Emile “The Cat” Francis
New York Rangers, 1964-1976
St. Louis Blues, 1976-1983
Hartford Whalers, 1983-1989
Smythe Division Titles, 1976-1977, 1980-1981
Adams Division Title, 1986-1987
Playoff Appearances: 1967-1975, 1977, 1980-1983, 1986-1989
Stanley Cup Finals Appearance: 1972
“You have to get up early in the morning to outfox the Cat.”
–Vic Hadfield’s Diary
It was the great misfortune in Emile Francis’ Hall of Fame hockey career that he was always forced to take on rebuilding projects and but never got the chance to achieve the ultimate glory in winning the Stanley Cup.
Francis dedicated his entire life to hockey and that dedication earned him the respect and admiration of the entire hockey world. Former Minnesota North Stars GM Lou Nanne states in a 2012 interview that “Emile Francis had the greatest work ethic of any general manager I had ever met.” Francis was indefatigable in making sure his teams were always competitive; always successful; always capable of achieving great things on the ice.
Small in size, Francis possessed enormous leadership skills and one of the greatest hockey IQs in the history of the game. This writer had the honor of interviewing him in 2009 and was overwhelmed by the breadth, wealth, and depth of the Cat’s knowledge of the game; his ability to break down and analyze the skills and weaknesses of his players; and how to maximize their ability to the utmost.
Emile is best remembered for his stellar years with the New York Rangers but he might not have ever worked for the Rangers if the Chicago Blackhawks had not been so vague in giving Francis a chance to coach in their organization. His playing career had ended but Emile wanted to work as a coach and was looking for an opportunity in the Blackhawks organization but the Hawks management was dilatory in working out a deal so when Muzz Patrick (who was GM of the Rangers at the time) found out that Francis was still available, he made him a firm offer which Francis accepted.
(That is another great hockey what-if? What if Emile Francis and not Billy Reay had been head coach of the Blackhawks during their glory years from 1963 to 1974? Would Francis have been able to end the Hawks’ Stanley Cup curse much sooner if he had been at the helm?)
Francis started off as assistant GM to Muzz Patrick with the responsibility of setting up and administering the Rangers farm system. Francis spent two years travelling all over North America setting up farm teams and signing players. (His ability at assessing, nurturing, teaching, and guiding young hockey talent was one of his many hallmarks as a coach and manager).
When he took over as Rangers GM in 1964 he was ready and willing to stand or fall with the young players he recruited and signed to the Rangers. Jean Ratelle, Jim Neilson, Rod Seiling had been on the roster for a few years. Goaltender Eddie Giacomin was an untried (although not untested) rookie. (Francis was the only person who saw the potential greatness in Giacomin, spiriting him away from the AHL. In return Giacomin became one of the most dogged, courageous, and indefatigable goaltenders in NHL history; an HHOF inductee in 1987).
The NHL amateur draft had started in 1963 and Francis began panning for gold. During the course of his stay in New York he found precious nuggets like Brad Park in 1966, Steve Vickers in 1971, and Dave Maloney in 1974. Although they never starred for the Rangers, Francis was the man who drafted future NHL players Syl Apps, Jr., Andre “Moose” Dupont, Mike Murphy, Bob MacMillan, and Rick Middleton.
To instill and maintain a winning attitude Francis augmented his rookies by trading for established veterans like Bernie Geoffrion, Orland Kurtenbach, and Al MacNeil from winning teams like Montreal and Toronto.
Still Emile Francis was not above making a few trading clunkers during his managerial career. One of his biggest ones was the trading of Red Berenson and Barclay Plager to the St. Louis Blues for Ron Stewart and Ron Atwell. Berenson and Plager became the heart and soul of the Blues offense and defense, leading St. Louis to three straight Stanley Cup finals appearances while Stewart and Atwell faded into obscurity. (Former New York Times sportswriter Gerry Eskenazi told me in a 2007 interview that Francis got rid of Berenson because he was convinced that Berenson’s mind wasn’t on hockey. Berenson unlike most of his teammates was bookish and intellectual, preferring to curl up with books instead of joining in the regular camaraderie. Berenson became the top gun for the Blues and the Detroit Red Wings).
By 1967 the Rangers were in the playoffs and would remain playoff contenders for the next eight seasons.
Emile Francis was doing double duty as head coach and general manager but three times during his managerial sting with the Rangers he tried to yield the coaching reins without success. The Cat suffered the same problem that dogged Scotty Bowman when he was head coach and GM of the Buffalo Sabres during the 1980s: he could never find a coach who was as brilliant at leading and motivating his players as he was). Francis had Bernie Geoffrion, Larry Popein, and Ron Stewart serving as head coach but always Emile had to return to save the day.
Francis was given ample leeway by the ownership to run the club as he saw fit but when Paramount Pictures bought the Rangers and began to question his decisions he saw the writing on the wall. He was fired in January 1976 but quickly caught on with the St. Louis Blues as their general manager and part owner in the team. Unfortunately for Francis bought a pig in a poke. The Blues were on the verge of fiscal collapse and possible relocation. During the next seven years the Cat used up a lot of his hockey lives trying to keep the Blues operating while trying to pay the bills; engaging in emergency fund-raising; and seeking new owners who could keep the team alive.
All the while this was happening Francis had not lost his touch for discovering hockey talent. During his stay with the Blues Francis drafted Bernie Federko and Brian Sutter in 1976: two luminaries who gave joy to Blues fans during the Valley Forge years of the franchise. Both men’s jerseys hang from the rafters at the Scottrade Center. Goalie Mike Liut also came in 1976 as did Wayne Babych in 1978. Hall-of-Famer Doug Gilmour was drafted in 1982.
Amazingly, despite the fiscal mess, the Blues remained competitive and entertaining—winning two Smythe Division titles for Francis in 1977 and 1981 and failing to reach the playoffs only twice during his six year reign with the Blues.
When Francis left St. Louis in 1983 the team had new ownership and was committed to staying in St. Louis.
The Cat took up another lost cause: the Hartford Whalers. Hartford since their entry into the NHL in 1979 had faltered badly. Francis gave the team a complete makeover: trading away everyone except for Ron Francis and Paul MacDermid. Francis beefed up the Whalers with shrewd trades acquiring Mike Liut and Wayne Babych from St. Louis; Doug Jarvis from Washington. Kevin Dineen came up from the minors. (Another interesting note: two future NHL coaching greats Joel Quenneville and Dave Tippett played for Hartford while Emile Francis served as manager).
By 1986 the Whalers had their first winning season as an NHL franchise. By 1987 they had won their first (and only) divisional title during their stay in Hartford. The Whalers struggled financially and by 1989 the team’s ownership forced Francis out. The departure of the Cat was the death-knell of the Whalers. Years of disaster followed and the team eventually moved to North Carolina.
Emile Francis retired to Florida where he remains today: a keen, deep, and wonderful window to the NHL’s glorious past.
(My next column will feature former Calgary Flames GM Darryl Sutter.)