Twenty Years Later - Ron Francis - 05-31-12

Written by Seth Rorabaugh on .

"Twenty Years Later" is a segment, with a highly unimaginative name, which will appear on Empty Netters throughout the 2010-11 season. We will examine the Penguins' 1991-92 season which led to the first Stanley Cup title in franchise history. We will look back on games on a particular date and catch up with former players, coaches, executives and media members who were a part or around that team.

Today, we talk with former Penguins center Ron Francis.

Francis' 1991-92 season got off to a late start as he missed most of October due to a contract dispute. Once he was back in the fold, he returned to the role general manager Craig Patrick envisioned for Francis when he traded for him at the 1991 trade deadline, a two-way checking center on the second line.

In terms of numbers, Francis' regular season was fairly pedestrian compared to some of his other seasons in his hall of fame career. He only had 54 points in 70 games that campaign. It was Francis' postseason which cemented his legacy with the Penguins. With several of the Penguins' stars out of the lineup due to injuries at various time, Francis racked up 27 points, including a league-leading 19 assists, in 21 games. He also ended up scoring the Cup-clinching goal as the Penguins successfully defended the Stanley Cup.

Francis ended up spending eight seasons with the Penguins and served as the team's captain following Mario Lemieux's first retirement in 1997. The fourth-leading scorer in NHL history, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2007. He current serves as director of hockey operations for the Hurricanes.

What was it starting that season after holding out in a contract dispute?

"You  always want to be out there with the guys. You always want to be playing. But in my case, I felt I wanted to get a fair deal and that’s what I had to do in order to get it."

How difficult was it dealing with the illness and death of head coach "Badger" Bob Johnson and the transition to Scotty Bowman was coach?

"'Badger' was such a good man. To win the Cup the year before and all that excitement then have something like that happen is such a shame. It’s never an easy time for anybody involved in that because that’s something you just don’t expect. Then Scotty took over. It’s not an easy role to fill coming in off a Cup win, but if somebody had the credentials to fill those shoes, it was him."

On Patrick pulling a major trade that season dealing star right winger Mark Recchi and defenseman Paul Coffey to the Flyers and Kings respectively in exchange for right winger Rick Tocchet, defensemen Kjell Samuelsson, Jeff Chychrun and goaltender Ken Wregget.

"I think he just didn’t feel we were where we needed to be in order to win it and as a result he made the trade and we ended up winning again. It’s always tough when you have guys you’ve gone to battle with and have had success with and they have to leave the room. It’s never an easy thing but unfortunately in our business it’s a part of it."

Was it a challenge bringing in players from from a rival team like the Flyers?

"No. I think you have enemies when you’re on opposite teams and you’re playing. When guys walk into your locker room, everybody understands that this is a business and you’re fighting for the same thing. It was not a problem. I actually played some junior hockey with Rick Tocchet so I knew him before he came."

How were you able to come back in the Patrick Division semifinal series against the Capitals?

"We made some adjustments. We felt the reason why we were down 3-1 was because they were beating us a lot from their back end. They had a very mobile defense and they were getting through our forecheck and causing a lot of damage up ice against us. We adjusted to kind of offset that. We were able to win Game 5 in their building, come home in Game 6 here and go back and win Game 7 there."

With center Mario Lemieux and right winger Joe Mullen injured for most of the Patrick Division final against the Rangers, you scored 12 points in six games. What kicked in for you to increase your production?

"I think I always felt I was capable of doing that. We had a guy here by the name Mario Lemieux who was our No. 1 centerman and that wasn’t going to change. But as 'Badger' Bob told me when I got here, that didn’t mean I couldn’t help the team. My role was to more or less face the other team’s best lines and try and shut them down and still produce. When Mario goes out, my role kind of changed. We needed some production. I was fortunate to have a pretty good kid on my wing in the name of Jaromir Jagr to work with. I thought the best game I played in my career was Game 3 of that series and we lost it. Game 4, we won and I got better numbers, but I don’t think I played as well as I did Game 3. Then ‘Jags’ kind of took over in Games 5 and 6. That team had a lot of talented players. We got into that kind of situation where you lose a guy like Mario Lemieux and you lose a guy like Joey Mullen in that first game, I think a lot of people didn’t think we were good enough to overcome that. There was a lot of character in that room and a lot of talented players. Everybody pulled their weight and we found a way to get buy it."

What do you remember most about the overtime goal in Game 4?

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"Getting mugged by Kevin Stevens after."

Were you ever involved with a team playing as well as that team was at the end of the postseason?

"That team did some incredible things but probably not none better than winning 11 straight at that time of year against the competition we were (facing). Three straight against the Presidents’ Trophy winners then four straight against a really good Boston Bruins team. And going into the Chicago series, they had won (11) in a row going into that series. The interesting thing about that team was we could win play a lot of different ways. If you wanted to win a low-scoring games, we were comfortable with that. If you want to try and run and gun with us, we were more and comfortable to go that way too."

Given all the offensive exploit s of that team, do the accomplishments of goaltender Tom Barrasso get overlooked?

"Maybe to people outside but certainly not to people inside that locker room or people around that team. (Game 3) in Chicago, we don’t win it if it’s not for him. He was outstanding that game. He basically stole it for us. It’s not easy being a goaltender on a team that wants to run and gun like that because a lot of times you give up two-on-ones or three-on-twos. Tommy was a huge part of that team’s success. Just all the little things he did. From how he played the position, how he moved the puck to his leadership in the room. It might be undervalued to people outside but certainly not to people who went through those battles with him."

What do you remember about the faceoff at the end of Game 1 of the Cup Final which led to Lemieux's game-winning goal?

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"(I) win that faceoff back and I remember (Blackhawks right winger Steve) Larmer  was thinking he could get to it and go on a breakaway and he missed. Then the shot (by Penguins defenseman Larry Murphy), and the rebound to Mario. It absolutely turned the whole series for us. It got them to start questioning themselves. Those faceoffs… you’ve always got a 50/50 chance."

How crazy was Game 4 considering there were 11 goals scored?

"All of a sudden they wanted to open it up and I think we felt we that would take our chances with anyone who wanted to run and gun with us. We were comfortable with our talent level. Anytime when you have a team backed into a corner, that’s when they’re most dangerous. They were fighting for their lives. They were down 3-0. They had nothing to lose. It was run and gun. They weren’t hurting on the other end. They had some pretty talented players over there too."

You scored the eventual Cup-clinching goal in Game 4. Where does that rank in your list of career accomplishments?

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"That got to be right up there. That’s kind of neat trivia question I like throwing at people. Name the two Cup-winning goal scorers (in early 1990s for the Penguins). A lot of people don’t remember Ulf Samuelsson scored the other one which is kind of a neat thing since Ulfie and I were great friends and we over in the trade together. It was kind of special."

Do you rate or gauge the first Stanley Cup win in 1991 against the 1992 win in any way?

"I think the first one, you always dream as a kid your whole life to get to do that. So the first time you win it, that’s extremely special. The first one, I came in late. It’s kind of a whirlwind. You’re living in a hotel with your wife and newborn for three months. You win it, you’re done, you go home. The second one, I think I felt more settled in, more kind of a part of the team all season long. More involved in the roles of the playoffs. They’re both extremely special. I think the first one is the one you always remember the most. The second one is maybe a hair below that, but not by much."

(Photo: Penguins Hockey Cards; Videos: Jay Korber)

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