When he arrived in the NHL, straight out of junior A at age 18, Ron Francis was barely old enough to shave, a fact that somehow escaped the notice of his new teammates. Shortly after Francis joined the Hartford Whalers in November 1981, a group of veterans tied him to a trainer's table, blindfolded him and introduced him to the joys of the full-body shave. While it surely would have helped if the guys had used shaving cream or at least a little warm water, Francis still looks back fondly on his painful initiation into the NHL. "That's how long I've been around," says Francis, smiling. "Back then, rookies got shaved. That doesn't happen much anymore."
At least it doesn't happen much in Pittsburgh, where Francis wears the C with the same class and dignity that has marked his 17 years in the league. In a game that often eats its best citizens alive (see Paul Kariya), in a sports era that celebrates the loud, the lewd, the boorish and the belly-pierced, Francis has quietly slipped through the cracks and into the record books. He has flourished without an act, an attitude or a designer ego from the Dershowitz collection, and this season, at 35, he even seems to be defying age by performing as well as ever.
Not that Francis expects anyone to notice. He played the first 9� years of his career in Hartford, the NHL's version of the witness protection program, and the next seven with the Penguins in the prodigious shadows of Mario Lemieux, long regarded as the game's top player, and Jaromir Jagr, now arguably No. 1. While his spectacular teammates have won the awards, Francis settled for the respect of his peers, and few players in the game can match him in that category. "The ultimate professional," Pittsburgh goal-tender Tom Barrasso says of Francis. "He doesn't make the big headlines, doesn't get the big contract. He's just a very special player who has quietly become one of the alltime greats."
Indeed, Francis's name should be engraved near the top of everyone's most-underrated list, somewhere between Larry Fine and meat loaf with mashed potatoes. With three more assists Francis will become the NHL's seventh player with 1,000, and with another six points he will pass Bryan Trottier and go into ninth place on the league's alltime scoring list. Francis helped win a Stanley Cup in his first season with the Penguins, in 1991, and another the following year.
With such impressive accomplishments, Francis would appear to be a lock for the Hall of Fame, but you will have to forgive him if he waits until all the ballots are counted before he takes a bow. Despite his obvious qualifications, it's hard for Francis to believe he will get into the Hall when he can't even get on the All-Star Game ballot. This season's ballot for the North American team listed the names of 12 centers, but the 6'3", 200-pound Francis wasn't among them. "I'll admit that bothered me a little," he says. "But a couple of years ago, I was third in the league in scoring and didn't get voted to the All-Star team. I was added later as the commissioner's choice."
Before the ballot snub, there was the little matter of the Canadian Olympic team slight, another elite club for which Francis wasn't selected. Of those chosen, only Wayne Gretzky is ahead of Francis on the NHL's career scoring list. In typical Francis fashion, he says he felt worse for Mark Messier than for himself. "How can you not have Mess on that team after all he's done?" says Francis. "It would have been nice to play for my country, but I enjoyed the two weeks with my family, resting up and getting ready for the playoffs."
This season, as usual, Francis is among the league leaders in scoring—fourth in points (73) at week's end. Jagr, a linemate, is the only other player to finish in the top 10 in scoring in each of the last three seasons, and he was No. 1 with 85 points through Sunday. Meanwhile the Penguins, who were pegged to finish .500 or worse this season, were atop the Northeast Division, with 82 points, second only to the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference.
When Kevin Constantine was hired to coach Pittsburgh last June, he brought with him a new system, a more disciplined, defense-oriented style of play that required the commitment of the veterans, especially the first-line center. Constantine and Francis spoke on the phone many times over the summer, and the latter assured the former that he was ready, as always, to play hard, to play both ends of the ice and to buy into everything Constantine was selling. With Francis on board, Jagr and the rest of the team fell in line. "From Day One we were counting on Ronnie," says Constantine. "He hasn't disappointed."
Francis believes his performance this year is largely the result of a new diet, which is higher in protein and lower in starch, as well as an intense stretching regimen that he adopted in the off-season. Jagr says Francis, while still not the speediest skater in the league, is just as fast as he was when they first played together seven years ago. But Francis's greatest strength remains his understanding of the game and his vision on the ice. "Maybe I've lost some strength," he says, "but my mind is the best part of my game, and as far as I know, I haven't lost my mind yet."
While ordering lunch, Francis tells the waitress to hold the french fries, and he is asked if that's a concession to his new regimen. "Actually, no," he says. "I gave them up for Lent." He can be as dull as Sunday school but at the same time refreshing: a religious man who doesn't beat you over the head with his beliefs, a family man who doesn't wave his three children in front of the cameras like props.