Is Francis Getting the Shaft?


Recently, PSaMP received an email from reader Jody diPerna, a hardcore Ron Francis fan with an interesting question. Francis, who was recently inducted into the hockey HOF, was a huge figure in Penguins lore. I mean, the guy helped bring back to back Cups to the City. We don’t just forget favors like that. However, on a national scale, there seems to be little media recognition of the NHL’s 4th all-time leading scorer.

I’ll leave you with Jody’s question and my response.
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I am the sports writer for Pittsburgh’s City Paper and am working on a column about Ron Francis being inducted into the hockey HOF. I was on a short hiatus due to a long vacation in South America. I returned to read about this glorious, in my estimation, news.

I’ve entered the blogosphere, and am hoping to get a reaction of fans who were touched by Ron Francis. At any rate, anybody who knows me knows that I adored Francis. He was a great player and seemed to be an equally great guy.

His election has not gotten the coverage in the mainstream media as it might deserve. What’s your sense of the ground root hockey fans? Do you think they are as happy as I about his induction? Or are people pretty much indifferent to it?


Jody diPerna
Pittsburgh City Paper
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Jody,

You raise an interesting question.

Ron Francis holds a different kind of legacy in Pittsburgh. He’s not a Lemieux or Clemente. However, he is an outstanding athlete who is oftentimes overlooked, locally and nationally.

As a child of the 80s, the Back to Back Cups teams were my first experience with a championship in the…City of Champions. My Dad would always talk about the Steelers dynasty, or the We Are Family Buccos, or Clemente (his favorite athlete). Despite my black and gold blood, I couldn’t imagine what a championship felt like because I never saw one personally. Those Pens teams of the early 90s changed that. Now I knew success. For this reason alone, those Pens teams hold a dear spot in my sports memories. And Ron Francis was the pivotal piece that made it all happen.

The team was great before he arrived. Lemieux was coming into his own in the league, but still needed that missing piece to help him contend for a Cup (sorta like how Crosby is/was, before the Robertses/Sykoras/Sydors were added). But we didn’t just get Francis. We got Ulf and Zarley Zalapski, too. Francis, though, was the centerpiece.

Those teams winning those Cups helped cement Ron Francis’s legacy, in Pittsburgh and over the whole country. Plus, he finished his career 4th on the all-time points list. The guy is a legend. He’s one of my favorite Pens players. But his induction into the HOF has and will be overlooked due to certain reasons.

First, the caliber of the class is crazy. Messier, 2nd on the all-time points list, a 6-time Cup winner and 15-time All-Star, is inducted in the same year. Its not often that 2 guys so high on the career points list will be inducted into hockey immortality at the same time. However, there are reasons for that.

The lockout season of ’04-’05 not only ushered in the new brand of hockey we see today, but it also helped kill the last generation of hockey greats. Messier was still productive in the seasons leading up to the lockout, and despite bouncing from Pittsburgh to Carolina to Toronto, Francis could have played one, maybe two more years. But when you destroy a whole season, old dudes like Mark and Ron just don’t have the energy to wait a year before playing again. So two of the greatest players in the game call it quits at about the same time. Its only right that they should be inducted into the Hall asap, and naturally, the guy with more points will be more widely recognized/beloved. It sucks for Francis.

I’m also drawn to a theory that was recently on Deadspin, but can originally be found here. ESPN, arguably the biggest source of national sports news, is, in its own way, killing the game of hockey. Since ESPN holds no rights to broadcast games anymore, the coverage on Sportscenter is minimal. What are the basic cable fans supposed to do if they don’t get hockey games? Naturally, turn to ESPN for highlights. But ESPN force feeds us the programming that they have bought into. Do we really need constant coverage of the Arena Football League? The MLS? Us fans of the ice suffer, because ESPN shows favoritism to the sports that they make money off. The corporate stranglehold that ESPN has on the NHL is huge. End result = a brief mention of this year’s hockey HOF class in the waning moments of Sportscenter rather than a place of prominence like it deserves (I don’t know if this was the actual case, its more of a metaphor). It would be sacrilege for the World Wide Leader to ignore the baseball or football HOF classes the way that this hockey class is being ignored. But ESPN can show baseball and football games, so this will never happen. Again, guys like Francis suffer.

If we would travel to Canada, I’m sure there would be a different story being painted. I like to imagine that guys everywhere are giddy over this year’s HOF class. I mean, come on. Its Francis, Messier, Al MacInnins and Scott Stevens. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better class. And 10 years ago, guys in the states would be giddy over this class. Why? Because ESPN, who had the rights to the telecasts, would be all over the highlights on entities like Sportscenter or NHL 2night, which no longer exists due to telecast legalities and low ratings. ESPN would have to spend a few bucks to show the highlights, so its easier to shut down the show/minimize the coverage.

So who is to blame for the minimal coverage of guys like Francis? The NHLPA, for being unwilling to cooperate and forcing a lockout? A bit. Gary Bettman, for allowing a season to be wiped away? Yeah, that too. ESPN, for slowly killing the sport’s media attention? To a certain extent. Or is it all fate?

Francis deserves better. Hell, even Messier deserves better. Hockey itself deserves better. The stars aligned so perfectly that two of the greatest players in hockey history will enter that sacred Hall with minimal recognition. It sucks that it had to happen this way. And us Francis fans will still throw stones, just hoping to make a dent.

Your question is legit, and really needs to be heard. I can’t stand that its come to this point with hockey. Try telling a kid who is watching the North Stars get beat 8-0 in the 6th game, or the Blackhawks get swept, that his idols will be all but forgotten when their time comes to be enshrined in the HOF. Ridiculous.

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