RALEIGH, N.C. -- More than a few eyebrows were raised by NHL owners and general managers when the Carolina Hurricanes gave Ron Francis a $20 million contract in the summer of 1998.
Why were the Hurricanes dishing out $5 million a season for a player in his mid-30s who had never been a big goal-scorer and pokes fun at his own skating ability?
Didn't owner Peter Karmanos know Francis would no longer be passing to former Pittsburgh Penguins superstars Mario Lemieux or Jaromir Jagr?
The answer is crystal clear now.
At 39, Francis is still going strong, proving he's one of the more special players in NHL history.
"We were pretty well criticized by a lot of hockey people for giving a guy that old that kind of contract," Karmanos said. "But near the end of the contract it looks like we got a real bargain. He has made this one of the classiest franchises in the league because he's such a class person and a true professional athlete."
Heading into the final two regular-season games of the season, Francis has 27 goals and 50 assists to rank in the league's top five in scoring. He also leads the NHL with 42 power-play points and he's fourth in faceoff percentage for the Southeast Division champion Hurricanes.
There's even talk around the league that Francis will get some votes for the Hart Trophy as league MVP.
"There are a lot of guys having good years, but to be mentioned with some of them is an honor, especially at this point in my career and at this age," Francis said. "It wasn't something I expected heading into the season."
Francis won two Stanley Cups with the Penguins in his eight years there, but had a chance to cash in on a large payday as an unrestricted free agent four years ago. He also had an opportunity to return to an organization that drafted him in 1981.
When Pittsburgh was unable to come up with top dollar, Francis headed to North Carolina, which he viewed as a good place to raise his three children.
"I remember that day back home when I heard we signed Ron Francis. At first, I couldn't believe it," said Sami Kapanen, who is from Finland. "I thought somebody was joking with me. I said, 'Wow, we got a player like that.' I couldn't wait to get here to training camp and see if I got a chance to play with him."
It's no accident that players such as Kapanen and Jeff O'Neill have emerged as top goal-scorers while playing on a line centered by Francis, who has scored 50 or more points in 21 straight seasons. Only Gordie Howe's 22 in a row is better.
But Francis struggled with his new teammates in 1998-99, especially in the first few months of the season and finished with a career-low 52 points.
Many of Carolina's players were out of position or not expecting some of Francis' passes that often went sailing through the goal crease to the opposing team.
In other words, they weren't ready for Picasso with the puck.
"He was playing a considerably different game than everybody else was and was getting killed for it," coach Paul Maurice said. "Everybody said that this guy was done."
Far from it.
After an adjustment period, the man known as Ronnie Franchise has been just that, leading Carolina to the playoffs three of the past four seasons.
"In the first couple of years he was making some passes that surprised you," Kapanen said. "Even within the last week once I thought there was a 2-on-2 battle down low and I was assuming he couldn't make a pass so I stopped skating and the next thing I know he passed it right toward the net. I told him I assumed he couldn't make that pass. He said, 'Don't assume I can't do it, just go there."'
This year has been one of milestones for Francis in his 21st NHL season. He's registered his 1,700th point and 500th goal, and moved into second-place all-time behind Wayne Gretzky with 1,187 assists.
"I've been real happy with the way things have gone for me personally all season long," Francis said.
But while Francis has played in 322 of a possible 326 games with the Hurricanes and scored 267 points, statistics tell half the story of the future Hall of Famer.
Karmanos and general manager Jim Rutherford also signed Francis for the intangibles he could bring to an organization that had moved from Hartford, Conn., to a region of the country where NHL hockey was foreign.
Rutherford also desperately wanted a leader, a player with competitive fire that would set a high standard for a franchise that was anything but in the upper echelon when it arrived here.
"When that puck is dropped on any given game, it doesn't matter if it's a preseason game or a playoff game, he competes as well as anybody I've ever seen play the game," Rutherford said.
Maurice, who is five years younger than his star player, has used Francis like another assistant coach.
"The interesting thing about Ronnie is he affects the older players just as much as the younger guys," Maurice said. "He does have that kind of stature in the locker room. He's one of the guys, but at the same time he's not. Everybody in that room looks at him and sees Hall of Fame. There isn't a player in that room that, if Ronnie pulled him aside and gave him a little direction, wouldn't take it completely to heart."
O'Neill, for one, has been positively influenced by Francis. A talented and often inconsistent player in his first five seasons with Carolina, O'Neill has scored 41 and 31 goals the last two years playing with Francis.
O'Neill, now in his mid-20s, has also taken note how Francis prepares for games and takes care of his body.
"I know some 30-something guys that can barely get off the couch, let alone play 25 or 30 minutes a night in the NHL," O'Neill said. "He's a freak of nature. He does stuff that is literally mind-boggling. That's why he makes the big bucks."
Francis has an option year left on his contract. He gets $2.5 million to play, or $1 million to walk away.
Francis is still undecided on returning, but Karmanos said preliminary talks have begun to possibly rework the contract and bring the team's captain back for his 22nd season - and maybe beyond. Nothing is expected to be completed until after the postseason.
But how much longer can Francis go? As long as he can endure his extensive offseason fitness program that prepares him for the rigors of an 82-game schedule.
"Logic would tell you at some point he's got to slow down," Maurice said. "But history would tell you you may be betting against the wrong guy.
"He's not going to lose any abilities in four months, but I don't think people understand how hard he prepares himself for the season," Maurice added. "Does he want to go through that again? He's one of those closet fitness guys. That's the way he lives his life. He doesn't brag about his effort."
Kapanen just shakes his head when asked about Francis' value to the team.
"We got a whole lot for that money," Kapanen said. "It's one of the better things this organization has ever done."
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