On December 17th Emile Francis was presented with the Wayne Gretzky International Award at the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Boston. The award, which was established by the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 1999, is given to international individuals who have made major contributions to the growth and advancement of hockey in the United States. Francis is the ninth recipient.
“Here’s a Canadian who comes to New York City in 1964 and he’s concerned about helping the local kids,” said U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Lou Vairo. “What Emile Francis did is an unbelievable achievement that people all over hockey, and that includes America and elsewhere, should respect. What he helped do for hockey at the grassroots level, in my opinion, was worth more than 20 Stanley Cup titles.”
In 1966 Emile Francis formed the Metropolitan Junior Hockey League which is now the longest operating junior hockey league in the United States. Emile’s inspiration for the league was seeing kids playing roller hockey on the streets of the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan.
Emile Francis: “It was within a year of when I took over as general manager and coach. I went for a walk. I walked out of the employee’s entrance of the old Garden and made a right when I got to Ninth Avenue and then I made another right and I just started to walk all by myself, thinking about what I had to do to rebuild the Rangers. And I ended up in Hell’s Kitchen and I saw these kids playing hockey on roller skates. Now I’d never seen anyone play hockey on roller skates and here they were playing just as naturally as you would play on ice. So I turned around and went back to the Garden but that stayed in my mind and I kept thinking about those kids on roller skates.
The main thing I had to do was build a hockey team but I also had to build a fan base. So I sold it to the Garden as – once they’ve played the game of hockey they’ll be hockey fans for the rest of their lives. It took me a while to research it but I found out there were about 5,000 kids in New York alone on roller skates. So I thought that’s a whole area that we haven’t looked into. I’m gonna start a junior league like we had up in Canada, you could play up until you were 20 years old but I had to find ice for them to play on. So the first thing I had to do was get Madison Square Garden in the fold. I arranged a meeting with Bill Jennings [Ranger President] and Irving Felt [Garden President]. I explained what had happened and I said I’d like to start with a six team junior league, all kids up to 20 years old. But I need the Garden. I need a place where I can start. Like on Wednesdays and Sundays if I can have the building from 1 to 5 and run a doubleheader. They did this all the time at Maple Leaf Gardens, they’d run two junior games with the clock running and they’d run it off in about four hours and then we’d have a couple hours to get the ice clean and get the place ready for our game at night. And we’d let them all in for nothing because we’re gonna key in on the people who are coming to see their kids play. By coming to see the games they’ll see Madison Square Garden and furthermore once a kid plays hockey he’ll always be a fan, even when he’s finished playing. And I told them that after a while we can develop players to play in the National Hockey League. So right away Irving Felt jumped in and asked ‘how long do you think it would take to develop a New York kid to play for the Rangers?’ I pulled a number out of left field. I told him I think we could develop some kids within 10 years. I think that sold the idea when I said 10 years. He said let me think about that and a couple of days later they agreed to do it.
So then I had to find teams and places to play. We got a team from Hell’s Kitchen right off the bat, Joey Mullen came from there and his brother Brian. I hired John Muckler to run the league because I knew I didn’t have time because I was GM and Coach at the time. Muckler was coach of the Long Island Ducks and I made him the president of the league and he could also do a lot of scouting for me. And the first guy to come out of the league was Nicky Fotiu nine years later.”
The Met League began with six teams: The West New York (NJ) Raiders, Riverdale Rams, White Plains Plainsmen, New York Green Leafs, New Hyde Park Arrows and Commack Jets. Two more teams were added the following season and the league was split into two divisions. The league is currently comprised of 15 teams along the Eastern seaboard from Connecticut through New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. They play a 24 week season culminating with the playoffs for the Foster Cup, named after league Commissioner Richard Foster. Among the former Met League players who have gone on to the NHL are; Brian and Joey Mullen, Nick Fotiu, Mike Richter, Jim Dowd, Mark Eaton and Mike Komisarek.
Emile’s dedication to youth hockey didn’t end when he left the Rangers. During the time he was executive vice president, general manager and coach of the St. Louis Blues, he formed the St. Louis Metro Junior B League. In addition, he was awarded the Lester Patrick Trophy in 1982 for his contributions to hockey in the United States, and that same year was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the Builders category.
Emile Francis: “The best thing was in 1989 we had an All-Star game in Edmonton and I remember I was there with my wife and that’s one of the proudest moments of my life. On one blue line for the Western team was Joe Mullin and on the Eastern team was his brother Brian. I’m telling you I was actually crying. These two guys came out of Hell’s Kitchen in New York where I’d first seen hockey played on roller skates, both playing in an All-Star game in the National Hockey League. That was one of the proudest moments I’ve had in hockey. To see these two guys given the opportunity. My own kids played in that league and they ended up with college scholarships.”