Emile Francis, a battle-scarred goalkeeper who played sparingly for the Rangers’ weak teams before re-establishing the franchise as his coach and general manager in a half-century-long Hockey Hall of Fame hockey career, died Saturday. He was 95.
Rangers announced his death. The team did not say where Francis died, but he lived in South Florida.
When playing junior hockey in Saskatchewan, Francis was known as the Cat with his quick reflexes at the door. But he only played in 95 National Hockey League games with the Chicago Black Hawks and Rangers. He found his niche behind the bench and in the front office, with Rangers, St. Louis Blues and Hartford Whalers.
He was in fact a stand-alone operation with the Rangers as their general manager from 1964 to 1976 and their coach for most of that time. He set Ranger coaching records, still having the most games (654) and the most wins (342). His career victory rate (0.602) was only better than Mike Keenan’s, who scored 0.667 in his only season with the Rangers when he coached them for the 1994 Stanley Cup.
Francis was also an innovator in the design of goalkeepers’ equipment.
After playing baseball as a teenager, he took the first baseball glove – a model approved by the Yankees George McQueen – and attached a hockey-style cuff to it. He first put it in the door while playing junior hockey, then introduced it to the NHL with the Black Hawks. He caught puck easier than the usual goalie glove, a simple five-finger hockey model with little padding, and the league goalkeepers soon copied his creation.
“The gloves were on the market within a month,” he told NHL.com in a 2016 interview, recalling how manufacturers, including Rawlings, have been able to sell them under their own name ever since. “I didn’t have a patent because I didn’t even know what a patent was.”
Francis was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as the “builder” of the game in 1982 and received the Leicester Patrick Trophy the same year for his contributions to hockey in the United States.
Francis has coached stars such as goalkeeper Eddie Giacomin, strikers Jean Rattel and Rod Gilbert and defender Brad Park. When he was behind the bench for all or part of nine consecutive seasons, his teams had regular season records and always entered the playoffs. But his only appearance in the Stanley Cup finals as coach of the Rangers came in 1972, when the team lost to the Boston Bruins by four to two.
Cruel 5 feet 6 and 145 pounds or so, Francis was an intense figure walking behind the Rangers bench, two L-shaped scars on his chin from the time of the goalkeepers testified to his endurance. In 19 seasons, playing in junior hockey, minor leagues and the NHL, he had broken his nose many times, taken more than 200 stitches and lost many teeth. So he didn’t hesitate to insult his Rangers when he felt they weren’t playing smart, aggressive hockey. A plaque he placed in their locker room read, “We deliver everything except the intestines.”
“Ninety percent of victory is desire,” he told the New York Times in 1967. “You have to keep pushing, pushing to make a wish, to make some boys realize the importance of every game.”
Emile Percy Francis was born on September 13, 1926 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan. His father died when he was 8. His mother, Yvonne Francis, supported the household during the Depression, and his uncle, who plays for the senior hockey team, trained young Emil in the game.
As Francis put it, he got his nickname in the 1945-46 season when a sports writer, impressed by his game in the door for the Saskatchewan Hockey League’s Moose Jaw Canucks, wrote that he was “fast as a cat.”
Francis joined the NHL Black Hawks in the middle of the 1946-47 season and played in 73 games with them for two seasons.
He was replaced by Rangers in October 1948, but appeared in only 22 games over the next four seasons as a replacement for Chuck Raynor, their future goalkeeper in the Hall of Fame. He spent most of those seasons playing for New Haven and Cincinnati in the American Hockey League, then returned forever to the minors, retiring after the 1959-60 season.
After training in the Rangers Minor League, Francis was appointed their assistant general manager in 1962 and general manager in October 1964. He took over a franchise that had not won a 1940 Stanley Cup championship and was not. graduated first in a six-team league since 1942.
Frances’ first two teams missed the playoffs. But his tenacity was evident in the early 1965 season against Detroit Red Wings at Madison Square Garden, when he threw his seat to reprimand a naked referee who signaled that the puck had passed Giacomin for the result. Frances got into a fight with a fan sitting close to the goalkeeper, and at least eight Rangers players took to the stands to defend him.
Two weeks later, Francis fired his coach, Red Sullivan. Moving behind the bench, he brought some order to the seemingly chaotic presence of ice, establishing patterns for his skaters to follow.
“This is the first time we have a system where we know where the other player on the ice is,” Harry Howell, a longtime Ranger defender, told The Times in the 1967-68 season.
While remaining general manager, Francis resigned as coach three times – to Bernie Jeffrion in 1968, to Larry Popein in 1973 and to Ron Stewart in 1975 – but he was behind the bench for all or part of 10 seasons , posting a total record of 342 -209-103.
Francis drew the wrath of Ranger fans when he released Giacomin, a huge fan favorite, on October 31, 1975. Detroit Red Wings took him and he played for them in the Garden two nights later, inspiring fans to chant “Kill the Cat.” . ”
Giacomin was replaced by John Davidson at the door. A week later, in an All-Stars exchange, Francis swapped Park and Ratell of the Bruins in a multiplayer deal for center Phil Esposito and defender Carol Wadnais.
Francis was fired as general manager in January 1976 and replaced by John Ferguson, a former Canadian winger. Ferguson also took over as coach, replacing Stewart.
Francis became general manager and coach of the St. Louis Blues in the 1976-77 season, when he led them to first place in the division and remained in the organization until 1983. He was senior executive director of Whalers (now Hurricanes Carolina) from 1983 to 1993. ; the team made the playoffs for most of its tenure.
Among his survivors are his sons Bobby, who coached the Phoenix (now Arizona) Coyotes for the NHL for five seasons and received the Jack Adams Award as the league’s top coach in 2002, and Rick, a former vice president of marketing and sales. Whalers, as well as three grandchildren and one great-grandchild. His wife Emma died in 2020.
In 1966, Francis formed the Metropolitan Junior Hockey League, giving children the opportunity to play ice hockey. Future rangers Nick Fotiou and Brian Mullen were among the participants in the program. In 2008, the Rangers created the Emile Francis Award, which is given to fans of youth hockey.
When Francis took control of the Rangers, he wanted players known for their endurance.
He persuaded Jeffrion, the former star of the Montreal Canadiens, to retire from playing for the Rangers for two seasons before coaching with them. As Jeffrion said in an interview with the Times in March 1967, Francis ensured that the Rangers no longer had an “inferiority complex.”
Gilbert, the high-scoring winger, wondered how Francis could lose his temper behind the bench, but he was always in control.
As he said, “I’ve seen Emil change his lines as he fights.”