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Captain Class Whether on the ice or at home, Ron Francis, the Pittsburgh Penguins' underappreciated center, does things the right way

March 23, 1998
March 23, 1998

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March 23, 1998

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Captain Class Whether on the ice or at home, Ron Francis, the Pittsburgh Penguins' underappreciated center, does things the right way

When he arrived in the NHL, straight out of Junior A at age 18,
Ron Francis was barely old enough to shave, a fact that somehow
escaped the notice of his new teammates. Shortly after Francis
joined the Hartford Whalers in November 1981, a group of
veterans tied him to a trainer's table, blindfolded him and
introduced him to the joys of the full-body shave. While it
surely would have helped if the guys had used shaving cream or
at least a little warm water, Francis still looks back fondly on
his painful initiation into the NHL. "That's how long I've been
around," says Francis, smiling. "Back then, rookies got shaved.
That doesn't happen much anymore."

This is an article from the March 23, 1998 issue Original Layout

At least it doesn't happen much in Pittsburgh, where Francis
wears the C with the same class and dignity that has marked his
17 years in the league. In a game that often eats its best
citizens alive (see Paul Kariya), in a sports era that
celebrates the loud, the lewd, the boorish and the
belly-pierced, Francis has quietly slipped through the cracks
and into the record books. He has flourished without an act, an
attitude or a designer ego from the Dershowitz collection, and
this season, at 35, he even seems to be defying age by
performing as well as ever.

Not that Francis expects anyone to notice. He played the first 9
1/2 years of his career in Hartford, the NHL's version of the
witness protection program, and the next seven with the Penguins
in the prodigious shadows of Mario Lemieux, long regarded as the
game's top player, and Jaromir Jagr, now arguably No. 1. While
his spectacular teammates have won the awards, Francis settled
for the respect of his peers, and few players in the game can
match him in that category. "The ultimate professional,"
Pittsburgh goaltender Tom Barrasso says of Francis. "He doesn't
make the big headlines, doesn't get the big contract. He's just
a very special player who has quietly become one of the alltime
greats."

Indeed, Francis's name should be engraved near the top of
everyone's most-underrated list, somewhere between Larry Fine
and meat loaf with mashed potatoes. With three more assists
Francis will become the NHL's seventh player with 1,000, and
with another six points he will pass Bryan Trottier and go into
ninth place on the league's alltime scoring list. Francis helped
win a Stanley Cup in his first season with the Penguins, in
1991, and another the following year.

With such impressive accomplishments, Francis would appear to be
a lock for the Hall of Fame, but you will have to forgive him if
he waits until all the ballots are counted before he takes a
bow. Despite his obvious qualifications, it's hard for Francis
to believe he will get into the Hall when he can't even get on
the All-Star Game ballot. This season's ballot for the North
American team listed the names of 12 centers, but the 6'3",
200-pound Francis wasn't among them. "I'll admit that bothered
me a little," he says. "But a couple of years ago, I was third
in the league in scoring and didn't get voted to the All-Star
team. I was added later as the commissioner's choice."

Before the ballot snub, there was the little matter of the
Canadian Olympic team slight, another elite club for which
Francis wasn't selected. Of those chosen, only Wayne Gretzky is
ahead of Francis on the NHL's career scoring list. In typical
Francis fashion, he says he felt worse for Mark Messier than for
himself. "How can you not have Mess on that team after all he's
done?" says Francis. "It would have been nice to play for my
country, but I enjoyed the two weeks with my family, resting up
and getting ready for the playoffs."

This season, as usual, Francis is among the league leaders in
scoring--fourth in points (73) at week's end. Jagr, a linemate,
is the only other player to finish in the top 10 in scoring in
each of the last three seasons, and he was No. 1 with 85 points
through Sunday. Meanwhile the Penguins, who were pegged to
finish .500 or worse this season, were atop the Northeast
Division, with 82 points, second only to the New Jersey Devils
in the Eastern Conference.

When Kevin Constantine was hired to coach Pittsburgh last June,
he brought with him a new system, a more disciplined,
defense-oriented style of play that required the commitment of
the veterans, especially the first-line center. Constantine and
Francis spoke on the phone many times over the summer, and the
latter assured the former that he was ready, as always, to play
hard, to play both ends of the ice and to buy into everything
Constantine was selling. With Francis on board, Jagr and the
rest of the team fell in line. "From Day One we were counting on
Ronnie," says Constantine. "He hasn't disappointed."

Francis believes his performance this year is largely the result
of a new diet, which is higher in protein and lower in starch,
as well as an intense stretching regimen that he adopted in the
off-season. Jagr says Francis, while still not the speediest
skater in the league, is just as fast as he was when they first
played together seven years ago. But Francis's greatest strength
remains his understanding of the game and his vision on the ice.
"Maybe I've lost some strength," he says, "but my mind is the
best part of my game, and as far as I know, I haven't lost my
mind yet."

While ordering lunch, Francis tells the waitress to hold the
french fries, and he is asked if that's a concession to his new
regimen. "Actually, no," he says. "I gave them up for Lent." He
can be as dull as Sunday school but at the same time refreshing:
a religious man who doesn't beat you over the head with his
beliefs, a family man who doesn't wave his three children in
front of the cameras like props.

He's asked how he tolerates life in the shadows, always watching
quietly while someone else gets the attention, and he
reluctantly reveals his secret--he's had lots of practice. Ricky
Francis is two years younger than brother Ron and is mentally
retarded. As a child, Ricky suffered seizures, sometimes as many
as 25 in a day, and Ron helped his parents, Lorita and Ron, care
for his brother, often joining them on late-night trips to the
hospital. "When Ricky was nine, doctors told my parents to put
him in an institution, that he'd be dead within three years,"
says Ron. "They refused, and he's still living with them. That
was 24 years ago."

With advances in medication, Ricky rarely suffers seizures now
and works at a furniture store near his family's home in Sault
Ste. Marie, Ont. He's also a talented cross-country skier who's
a Special Olympics world champion in the 7.5 km and 10 km.

When Ricky was competing in the Special Olympics World Winter
Games in Canada in February 1997, the Penguins gave Ron
permission to fly to Toronto during the season to watch Ricky
race. Ron saw Ricky win the 10 km and presented him with one of
his two golds. The elder Ron says it was like "watching Ricky
win his own Stanley Cup." To Ron, draping the medal around his
brother's neck was more memorable than holding the Cup. "Just
looking at his face made me realize what's important," he says.

Just looking at Ron Francis's face makes you realize why he
didn't make a big deal out of his Olympic snub: His kid brother
won enough gold for both of them.

COLOR PHOTO: BILL WIPPERT HOT SHOT As usual, Francis is among the NHL's scoring leaders. [Ron Francis and others in game]