Mellon Arena Memories - Ron Francis - 07-29-10

Written by Seth Rorabaugh on .

"Mellon Arena Memories" is a feature will will appear on a daily basis in this forum until July 30, when the Penguins will officially leave the only facility they have known as their home arena since the franchise was formed in 1967. Today's subject is Ron Francis.

Ron Francis is currently the associate head coach and director of player personnel for the Carolina Hurricanes and a former Penguins captain.

He initially came to the Penguins in one of the most lopsided trades in NHL history. At the 1991 trade deadline, Penguins general manager Craig Patrick acquire Francis, Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings from the Whalers in exchange for John Cullen, Jeff Parker and Zarley Zalapski. Francis would scored 11 points in 14 regular season games and added 17 points in 24 postseason games that spring while playing a vital role in the franchise's first Stanley Cup title.

Following a contract dispute in the offseason, Francis returned to the Penguins in 1991-92 and scored 54 points in 70 regular season contests. In the playoffs, he secured his status as one of the greatest players in franchise history when he netted 27 points in 21 games. In addition to leading the team past the powerful Rangers in the Patrick Division final while Mario Lemieux and Joe Mullen were sidelined, Francis scored the Cup-clinching goal in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Francis reached the 100-point mark for the second time in his NHL career in 1992-93. Despite spending most of the season as a second-line center, Francis scored 100 points - fourth-best on the team after Lemieux (160), Kevin Stevens (111) and Rick Tocchet (109) - in 84 games. And once again in the playoffs, Francis produced offensively by contributing 17 points in 18 games.

Lemieux missed most of 1993-94 with a back ailment. That would once again elevate Francis' role. He responded with a 93-point effort in 82 games, second only to Jaromir Jagr's 99 points. Lemieux would skip the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season while recuperating from various ailments. Francis again took over as the team's top center (and as captain temporarily). He produced a league-leading 48 assists and 59 points in 44 games and helped his right winger, Jagr, claim his first Art Ross Trophy as the league's scoring champion. Francis also claimed the Frank Selke Trophy as the league's top defensive forward.

With Lemieux's return in 1995-96, Francis once again returned to a primary role as a second-line center, but occasionally teamed with Lemieux and Jagr on a "super line." That resulted in Francis hitting the 100-point mark again with 119 points - third behind Lemieux (161) and Jagr (149). Francis once again led the NHL with 92 assists and was selected to his fourth all-star game. A broken foot sidelined during the postseason and many felt his absence led to the team being upset by the trapping Panthers in the Eastern Conference Final.

With Lemieux essentially staging a "farewell tour" in 1996-97, Francis was again teamed up much of the season with Lemieux and Jagr on a line. He quietly contributed 90 points in 81 games as the team struggled down the stretch and exited the playoffs quickly in the first round at the hands of the Flyers. Lemieux retired in the 1997 offseason and the team was faced with finding a new full-time captain for the first time in nearly a decade. The choice was simple. Francis became the team's next captain in 1997-98. Centering the first line with Jagr again in on his right wing, he punched in 87 points in 81 games and helped Jagr claim his the Art Ross Trophy again.

But as that season wore on, it became obvious that Francis, in the final year of his contract, would not be re-signed by the Penguins who were facing a rough future financially. In the offseason, Francis re-joined the franchise which traded him to Pittsburgh seven years earlier when he signed what were now known as the Carolina Hurricanes.

Francis would play five more seasons with the Hurricanes and briefly suited up for the Maple Leafs before retiring after the 2003-04 season. In 2006, he returned to the Hurricanes in a front office position.

Francis, considered the best faceoff specialist in NHL history, can be found all throughout the Penguins' record book. In 533 games (10th most in franchise history), he scored 164 goals (ninth-most), 449 assists (third-most) and 613 points (fourth-most). Additionally, he won the Lady Byng Trophy for gentlemanly play in 1995 and 1998.

In terms of playoff numbers, Francis is just as impressive. In 97 games (fifth-most), he scored 32 goals (fourth-most), 68 assists (third-most) and 100 points (fourth-most). He also scored nine-game winning goals, third-most in Penguins history.

Inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2007, Francis' name can be found among the best in the history of the sport. Only Wayne Gretzky (2,857), Mark Messier (1,887) and Gordie Howe (1,850) have scored more points than Francis (1,798). And only Gretzky (1,963) has more assists than Francis (1,249)

His first memory of Mellon/Civic Arena:

"Coming in as visiting player it was always intriguing because I was told they could always take the roof off. I thought that was a neat feature. You talk about all these outdoor games now, you have a rink where the roof opens up and just play it like that. That would be awesome too if they could make the lighting work. I just thought it was like the older buildings. It seemed like everything was a lot closer and the atmosphere was more energetic for the players."

On his hat trick in Game 4 of the 1992 Patrick Division final against the Rangers. Francis' third goal won the game in overtime:

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"Obviously when you lose guys like Mario Lemieux and Joey Mullen early in that series and you’re playing against the Presidents Trophy (winners), you think you’re in trouble. But that team had a lot of guts. We were going to give up easily. Everyone talks about Game 4 in here when I had the hat trick but for me, I think the best game I ever played in my life was probably Game 3 here. I believe I scored two goals and we lost that one. I remember calling my dad on the ride home and saying, ‘I probably played about as good as I can play.' He said, ‘You’re going to have to do it again.’ We came back in Game 4 and it’s kind of do or die for us. It’s not every game where you score from your own blue line. We ended up winning that game in overtime. (Jaromir Jagr) was great in Games 5 and 6 and we were able to sneak by them. We got Mario back and the rest was history. We won 11 straight to win the (Stanley) Cup."

On his second goal, a slap shot from the neutral zone which beat Rangers goaltender Mike Richter through the five hole:

"We were coming off the end of a five minute major. Just getting to the blue line and trying to get the puck down ice so we could change. I just kind of buried my head and took a slap shot on net. I mean, I could shoot probably a thousand pucks on Richter like that again. He probably stops all 1,000 of them. But that one time it went in. Good for us."

On winning the faceoff which set up Mario Lemieux's game-winning goal in Game 1 of the 1992 Stanley Cup final against the Blackhawks:

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"I remember one of their players – Steve Larmer – it looked to me like he thought he could get the puck and take off the other direction. That sort of opened up everything for us. The shot, rebound, Mario buries it. That sort of kept our streak alive. We had won seven in a row coming into that. It gave us the confidence I think we needed to win that series. We went on to win the next one and head into Chicago."

On returning to Mellon/Civic Arena for he first time as a visitor:

"Normally when guys leave and come back, they get booed. I think I actually got a nice ovation. It’s such a good sports town, I think they understood the fact that it wasn’t by choice. I wanted to be here but financially it wasn’t going to work out with the situation the organization was in. I loved everything about the city. I loved being a part of the community. I loved going to Steelers games. I made a lot of good friends in the area that I still keep in touch with today."

Least favorite part of Mellon/Civic Arena:

"The home (locker) room is a little bit nicer than the visiting room. (chuckles)"

Favorite part of Mellon/Civic Arena:

"The fondness when I think back with building is just the energy that was here in the playoffs. I remember numerous times skating around in between periods, the music’s blaring and the people are cheering and just thinking, 'This is great.'"

(Photos: First and seventh-Peter Diana/Post-Gazette; Second-Lake Fong/Post-Gazette; Third-Post-Gazette archives; Fourth-Photobucket; Fifth and sixth-Penguins Hockey Cards)

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