In the early 1990s, it would have been difficult to imagine a National Hockey League franchise playing in North Carolina, let alone consistently drawing more than 18,000 fans a night. It would seem impossible that the Tar Heel State’s first major professional championship would come not in football or basketball, but in ice hockey. Or that young men and women born and raised in North Carolina would start attracting scholarship offers from major college hockey programs. But those are now realities for the sport of hockey in North Carolina. And if there is a single player acquisition that can be seen as the turning point for the solidification of hockey in this southern state, it came on July 13, 1998, when the Carolina Hurricanes signed Ron Francis.
Francis had plenty of options in the summer of 1998. A 17-year NHL veteran at the time, he already had Hall of Fame credentials – four NHL All-Star Game selections, a Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward, and two Lady Byng Trophies thanks to the major role he played as a part of two Stanley Cup championship teams with the Pittsburgh Penguins. In a way, he chose to return to his roots, as he was drafted by, and spent 10 seasons with, the Hartford Whalers, the team that became the Carolina Hurricanes when it relocated to North Carolina in 1997. But really, he chose to plant new roots by moving his family to Raleigh and helping his sport establish itself in a market where it was still foreign to many.
Results came immediately. His name and credentials brought instant credibility to the franchise. But even more importantly, his presence and play brought success to the team. Francis helped the Hurricanes win their first Southeast Division championship that season, bringing the Stanley Cup playoffs to North Carolina for the first time. That was just the beginning.
Three years later, as the captain of the Hurricanes, Francis led Carolina to another division title, and then thrilling playoff series victories against the New Jersey Devils, Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs, to give the team its first Eastern Conference championship. In the process of beating three accomplished and storied franchises, Francis helped the team attract legions of new fans, who called themselves “Caniacs.” The Caniacs made their presence felt by the international media who descended on Raleigh for the 2002 Stanley Cup final, from meeting the team at Raleigh-Durham International Airport in the wee hours of the morning after victories, to their legendary pregame tailgates and the deafening noise during home games at the RBC Center (now PNC Arena).
Francis scored the overtime game-winning goal in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, shocking the mighty Detroit Red Wings on their home ice. Though Carolina ultimately fell to Detroit, Game 3 of the series will always be remembered as a classic, when nearly 19,000 fans in Raleigh stood through three overtime periods before Detroit’s Igor Larionov finally gave his team the victory. Following the season, Francis was honored with NHL’s Lady Byng Trophy and the league’s King Clancy Trophy, which honors leadership and community service.
Francis officially retired as a player on Sept. 14, 2005, completing his NHL career with 549 goals and 1,249 assists (for a total of 1,798 points) during 23 NHL seasons with Hartford, Pittsburgh, Carolina and Toronto. He ranks fourth in NHL history in scoring, behind only Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Gordie Howe. Francis spent 16 of his 23 seasons with the Hartford/Carolina franchise, establishing team records in games played (1,186), goals (382), assists (793) and points (1,175), numbers that clearly distinguish him as the greatest player in Hurricanes franchise history. The club officially retired Francis’ No. 10 jersey on Jan. 28, 2006, and on Nov. 12, 2007, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
Following his retirement, Francis and his family kept their roots in North Carolina, the state they consider their home. He has served in the Hurricanes’ general manager since 2014.
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