BOSTON – Emile Francis has been out of hockey for more than two decades but his impact on the game is still felt today. Through his efforts at both the NHL and grassroots level, Francis opened doors for thousands of youth hockey players in places like New York, St. Louis and Hartford, Conn.
And the ripple effect can be felt in NHL cities around the country as more teams see the importance of growing the game in their own backyards.
For all he’s done in the game, the man they called “The Cat” because of his quickness as a goalie, was presented with the Wayne Gretzky International Award as part of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Induction ceremony.
The award, established in 1999, pays tribute to international individuals who have made major contributions to the growth and advancement of hockey in the United States.
Not only is Francis credited with founding the Metropolitan Junior Hockey Association, currently the longest operating Junior hockey league in the country, he also launched the St. Louis Metro Junior B League. He also organized countless clinics and seminars, and served as a consultant to the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States.
“Emile Francis is the finest man that I’ve ever met in the game of hockey,” said Lou Vairo, USA Hockey’s director of Special Projects who first met Francis in 1965 when he was starting the Greater New York City Hockey League.
“He has always been a great competitor, an outstanding administrator and coach and, throug his own initiative, made it possible for so many kids to play the game. Hockey wouldn’t be the same without him.”
Francis, who served as the coach and general manager of the N.Y. Rangers for 10 seasons, still holds franchise records for games coached (654), victories (342), winning percentage (.602), playoff games coached (75), and playoff wins (34).
In 1976, he joined the St. Louis Blues and eventually served as executive vice president, general manager and coach. After seven campaigns in St. Louis, he became general manager of the Hartford Whalers, where he ended his career as president of the organization in 1993.
He was awarded the Lester Patrick Trophy in 1982 for his outstanding contributions to hockey in the United States, and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame that same year. In 2008, the Rangers established the annual Emile Francis Award in his honor, which recognizes a youth hockey supporter for outstanding service to grassroots development.
All these years away from the game, the North Battleford, Saskatchewan, native still recalls the day in the 1960s when he first discovered the passion that New Yorkers have for the game.
"We had just finished our morning skate and meetings before a very big game against the Montreal and they had won four Stanley Cups," said Francis, who took over as the general manager and head coach of the woeful Rangers in 1965.
"I was getting a little nervous so I decided to go for a walk. So I got out of the Garden and took a right turn and went up to 9th Avenue and made another right. I didn't even know where I was going. All of a sudden I see these skids skating on roller skates. I was so naive I didn't even know they played hockey in New York. I soon found out that there were 5,000 kids playing roller hockey. I knew what I have to do, I got to get a league going here."
Modeled after the junior hockey in Canada, Francis started the Metropolitan Junior League.
From there a number of New Yorkers were given an opportunity to play the game, and a number of them went on to play in college or in the pros.
"Not only did we give a lot of kids an opportunity to play, a lot of kids made a living from the game," he said. "That makes me feel real good."
One of the first native New Yorkers to actually make it was tough guy Nick Fotiu, who got his start in the Met League and went on to play seven years with the Rangers.
"If it wasn't for him I wouldn't have played hockey," said the Staten Island native. "He gave a lot of kids like myself to play the game and follow their dreams."
Francis is proud of every kid who played the game but perhaps his most cherished memory came at the 1989 NHL All-Star game in Edmonton where he watched New York natives Joe and Brian Mullen playing on different teams.
"That's one of the few times in my life that I cried," he said. "Here are these two brothers from [the] Hell's Kitchen [section of New York] and they are standing at the blue line before the start of the game and I said, 'All that work was worth it."
It also helped to fill the Garden, which has long been home to some of the league's most passionate fans.
"Not only are these teams helping these kids, they're helping themselves because they're selling the game," he said. "Once you play hockey you'll never give it up. That's what I told the guys at the Garden. Not only are we developing players but more so, when they're all through playing they'll be fans for life."