Sunday, January 29, 2006

Ron Francis has his Number 10 Retired in Carolina

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- Ron Francis donned the familiar sweater and led the Carolina Hurricanes on the ice one final time, then took a victory lap around the rink to a standing ovation.When he was done, his wife and three children joined him near centre ice, as did his parents, his brother and a handful of friends."Having my family on the ice with me tonight makes the celebration complete," Francis told the crowd at the RBC Center. "There's no better group I could have asked to share this ride with. You are simply the best."The Hurricanes retired Francis' No. 10 on Saturday night before playing the Atlanta Thrashers. The end of his 23-year career officially came in September, when he announced he wasn't coming back following the lockout.And his former teammates had their own tribute on Ron Francis Night -- they each skated in warmups with a replica Francis sweater, complete with the captain's C on the shoulder that designated his status as captain."I think just the fact that we have a Hall of Famer in our midst, with this franchise and this team, is special," current captain Rod Brind'Amour said earlier in the day. "We don't have a Stanley Cup yet, we don't have anything like that to hang out hat on, but we have a Hall of Fame player."The touching pre-game ceremony featured a video montage of Francis' career, and he and his family were given a vacation package to a ski resort in western Canada. Finally, a banner with the number was raised to the rafters and became the first part of the team's Ring of Honour.Among those in attendance were NHL commissioner Gary Bettman."When you think of his accomplishments on and off the ice, the dignity, class and durability that his career represented, it's truly phenomenal," Bettman said. "He deserves the recognition that he's getting."Francis began his career as the fourth overall pick of the Hartford Whalers before getting traded to Pittsburgh, where he helped the Penguins win back-to-back Stanley Cups. He returned to his original franchise as a free agent in 1998 -- only it was located in North Carolina and was called the Hurricanes.He still makes his home in the area."I've been very happy with the decision I made," Francis said a day before the ceremony. "I hate when guys just say it's the money has nothing to do with it, certainly the money had something to do with it. I'm glad when I got down here and started living in this community, it was everything I hoped it would be."When Francis stepped away from the game, he was second to Wayne Gretzky with 1,249 assists, and ranked among the NHL's career leaders with 1,731 games (third), 549 goals (19th) and 1,798 points (fourth)..Perhaps just as important as those numbers were the impact he had on the sport in a non-traditional market such as Raleigh. He led Carolina to the Stanley Cup final in 2002, and even losing to the Detroit Red Wings in five games hardly silenced the buzz about the team from Tobacco Road.It's back this season -- the Hurricanes entered Saturday with the most points in the league, along with an 18-point lead in the Southeast Division."Like a lot of people, I think this is the deepest team that's ever been in Carolina," Francis said. "I honestly thought they could win the division at the start of the year. Quite honestly, I wasn't expecting them to be challenging for the overall lead."None of the current members of the team were worried about losing their focus because of the ceremony."I think it's the furthest thing from a distraction, I think it brings an excitement," said center Kevyn Adams, an alternate captain. "We've played a lot of games in a short stretch here, and this should certainly be something that brings out a spark in us, no doubt about it."A standing-room only crowd didn't hurt, either."Unfortunately, it cost me a lot of money to fill up the building," Francis quipped. "For me, it's been a great time here. I enjoyed my time on the ice, and I've enjoyed seeing more and more people get interested in the game of hockey."

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