- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 16, 2002

It is being referred to as the Molson Miracle, one of the most improbable playoff comebacks in the storied history of the NHL.
A week ago tonight the Montreal Canadiens were putting a stranglehold on their playoff series against Carolina, with a 3-0 lead in the third period while already holding a 2-1 edge in the series. The victory that was sure to come would all but rule out a comeback by the Hurricanes.
But Carolina won. Montreal coach Michel Therrien committed a huge blunder, opening the door for the 'Canes, who scored three times in the third period and again in overtime.
The Carolina locker room was several stages beyond bedlam. Even coach Paul Maurice, who wears a perpetual frown, lost control. It is hard to imagine a Stanley Cup championship causing a larger outburst.
"It was just one win," center Ron Francis calmly told a TV interviewer from Raleigh, N.C., amid the deafening noise. "It was a big win, an important win, but all it did was even the series. We have to win two more."
What a party pooper. How dare he inject logic and clear-thinking at a time like this, during the celebration of what was probably the biggest victory in the history of the New England/Hartford Whalers-Carolina Hurricanes.
"He's probably the most underappreciated player nationally of any player in the league," said Hurricanes general manager and part-owner Jim Rutherford, the former NHL goalie who brought Francis back to the franchise at the earliest opportunity. "I don't think he gets the kind of recognition he deserves in fact, I know he doesn't get that recognition. This year, for example, he could have been and should have been on the short list of people who were at least talked about as league MVP.
"This team doesn't get a lot of attention and he becomes a part of that. That's unfortunate because he is an exceptional person and athlete."
Francis had no intention of disrupting the celebration, but he did want to keep things in perspective. That's the job of a team captain, not letting the highs get too high, the lows get too low.
Ron Francis is an ideal captain, the type of leader most teams only dream about. He has played more than 1,500 NHL games, scored more than 500 goals, has nearly 1,200 assists yet has accumulated 935 penalty minutes (and one suspension), showing he is hardly a pretty boy who avoids the rough stuff in the corners. He is 39 years old, has played 21 seasons and owns two Stanley Cup rings, won with Pittsburgh in the early '90s.
He has been a captain a significant honor and position in the NHL everywhere he has been in Hartford, in Pittsburgh ahead of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, in Carolina.
"That really hurt that franchise," Rutherford said about the Whalers trading Francis to the Penguins in 1991. "You look at that [Hartford] franchise, it went backwards from the point they traded him and it didn't recover until we got him back," after the franchise moved to Raleigh five years ago.
Francis brings something to any team that cannot be pinpointed. It is a quiet, dignified, confident leadership that props up other players. Every fall, coming out of training camp, he picks a promising rookie to room with on the road and helps the youngster make his way in the league. All of his proteges have survived to become decent players.
Club officials in Pittsburgh and Carolina can trace the start of their playoff demises to the very day when Francis was injured in a series.
"[Francis] got hurt there in the [1996] conference finals," said Eddie Johnston, former coach and general manager of the Penguins and still an executive with the team. "We lost [to the Florida Panthers] in seven games, but I maintain to this day, if Ronnie had been healthy, we would have won the Cup that year."
Maurice has a similar tale.
"We can go back to the Boston series two years ago," said Maurice, four years younger than his star center, who was sidelined with a concussion at the time. "We had peaked at the right time but we lost in six games, and I think it was because we really missed him. Same thing in '99."
Francis looks 39. There are flecks of gray spotting his black hair and there are scars to illustrate more than 20 years of competition on the ice, including 150 playoff games. He gets a deep massage to help keep muscles flexible and starts to work out for next season about a week after the previous one ends.
"This is a lot of fun for me right now," he said. "We've worked really hard all season so it's nice to see us have some success, some recognition."
When Niclas Wallin scored his first-ever playoff goal in overtime a week ago, it was Francis who skated through the barrage of debris being thrown onto the ice by the fans to retrieve the puck from the Canadiens net. "I should have stayed in the net," Francis said, "I think it was safer there."
The Hurricanes and their captain don't get much publicity, but the hockey world knows what he has been going on for the last two decades.
"I don't really concern myself with that," he said. "I grew up in a house with a younger brother with a learning disability, and I've learned, maybe a lot sooner than some people, how to structure my priorities in life a little differently as far as what's important. Getting personal attention is not high on my list."

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