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Francis reminisces on time with Pens

| Thursday, July 5, 2007

There are Hall-of-Fame classes and then there are supergroup Hall-of-Fame classes such as the one Ron Francis is part of after being chosen for hockey's highest individual honor last week.

Francis, who spent parts of eight seasons with the Penguins from 1991-98 and was a two-time Stanley Cup-winner, will enter the Hockey Hall in November along with legendary players Mark Messier, Scott Stevens and Al MacInnis.

"I was not spending a lot of time thinking about it," Francis said. "You hope that you can go in on the first ballot. There were a lot of big names up this year, so I obviously was extremely pleased to be part of this group."

Now director of player personnel for the Carolina Hurricanes, Francis, the fourth-leading scorer in NHL history with 1,798 points, recalled some Hall-worthy days with Tribune-Review hockey writer Rob Rossi:

Q: Is the new gig keeping you busy?

A: Actually, it has been fun. (Carolina general manager) Jim Rutherford has been real good to me and I am very appreciative. I was not sure which way I wanted to go after my playing days and this job has given me a chance to work with kids and push the right buttons. There have been parts of this job that have elements of coaching, but I have also had a chance to experience the business side of hockey operations. It has been a fun process and given me something to think about.

Q: So you might soon be known as coach Ron Francis?

A: I am not real sure yet, to be honest. I always said that I never wanted to coach. But then I hear from guys I played with like Ulf Samuelsson and Dave Tippett, and they tell me that coaching is the place to be, so I do not really know. I am not making any decisions right now because I am pretty happy with my job in Carolina.

Q: Not many hockey players can honestly say they have left a lasting impression in three markets. How did you manage to win over people in Hartford, Pittsburgh and Carolina?

A: I was pretty blessed, I guess. The guys I played with in Hartford, a lot of them are still active in the game. We are kind of taking over the NHL. Hartford was a great place for me to grow up. I was there until I was 28 and some of my best friends to this day are in Hartford.

Q: Some of your most loyal fans are in Pittsburgh, though, right?

A: Certainly my time in Pittsburgh was extremely exciting. It was easy to come to the rink every day. I really loved being in the environment that we had in Pittsburgh. It was very comfortable.

Q: Well, you were a Steelers fan growing up, so that probably made the transition from Hartford a lot easier.

A: A lot easier, actually. My dad was a steel worker, and the Steelers were always my favorite football team -- probably for that reason. And now Bill Cowher lives five minutes from me in Raleigh.

Q: Do you guys hang out?

A: We have golfed together a couple of times. We have a rule that there is no talk about hockey or football, so it is great in that way. We have a lot of fun.

Q: Over 15 years have passed since those Penguins teams you were on won the Cup a second time, does it seem like that long ago to you?

A: It is kind of crazy. My daughter was 4 weeks old when I was traded to Pittsburgh. My family and I lived out of a hotel. Anyway, my daughter turned 16 in February, and I have sort of the same feeling about her that I have about Pittsburgh in some ways. I look back and it seems like yesterday. It seems like yesterday that I was in Pittsburgh hoisting the Cup and she was a baby.

Q: Obviously playing on those Cup teams was a highlight for you, but what memory from those years really sticks out?

A: Well, when we won the first one I remember Paul Coffey saying to me as I hopped over the boards, "This feeling is going to be great, but it is only going to get better the rest of your life." And, boy, he could not have put it any better. I still get chills thinking about lifting that Cup for the first time. Honestly, though, that second Cup year was extremely special because I really feel as though I helped that team get over a hump. The first Cup year, I came in late and was part of something special. That second one, Mario (Lemieux) was down against the Rangers and I played some of the best hockey of my career to help us get past them. Then Mario came back and we rolled past Boston and Chicago to defend the Cup. I really feel as though I was a big part of that second Cup-winning team, so maybe it is a little more special to me.

Q: Could the fourth-leading scorer in NHL history possibly have any regrets?

A: My decision to come to Carolina and start telling people about it. The only bad thing about Raleigh is that everybody is now finding out about it, that it is a pretty good place to be -- like Cowher. I am joking, of course, but this place is getting crowded, quick. ... Oh, and, of course, losing to the Islanders in 1993. What a disappointment that was for everybody. I really feel that Pittsburgh team in 1993 was the best team I have ever played on. Losing to New York when we had a chance to three-peat was extremely frustrating. There is no doubt in my mind we were the best team that year. I still cannot believe we did not win it all again.

Q: The Penguins could use a strong face-off guy; interested?

A: I told somebody last week that I am six months and three days from being ready. But then again people always said I never could skate fast, so it is not like I have lost a step in that category. Still, I am pretty proud of myself that I can watch a hockey game near ice-level and not feel the itch to play.

Q: Plus, you have a speech to work on...

A: One that I have not thought about once since finding out I was going into the Hall. The speeches run about five minutes. That might not be enough time to thank everybody.

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