Ron Francis, forced out by the Hurricanes in 2018, is heading back to the NHL

Ron Francis began 2019 with a new business job in Raleigh, handling commercial real-estate investments, saying he had reinvented himself at age 55.

But hockey was never far away. And he’s going back to it.

Francis, the Carolina Hurricanes’ former general manager and executive vice president, will be the new general manager of the NHL’s Seattle expansion franchise, the Seattle Times and other media outlets reported late Tuesday night. An official announcement is expected this week, the Times reported.

For Francis, who turned 56 on March 1, it will be taking on the ultimate hockey startup.

The Seattle team, which has yet to be named, will begin play in the 2021-22 season in remodeled KeyArena. Francis must hire a coaching staff and management team. He must prepare for an expansion draft of players in 2021 -- something he did as Carolina’s GM, but on the other side, when the Vegas Golden Knights first came into the league in 2017-18.

When Francis began working for NAI Carolantic Realty in January at the behest of Carolantic chairman Steve Stroud, he acknowledged he could have “stayed in the game” and his name was being mentioned with various NHL GM jobs, including Seattle’s. But that would mean moving his family from Raleigh, his home for more than 20 years, and he said he wasn’t sure he wanted to do that.

“This is a new challenge. This is a new venture,” Francis said in an interview of his Carolantic job.

But the Seattle opportunity is too good, too intriguing to pass up. It also should take away some of the sting from his forced departure from the Hurricanes in 2018 and bring him back into the NHL’s power circles.

The coming of Tom Dundon as the Canes’ new majority owner in January 2018 eventually resulted in Francis leaving. Dundon, quickly making changes in the franchise, mentioned personality differences in taking away Francis’ GM duties in March 2018, then announced in April that Francis had left the franchise.

Not completely. Francis, in a January interview, said he would remain under contract with the Hurricanes until June 30, 2019. He said he would remain an investor in the team as a member of Hurricanes Holdings LLC until November 2019, although his job with Seattle should result in him divesting himself of that ownership share.

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Francis, after winning two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins, came to Carolina in 1998 as a free agent and helped establish the franchise and the sport in the Triangle, in the state. As team captain he was the leader as the Canes reached the Stanley Cup final in 2002, and his playing career earned him a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2007.

Moving into management under former general manager Jim Rutherford, Francis “wore many hats,” as he liked to say. He was director of player development, vice president of hockey operations and also served as associate head coach before succeeding Rutherford as general manager on April 24, 2014.

Ron Francis watches the team during a skating drill in the Carolina Hurricanes development camp held at the PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. on July 23, 2014. Chris Seward

“I appreciate everything Jim did for me,” Francis said in a recent interview. “He gave me an opportunity to sign (with Carolina) as a free agent at the ‘young’ age of 35. Then working with him on the management side in a lot of different capacities.”

As GM, Francis tried to patiently rebuild the Canes around the NHL Draft and player development. Firing Kirk Muller as coach, he gave Bill Peters his first opportunity to be an NHL head coach. He tried to put together competitive teams with one of the lowest payrolls in the NHL.

What was missing? The playoffs. The Canes did not qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs in Francis’ four years as GM.

Some of Francis’ trades were successful -- obtaining forward Teuvo Teravainen from the Chicago Blackhawks was his best acquisition -- and some were bad. The trade for goalie Scott Darling, and then giving the former Blackhawks backup a four-year, $16.6 million contract, backfired on Francis.

Since leaving Carolina, Francis served as co-general manager for Team Canada in the Spengler Cup competition in Switzerland. He was on the Hockey Canada management team for the 2019 IIHF World Championship.

He was never far away from the game and now is back in it.

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In more than 30 years at The N&O, Chip Alexander has covered the N.C. State, UNC, Duke and East Carolina beats, and now is in his 11th season on the Carolina Hurricanes beat. Alexander, who has won numerous writing awards at the state and national level, covered the Hurricanes’ move to North Carolina in 1997 and was a part of The N&O’s coverage of the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup run.