It had the ring of inevitability. Ron Francis was drafted by the Hartford Whalers, later to become the Carolina Hurricanes, in 1981. Since coming back to his first National Hockey League team in 1998, he has been a player, coach and essentially a front-office trainee for the Hurricanes. (He did make a brief stop in Toronto in his latter playing days.)
And, now, with the retirement of Jim Rutherford, long-time general manager, Francis will take that post and chart the team’s future for owner Peter Karmanos Jr.
Since joining the Hurricanes, Francis has been a tireless promoter of the team and an active member of the community. The same might be said of a number of Hurricanes. He’s a personable, even charismatic individual, reflected in his being named the winner of the Lady Byng trophy for sportsmanship three times.
Rutherford, a former NHL goalie, brought the grit and toughness of that role into the front office as a part-owner and president of the Hurricanes. The team has not made the playoffs for five years, and Rutherford’s judgment calls on players and coaches have come into question by some fans. That’s a natural balance considering that as general manager he also helped to build a Stanley Cup winner in 2006 and got much credit for that.
But certainly he did a good job in terms of helping the team settle into the community after a few bumps in the road in the early days, notably some disputes over the PNC Arena with N.C. State University.
But Rutherford played no small role in the early days, working to overcome skeptics in football and basketball country who doubted hockey could succeed. The Stanley Cup for the Hurricanes turned many of those skeptics into believers, but even before and after, the fan base was building. As happens with major league professional sports, the team has unified the community in many ways. Rutherford can take a share of the credit.