Francis gets call from Hall

Ex-Penguins center joins Mark Messier, Scott Stevens and Al MacInnis in a stellar class

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Play 23 seasons in the National Hockey League, the way Ron Francis did, and you accumulate memories.

You remember players and places and plays.

Hundreds of them. Thousands. Maybe hundreds of thousands.

But, when Francis was asked yesterday, hours after being chosen for induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame, to cite his most enduring recollection of the seven-plus seasons he spent with the Penguins, he didn't hesitate.

All but pinpointed it to the tenth of a second, for that matter. No surprise there, of course, because he was always a terrific details guy.

It was the night of May 25, 1991, and the Penguins had just wrapped up an 8-0 victory in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final at the Met Center in Bloomington, Minn., to clinch the franchise's first league title.

"I remember jumping over the boards as we were racing to the goaltender ... and [teammate] Paul Coffey saying, 'As good as it seems now, it's only going to get better with each passing day,' " Francis said. "And that certainly has been true.

"Being able to accomplish that, and knowing how tough it is for a group of guys to pull together and have everything go your way and accomplish that feat, it's certainly probably still the most special hockey moment."

Francis was a key member of the Penguins' second Cup-winner a year later, too, and, by the time he went to Carolina as a free agent in 1998, had established himself as one of the most productive, popular and respected performers in franchise history.

In a statement released by the team, owner Mario Lemieux, Francis' friend and former teammate, characterized his induction as "very well deserved."

"He was a great player and leader for us in Pittsburgh from 1991-98, and was an essential member of both of our Stanley Cup championship teams and five division champions," Lemieux said.

"Ronnie left a lasting impact on the Penguins organization -- not only because of his exceptional talent and ability to play both ends of the ice, but because of his dedication, his professionalism and his dignity."

Francis ranks fourth in NHL history in regular-season points (1,798) second in assists (1,249) and third in games played (1,731), all pretty compelling credentials for a first-ballot induction.

It says something about the Class of 2007, though, that Francis isn't the undisputed headliner of the group. He is joined by former players Mark Messier, Scott Stevens and Al MacInnis and longtime team and league executive Jim Gregory.

"I'm very honored to go in with a class like this," Francis said.

Because Hall bylaws put a four-player limit each year's group of inductees, viable candidates like Adam Oates, Claude Lemieux and Igor Larionov didn't make the cut yesterday.

"Obviously, it's a tough day for the committee, when you look at who they had to pick from," Francis said.

Francis, who took a job as the Carolina Hurricanes' director of player development last fall, was at home in Raleigh when he got the call from the Hall yesterday.

He immediately tried to contact his parents in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario -- he rather sheepishly acknowledged later that sharing the information with anyone violated a request from the Hall -- but failed because they were with his brother, Ricky, who was having minor surgery.

His father and mother got the word eventually, though. So did his former teammates with the Penguins, who reacted with predictable delight.

"He did a lot of things that we needed to win the Stanley Cup," said Kevin Stevens, now a pro scout with the Penguins. "He was a big part of it. He was a real smart player, a great leader. Just a good guy to have on your team."

Francis was added to the mix March 4, 1991 -- the Penguins acquired him, along with Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings, from Hartford for John Cullen, Zarley Zalapski and Jeff Parker, in one of the most memorable deals in trade-deadline history -- and noted yesterday that several teammates beat him into the Hall.

Lemieux, Coffey, Larry Murphy, Bryan Trottier and Joe Mullen are on that list, and Francis said guys like Jaromir Jagr, Tom Barrasso and "potentially" Mark Recchi could follow in future years.

"I guess that's the reason we had that kind of success," he said. "We had a lot of good hockey players on that hockey club."

And one of the very best is headed for the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Post-Gazette
"Ronnie left a lasting impact on the Penguins organization -- not only because of his exceptional talent and ability to play both ends of the ice, but because of his dedication, his professionalism and his dignity," Mario Lemieux said in a statement.
Click photo for larger image.

Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com .


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