Mayor Jenny Durkan introduces Hall of Famer Ron Francis as first GM of Seattle’s new NHL team
They came wearing Seattle Metropolitans jerseys from our region’s original Stanley Cup title in 1917, Hartford Whalers jerseys from the 1980s — and, in the case of Jenny Durkan, the jacket-and-pants attire of being Seattle’s mayor in 2019.
Northwest hockey fans, local politicians, journalists and more came to Seattle Center on Thursday morning to celebrate Durkan announcing the first huge hockey hire for Seattle’s new NHL team.
It is, as franchise CEO Tod Leiweke said, “perhaps the most important hire we will ever make.”
Ron Francis is Seattle’s first general manager. He signed a multiyear contract.
“I’m absolutely humbled to be the first GM of this franchise,” Francis said.
Leiweke was humbled, too.
“It’s a dream come true,” Leiweke said. “He is truly hockey royalty and a perfect fit for the team we are building.”
Francis is a Hockey Hall of Famer. During his 22 starring seasons as a player he won two Stanley Cups playing for Pittsburgh. He is second all-time in the NHL to Wayne Gretzky in assists. He is fifth all-time in points. He is fourth all-time in games played. He was a captain teams in Hartford, Pittsburgh and Carolina for 14 years.
Then he was the architect of what grew into Carolina’s conference-finals team this spring, while as the Hurricanes’ GM from 2014-17.
Francis said he will begin immediately to assemble a staff and front office in Seattle. Eventually, he will hire a coach for the franchise’s inaugural NHL season that begins in the fall of 2021.
Speaking Thursday next door to the ongoing rebuild of KeyArena at Seattle Center that will become the hockey team’s home—“one of the most beautiful arenas in the entire world,” Leiweke predicted—the 56-year-old Francis said he was eager to form his master plan for the new franchise.
His challenge: build a champion from the ground up.
Francis mentioned the world-class arena under construction. He cited the support of Seattle Hockey Partners LLC owners; managing partner and billionaire David Bonderman and investors including film and television producer Jerry Bruckheimer hired a GM a year earlier than they had planned. Francis talked about the Puget Sound’s untapped hockey market. About the new team having 32,000 season-ticket deposit holders, plus 25,000 more on a waiting list for tickets.
“Honestly, it just became, why not?” Francis said.
“This is just going to be a fantastic opportunity. We’ve got a blank canvas.”
The team is planning to break ground early in 2020 on a three-rink team headquarters and practice facility at Northgate, north of downtown Seattle.
By hiring a huge name in Francis to lead its hockey operations, Seattle just got even more momentum behind it becoming the NHL’s 32nd franchise.
“Sure, it’s going to be a daunting task and a lot of work,” Francis said. “But it’s a unique challenge that you don’t get every day, because not every sports team starts from scratch. ...
“It’s so unique. There aren’t a lot of those opportunities out there. Talking to Tod and to the owners and their vision for the town of Seattle and their hockey fans, there’s no corners being cut. They want the best venue. They want the best team. They want the best fan experience.
“Even with the practice facility, right ? It would have been easy to build one rink. But they (are building) three. The reason was, it provides ice for the youth in the community to go out and skate.
“So, it’s not just about our organization. It’s about things that are right and growing the product in this market.”
Leiweke thanked the team’s ownership group for OK-ing hiring a general manager a year earlier than they had planned. That approval came after some targets Seattle had in mind for potentially becoming the team’s first GM got hired elsewhere this summer. Steve Yzerman, who impressed Leiweke when they worked together with the Tampa Bay Lightning, became Detroit’s new GM. Ken Holland got the same job with Edmonton. Vegas assistant Kelly McCrimmon got promoted to GM for the Golden Knights.
That was a little over a year after Vegas set an absurdly high bar for Seattle by reaching the Stanley Cup finals as an expansion team, in 2017.
“Yeah, I used to joke you want to be the second GM in Seattle, based on what Vegas did,” Francis said, smiling.
Canada’s Sportsnet reported this spring the Ottawa Senators began showing interest in hiring Francis, a native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, to be their president of hockey operations. Francis was available after Carolina had fired him in the spring of 2018, though he was under contract with the Hurricanes until this month, July 1.
That spurred Seattle into hiring him now to be its GM.
Asked what is “uniquely Ron Francis” that he alone can add to make Seattle’s team an immediate success, the new GM sighed.
“Whoa, good question,” Francis said.
“I think, Tod touched on the 23 years in the game. I don’t think that helps me so much in this role, other than a lot of those years I was a leader. And twice I was fortunate enough to win a Stanley Cup. And I think when you win a Stanley Cup, that gives you something that other people don’t have. You understand what it takes to be successful. You understand how to build that team.
“And it’s not an easy trophy to win. But we look forward to hopefully doing that again here in Seattle.”
Now that the team has its building going up, will soon break ground on its practice facility and has a GM, when will Francis make his big hire?
When will Seattle get its first NHL coach?
“We are open to hiring the right guy and the right time,” Francis said. “But I think it’s also important for us, we’ve got a little bit of runway here. We’ve got to make sure we take our time and go through the process.
“There’s a lot of things that can change in that profession in the next couple years. So we’ll take our time and make sure we get the right guy to lead our franchise.”