The quiet force

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Is it too late to applaud Ron Francis as a Hall-of-Famer? His career had it all: longevity, championships and impressive individual numbers. Known as a leader and a player of great character, he was someone to count on in every situation. Yet, Ron Francis seemed to excel unassumingly -- quietly amassing a body of work that few have achieved.

Maybe the lack of fanfare was due to his being a passer first. Yes, he scored over 500 goals, but he had almost two and a half times as many helpers -- the second most assists (1,249) behind Wayne Gretzky on the all-time list. That fact is not something most people associate with Francis. And it's possible that many aren't even aware of the depth of his long and storied career because of how and where it unfolded.

He established himself as a star long before arriving in Pittsburgh to begin the '90's, but his exploits were a little out of the way in Hartford. Recognition came more so with the Penguins' Stanley Cups in 1990 and 1991, but the spotlight shone brightest on Mario Lemieux, relegating everyone else -- Francis included -- to the role of supporting cast. Then Francis went back to his original franchise, now called the Hurricanes and relocated in Raleigh, NC, even further from the media glare than Hartford.

As with his playing career, he has been unassumingly building his management resume since last November, first as the Hurricanes' Director of Player Development and, since October, in the dual role of assistant GM. Francis has even hit the ice this season as well, working with the 'Canes power play. Not coincidentally, it ranks second in efficiency in the entire league.

"Getting on the ice is the best way to get the point across," he says." It works better than sitting in a video session."

His career may be just under the radar where the general public is concerned, but his peers have long revered him. They appreciated his night-in-night-out contributions and understood the competitiveness below the surface of his stoic demeanor. As an 18-year-old rookie, Atlanta Thrashers center Bobby Holik played with Francis in Hartford. Holik says he learned a lot from Francis that year, and even more about him as the two competed countless times as Eastern Conference rivals.

"He was extremely competitive, despite being so calm," Holik says. "You could never take him off the ice, in any situation. He was the ultimate complete hockey player -- the last great two-way player."

Holik's comments get at the root of Francis's greatness and the lessons he can impart to the Hurricanes as they continue their recovery from Stanley Cup hangover. It was his belief in this group of players that helped stave off wholesale changes during the summer.

Interestingly, it was the peer group in which Francis recently entered the Hall-of-Fame that he acknowledged as making the honor all the more special. He expertly and unselfishly shared the puck as a player and it is in his personality to likewise give of himself to those close to him. Some in his HOF party being boyhood friends that he has remained close with through it all.

Not surprisingly, the former captain and consummate set-up man remains close to the game, so close the his feet still touch the ice, and the Hurricanes reflect his presence and wisdom. As his career attests, things work better when Francis is involved.

Monday, two of the hottest forward tandems in the game go head-to-head. The Tampa Bay Lightning visit the Atlanta Thrashers, pitting Vincent Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis against Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa. Lecavalier has a seven-game point streak in which he has amassed six goals and 13 assists. Running mate St. Louis has gone 5-9-14 over the same span. The Bolts are now the hottest team in the NHL, having won five straight games, with only two losses in the past 16 days, one at the hands of the Thrashers..

Meanwhile, the Thrashers are 9-4 under head coach/GM Don Waddell, due in large part to his putting Kovalchuk and Hossa on the same line. Kovalchuk leads the NHL with 16 goals, netting 13 of them in the 13 games with Waddell behind the bench. More critical, Hossa has found his stride, going 6-3-9 in his current four-game scoring streak. Both teams may seem one-line deep, but right now that's enough and it is certainly better than having nobody to count on to carry the attack.

The rest of the week for Tampa Bay: Rangers (Wed.), at Hurricanes (Fri.), Devils (Sat.)

For Atlanta: at Capitals (Wed.), Devils (Fri.), at Penguins (Sat.)