PITTSBURGH -- As he grew from teen-ager into young manhood --the 10 years from age 18-28-- Ron Francis was the Hartford Whaler.
Suddenly in a space of 10 weeks, he has gone from the Insurance City to the Steel City and right smack heads up into the Stanley Cup finals. He is a key player in the Pittsburg Penguins' scheme of success--being asked to do lessand just as suddenly enjoying it more. Tonight (7:30, HTS) he will live another installment in his life, the most exciting and, for a long time, the most unlikely. A pivotal game in the championship series. The best-of-seven series with the Minnesota North Stars is tied 2-2, and the Penguins have re-established themselves as the favorite.
Francis and two Hartford teammates, defensemen Grant Jennings and Ulf Samuelsson, were traded to Pittsburgh just before the March 5 deadline, and their hockey lives changed as radically as they changed the Penguins' fortunes. They were the missing pieces.
"It was kind of like leaving home for the second time," Francis said. "I went to Hartford when I was 18, 18 to 28 -- it was like home, it was my home."
He had been Hartford's first selection in the 1981 draft, the fourth player taken. His role would be that of a franchise player. He had to be an all-purpose forward, a leader, and so he was. For more than a year, the whispers grew louder and louder. Hartford had not been a winner with him; it was time to change.
And when the trade to Pittsburgh came, the three Whalers traded into Penguins had no thought they would be playing for the Cup. "Initially, no," Francis said. "We didn't think we'd be here today. But then one day we were talking and said, 'This team has a lot of talent . . . Maybe we can get a chance at the Cup.' We looked around the room, and we saw a lot of key talent." Their first sighting of Mario Lemieux was enough to convince them that the Penguins were indeed a challenger.
"You have to have a superstar center to win the Cup," Francis said, "and there was Mario Lemieux." His presence thrust Francis into a different role. "We've got a No. 1 center," coach Bob Johnson told him. "You don't have to score."
Sunday night in Minnesota, he was a No. 1 center again because Lemieux's back had acted up, and he had to sit out. Tuesday night in Minnesota, Lemieux was back to play one of his finest all-around games, so what did Francis do? He scored a key goal -- the second one in the Penguins' early rush to a 3-0 lead -- just like the No. 1 center should. And then he was one of the key penalty killers when the Penguins defused the North Stars on a long power play late, the most important minutes of the game.
"We didn't have any cohesiveness," said North Stars coach Bob Gainey. "They were tired, and on that power play, they only had to ice the puck, and maybe that worked to their advantage."