Today, we talk with former Penguins center Ron Francis.
Francis came to the Penguins in arguably the biggest transaction in franchise history at the 1991 trade deadline. The Penguins dealt the team's leading scorer in forward John Cullen along with offensive defenseman Zarley Zalapski and forward Jeff Parker to the Hartford Whalers. In return, they got prolific two-way center in Ron Francis, the agitating physical presence of Ulf Samuelsson and responsible defenseman Grant Jennings. While not popular at first, the trade helped push the Penguins to their first Stanley Cup title.
Francis finished that regular season by scoring 11 points in 14 games for the Penguins. During the postseason, he saw action in all 24 of the team's playoffs games, scored 17 points, including a team-leading four game-winning goals and helped the franchise claim its first Stanley Cup championship.
Francis spent parts of eights seasons with the Penguins and even served as the team's captain following Mario Lemieux's first retirement. He retired as a player in 2004. Francis currently serves as the associated head coach and director of player personnel for the Carolina Hurricanes, the same franchise which traded him to the Penguins in 1991.
He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2007.
Is it hard to believe it's been 20 years since the 1990-91 season?
"No, it’s easy for me to remember. I got a 20-year-old daughter."
What was your reaction to the trade from the Whalers?
"It was a lot of things. I just had my daughter a couple of weeks earlier so we were dealing with that as new parents. You’re leaving every body at home to come here. When I got here and played a few games with this team, I got really excited. I said to Ulf Samuelsson one night after a game, I thought this team was good enough to win."
Did it make the trade easier to deal with being moved with a few teammates in Samuelsson and Jennings?
"For me certainly, Ulfie is a very dear, dear friend. Our families are extremely tight. My best friend in the game. He was certainly a big help for me in putting the emotions behind and focusing on what I needed to do. It was great to experience the success we had with your best friend."
On winning the Patrick Division, the first division title in the history of the franchise.
"I don’t remember the exact numbers, but when the trade happened I think we were eight points out of first place in our division but we were also six points out of missing the playoffs. Down the stretch as a hockey team, we were real good. I think winning the division gives you a boost of confidence but I think more importantly, the way we played the last 15 games going into that year gave our team that confidence we could be good."
On coming back from a 3-2 series deficit to win a Patrick Division semifinal series against the Devils.
"I think to be championship teams, you have to face adversity and overcome it. Certainly we did it. That was a situation where Frank (Pietrangelo) was in and made a save they still talk about today. It has its own identity. That’s what it takes at that time of year. If he doesn’t make that save we don’t win that championship. We don’t win Game 6 and there is no Game 7. But he did and we did."
On Kevin Stevens' guarantee that the Penguins would beat the Bruins despite a 2-0 series deficit in the Wales Conference Final.
"What I remember more than anything was our team stretch the next day when we got back home. There wasn’t any sense of panic in that locker room. There wasn’t any sense that we can’t win this. There was a belief that we were going to get this thing done and we were going to do. You want that belief in that locker room. Certainly by him saying that, guys looked at it and said, “Alright, he believes in it, I’m going to believe in it to.” I think to a man, there wasn’t any doubt we could come back and win it."
On winning the Stanley Cup by defeating the North Stars, 8-0, in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final.
"I think for me, it’s a great memory that Ulf scored the game-winning Cup-clinching goal on a slap shot from the blue line. I think I remember the locker room between the second and third period where everybody is just ecstatic about what’s ahead in 20 minutes and trying to stay focused on surviving the last 20. I remember going over the boards and Paul Coffey saying to me, 'As great as this is, it’s only going to get better every day of your life.' It was true. Just a special day and special time in my life."
(Photos: Penguins Hockey Cards and eBay)