need to take all that background and knowledge and formulate it into the team we’re building here moving forward.
“I don’t want to just build a team that gets in the playoffs for one year. We’d like to build it so it’s a very solid franchise and we can do it on a yearly basis.”
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