Emile Francis, a battle-scarred goaltender who played sparingly for the lowly Rangers teams before rebuilding the franchise as a coach and general manager in a Hall of Fame hockey career spanning a half-century, died on Saturday. He was 95 years old.
Rangers announced his death.
Playing junior hockey in Saskatchewan, Francis was nicknamed the cat for his quick reflexes in front of goal. But he only played 95 games in the National Hockey League, with the Chicago Black Hawks and Rangers. He found his place behind the bench and in the front office, with the Rangers, St. Louis Blues and Hartford Whalers.
He was virtually a one-man operation with Rangers as general manager from 1964 to 1976 and their coach for most of that time. He set Rangers practice records still standing for most games (654) and most wins (342). His career winning percentage (.602) was second only to Mike Keenan, who posted a mark of .667 in his only season with the Rangers, when he coached them to the Stanley Cup championship in 1994.
Francis was also an innovator in goalie equipment design.
Having played baseball as a teenager, he took a first baseman’s glove – a model endorsed by the Yankees’ George McQuinn – attached a hockey-style armband to it and first waved it into the net as he was in junior hockey and then brought it into the NHL. with the Black Hawks. It caught pucks easier than the usual goalie glove, a regular five-finger hockey model with a small amount of padding, and soon the league’s goaltenders were copying Francis’ creation.
“The gloves were on the market within a month,” he told NHL.com in a 2016 interview, recalling how manufacturers, including Rawlings, had been able to sell them under their brand 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 a “builder” of the game in 1982 and received the Lester Patrick Trophy that year for his contributions to hockey in the United States.
Francis has coached stars like goaltender Eddie Giacomin, forwards Jean Ratelle and Rod Gilbert, and defenseman Brad Park. When he was behind the bench for all or part of nine consecutive seasons, his teams had regular-season winning records and consistently made the playoffs. But his only run to the Stanley Cup Finals as Rangers coach was in 1972, a four-game loss to the Boston Bruins.
A wiry five-foot-six and around 145 pounds, Francis was an intense figure walking behind the Rangers bench, two L-shaped scars on his chin from his goalkeeping days attesting to his tenacity. In 19 seasons playing junior, minor league and NHL hockey, he had broken his nose several times, taken more than 200 stitches and lost numerous teeth. So he didn’t hesitate to harangue his Rangers when he felt they weren’t playing smart, aggressive hockey. A plaque he posted in their locker room read “We provide everything but the guts.”
“Ninety percent of winning is desire,” he told the New York Times in 1967. “You gotta keep pushing, pushing to create desire, for some guys to achieve the importance of every game.”
Emile Percy Francis was born September 13, 1926 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan. His father died when he was 8 years old. His mother, Yvonne Francis, maintained the household during the Depression, and an uncle who played for a senior hockey team taught young Emile the game.
As Francis recounted, he received his nickname during the 1945-46 season, when a sportswriter impressed with his play in front of goal for the Moose Jaw Canucks of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League wrote that he was “fast as a cat”.
Francis joined the NHL’s Black Hawks midway through the 1946-47 season and played 73 games with them over two seasons.
He was traded to the Rangers in October 1948, but played just 22 games over the next four seasons as a replacement for future Hall of Fame goaltender Chuck Rayner. He spent most of those seasons playing for New Haven and Cincinnati of the American Hockey League, then returned to the minors permanently, retiring after the 1959–60 season.
After coaching in the Rangers minor league organization, Francis was named assistant general manager in 1962, then general manager in October 1964. He took over a franchise that had not won a Stanley Cup championship since 1940 and had not finished first in a six-team league since 1942.
Francis’ first two Rangers teams missed the playoffs. But his feistiness was on display early in the 1965 season in a game against the Detroit Red Wings at Madison Square Garden, when he charged from his seat to berate a goal judge who had signaled that a puck had passed Giacomin for a score. Francis struggled with a fan sitting near the goal judge, and at least eight Rangers players came up to the stands to defend him.
Two weeks later, Francis fired his coach, Red Sullivan. Moving behind the bench, he brought order to a seemingly chaotic presence on the ice, setting role models for his skaters to follow.
“It’s the first time we’ve had a system that lets us know where the other player is on the ice,” longtime Rangers defenseman Harry Howell told The Times during the 1967 season. 1968.
While remaining general manager, Francis gave up coaching duties three times – to Bernie Geoffrion in 1968, Larry Popein in 1973 and Ron Stewart in 1975 – but he was behind the bench for all or part of the 10 seasons, posting an overall record of 342-209-103.
Francis angered Rangers fans when he released a huge fan favorite Giacomin on October 31, 1975. The Detroit Red Wings claimed him and he played for them at the Garden two nights later, inspiring the fans to sing “Kill the cat.”
Giacomin was replaced by John Davidson in goal. A week later, in an all-star trade, Francis traded Park and Ratelle to the Bruins in a multiplayer deal for center Phil Esposito and defenseman Carol Vadnais.
Francis was fired as general manager in January 1976 and replaced by John Ferguson, a former Canadiens winger, who also took over as coach, replacing Stewart.
Francis became general manager and coach of the Blues in the 1976–77 season, when he led them to the top spot in the division, and he remained with the organization until 1983. He was a senior manager with the Whalers (now the Carolina Hurricanes) from 1983 to 1993, with the team making the playoffs for most of his tenure.
He is survived by his wife, Emma, and sons Bobby, who coached the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes for five seasons and received the Jack Adams Award as the league’s head coach in 2002, and Rick, a former vice president of marketing and sales with the Whalers.
When Francis took over Rangers, he wanted players known for their tenacity.
He persuaded former Montreal Canadiens star Geoffrion to come out of retirement to play two seasons for the Rangers before his time as coach with them. As Geoffrion said in an interview with The Times in March 1967, Francis assured Rangers no longer had an “inferiority complex”.
Gilbert, the top-scoring winger, marveled at how Francis could lose his temper behind the bench but still remained in control.
As he said, “I saw Emile switch lines while he was fighting.”