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For Francis, Success Never Grows Old

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Because Ron Francis is regarded as the best player in Carolina franchise history, it was fitting for “Ronnie Franchise” to score the game-winning goal in the Hurricanes’ first Stanley Cup game.

Francis, who at 39 is one of the oldest players in the NHL, scored a goal 58 seconds into overtime Tuesday to give Carolina a 1-0 lead in games over Detroit in the best-of-seven Stanley Cup finals.

Carolina Coach Paul Maurice, four years younger than Francis, has nothing but respect for the Hurricanes’ captain.

“He brought an instant expectation level,” Maurice said Wednesday about Francis, who started his NHL career with the Hartford Whalers and rejoined the franchise as a free agent on July 13, 1998, after the team had moved to Carolina.

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“He has a certain preparation professionalism, if that’s a proper statement. He prepares very hard when he is supposed to, takes very good care of himself and he has a calm about him.

“As things get either more difficult or more intense he seems to relax more and more. I think he just enjoys it. The big games for him are the most exciting.”

Francis has played 21 seasons in the league and owns two Stanley Cup rings, thanks to championships he won playing for Pittsburgh in the early 1990s. He has been the glue for the Hurricanes’ playoff run this year and helped the team have the right frame of mind for Tuesday’s game, despite being overwhelming underdogs to the Red Wings.

“When I talk about Ron, the first thing that I always mention is class, and I think you don’t realize how important that is to have,” Carolina veteran forward Rod Brind’Amour said. “The way he carries himself and what he has done just brings respect within our locker room. Just watch him and it just feeds off. Everyone just kind of patterns themselves with the way they behave on and off the ice after him.”

Francis, who signed a five-year, $22-million deal with Carolina four years ago, has said that he doesn’t plan to make a decision about his playing future until after the finals. The Hurricanes expect Francis to play at least one more season.

But even if he does decide to retire this summer, Francis has no regrets about signing with Carolina in 1998, when the team was rebuilding.

“I have said this numerous times: I hate when guys sign a big contract and say money had nothing to do with it,” said Francis, traded from Hartford to Pittsburgh in 1991. “Certainly that was a factor. But I sat down, I looked at a lot of things, I looked at the city of Raleigh, read a lot about what it was like to live there and what a great place it was to live and raise a family. That was important for me.

“When I put all the pros and cons down on paper, for me, I thought it was a good move, and outside of the first 40 games when things were really struggling for me, I have been really pleased with that decision.”

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Although teams that have won Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals went on to win the championship in 50 of 63 seasons (79.4%) since the NHL went to a best-of-seven format in 1939, the Red Wings are not about to roll over.

“We just can’t think too far ahead now,” said Detroit Coach Scotty Bowman, whose team rallied to defeat Vancouver, 4-2, in the first round after losing the first two games of the series at home. “Obviously, the second game is always a crucial game in a series.... There will be pressure on every game as it goes along, but we just have to concentrate trying to even up this series.”

In Game 1, the Red Wings jumped out to a 1-0 lead and led, 2-1, late in the second period. But they still lost. Bowman is hoping for a sharper performance tonight.

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“I think basically without putting the finger on a bunch of stuff, it’s strange we had a real poor passing game,” Bowman said. “Our passes really hurt us, especially in the first half of the game. We caused a lot of turnovers, and it didn’t result in a lot of damage, but it certainly stopped the offense.”


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