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Creative goaltender Emile Francis introduced the trapper glove to the NHL

New York Rangers coach Emile Francis shouts after the Rangers score against the Philadelphia Flyers in the second period of an NHL hockey game in Philadelphia in April 1974.Brian Horton/Associated Press

Championships are wonderful but they are not everything.

Emile Francis never won the Stanley Cup in his professional hockey life as a player, coach and manager, but the short man who introduced the goaltender’s trapper glove remains a giant for his accomplishments and his personality. Mr Francis died on Saturday at the age of 95.

The high point of his five-decade hockey career came as the National Hockey League grew from a modest group of six teams to a business enterprise three times the size of the mid-1960s through the mid-1960s. 1970. Taking over the New York Rangers operation that had languished in the depths of the standings for two decades, Mr. Francis built a formidable team that couldn’t quite overcome more powerful teams in Montreal, Boston and Chicago.

Nicknamed “The Cat” for his speed at playing junior hockey, Mr. Francis was a goaltender who, at 5-foot-7 and no more than 155 pounds, was undersized even by the standards of the time. Even as a boy growing up in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, he made up for that with a sharp, creative mind.

“I was always a little guy, so I had to rely on my wits – and no one was going to cheat me on anything,” Mr. Francis recalled in an interview with this reporter in 2003. “Sister Mary Berchmans taught me that at École du Couvent de l’Enfant-Jésus primary school in North Battleford, I was in front of goal in an hour-long game against Connaught School for the Championship of elementary schools. Whenever I had the chance, I would throw the puck over the boards in the snow, which was okay by the rules at the time.

“We won 1-0 but Connaught didn’t want to give us the trophy because of my tactics. When we told Sister Mary about it, she took me to Connaught School in a taxi, stormed into the principal, who was also their hockey coach, and demanded the trophy. We took it back and Sister Mary declared school holidays.

Emile Francis was born September 13, 1926 in North Battleford. His teenage years were heavily affected by World War II, but the quirks of his age, the war’s effect on the NHL, and his eligibility to serve kept him away from the battlefields.

“American hockey teams needed players so badly during World War II that they recruited teenagers,” Francis said. “I was barely past my 17th birthday and I was playing one goal for the Philadelphia Falcons, then the Washington Lions, of the Amateur Hockey League East.”

Nicknamed “The Cat” for his speed at playing junior hockey, Mr. Francis was a goaltender who, at 5-foot-7 and no more than 155 pounds, was undersized even by the standards of the time.Harry Harris/Associated Press

He joined the Canadian army when he was old enough, but the war ended before he could go overseas and he was discharged in 1945. year of junior hockey eligibility, so I joined the Moose Jaw Canucks.

Moose Jaw went undefeated in the 1945-46 Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League campaign before being eliminated in the Memorial Cup playoffs. Mr. Francis was so impressive that he split the following season between the senior Regina Capitals and the NHL’s Chicago Black Hawks, where he resisted authority to make a goaltending innovation that was as important than the introduction of facial protection by Jacques Plante a decade later.

“I created the first trapper,” he said. “Until then, the two goalkeeper gloves were basically identical, blockers with just a little strap between the thumb and fingers. If you actually tried to catch the puck in your palm, it would knock hell out of your hand. So I took a George McQuinn style baseball mitt – he was a first baseman for the St. Louis Browns – and sewed it onto a regular hockey glove. No one said anything about it until my first NHL game with the Chicago Black Hawks. We are about to begin when King Clancy, who referees the game, is called to the bench by Jack Adams, the Detroit coach. Adams says something, points at me and Clancy skates towards my net.

“’Let me see this glove,’ Clancy said. He looks at my trapper and says, “It’s illegal. You cannot use it.

“’Well,’ I said, ‘you don’t have a game because it’s the only glove I have!’ I had it there. The teams have only dressed one goalkeeper and it would be foolish to bring the emergency goalkeeper down from the stands while the starter is fully healthy. Clancy lets me use the glove, but orders me to bring it to league president Clarence Campbell this weekend when we’re in Montreal so he can rule on it. Campbell endorsed it, and trappers soon became standard equipment.

In the end, Mr. Francis was unable to measure up to NHL standards over the long term. With only six teams in the league with a goaltender each, there wasn’t much of a major league future for someone who was only a Top 10. After a few seasons with the Black Hawks, he was distributed to the New York Rangers, for whom he appeared only sparingly.

“You look at my NHL career line and it’s not much: 95 games, 31-52-11 and a 3.75 goals-against-average,” Francis said. “But every year I’ve played 50 to 70 games, plus playoffs, for American Hockey League teams in New Haven, Cincinnati and Cleveland, and around the old Western Pro Hockey League. for Vancouver, Saskatoon, Seattle, Victoria and Spokane.”

Mr. Francis, however, accumulated a wealth of knowledge about coaching and team management, augmenting his hockey experience with summers as player-manager of the North Battleford semi-pro baseball team. The sport was immensely popular in his home province in the 1950s.

“Every summer I played baseball in Saskatchewan,” Francis said. “For a time the Bentley family got me to join them at Delisle, but the people of North Battleford thought my military background made me a good leader and organizer, so I became player-manager of the North Battleford Beavers . It was good baseball! Some of the best ballplayers around were NHL players like Max and Doug Bentley, Bert Olmstead at Scepter and Gordie Howe at Saskatoon.

“Our rosters were full of great black baseball players because the black leagues had disbanded and organized baseball was slow to integrate. Championship matches were great, but the really serious competition was in tournaments because finishing in the money was what kept your team from going bust.

After retiring from hockey in 1960, Mr. Francis was hired by the Rangers to coach their junior team in Guelph, Ontario. Two years later he was appointed assistant general manager in New York and in 1964 he was promoted to general manager. Early in his tenure on Nov. 22, 1964, he was the center of attention in one of the most bizarre incidents in the NHL. During a home game at the old Madison Square Garden against Detroit, Mr. Francis accosted the goal judge who signaled a Red Wings count and found himself surrounded by hostile fans.

“We end up in a fight,” Mr. Francis recalled. “I’m outnumbered three-to-one and these guys are hammering me good, tearing my face open, when Vic Hadfield sees what’s going on from the ice. He jumps onto the boards, steps over the Plexiglas, and half the team follows him. They save me and give these guys a lick. The league fined us all, but what really freaked me out was that the three guys sued me for a million dollars, and after the case dragged through the courts, they got $80,000.

Mr Francis took over the coaching reins at Rangers in 1966, resigning twice but returning behind the bench after Bernie Geoffrion and Larry Popein were unable to last more than half a season. As Rangers coach, Mr. Francis posted an impressive record of 342-209-103.

“Rangers were also lost players when I joined them, but we produced good young players like Rod Gilbert, Jean Ratelle and Brad Park, acquired goalkeeper Ed Giacomin from the minors, made good trades and became strong contenders. . We never won the Stanley Cup but we came close, especially in 1972 when everything was in place until Ratelle broke his ankle. We led the Bruins to six games in the final; I know we would have beaten them with Ratelle in there.

“Managing and coaching Rangers was aggravating because the Madison Square Garden corporation owned the team and treated it like an afterthought,” he once said, recalling they had to play playoff games on the road because the circus had priority for the April dates. The ice cream in the garden was also terrible.

“I blew my peak in 1975 when one of our best defensemen, Dale Rolfe, skated on a spot where the ice had worn out and suffered a terrible broken leg, ended his his career immediately. “I’ve seen better ice on the highways in Saskatchewan,” I told reporters, and I meant it. Bill Jennings, the Rangers chairman, didn’t like it when I said what I thought, which might have something to do with my dismissal in 1976.”

Mr. Francis was soon hired to be general manager of the St. Louis Blues, where his seven-year tenure included a struggle to keep the team financially solvent. He moved on to a six-year run as chairman and general manager of the Hartford Whalers before retiring in 1989. Neither the Blues nor the Whalers could match the winning consistency of the Rangers, and Mr Francis is denied the glory of a Stanley Cup title. .

“Of course I had my disappointments,” Mr. Francis said, “like playing all those years in the minors and never winning the Stanley Cup, but all the while I had the best time of my life. life.”

He was enshrined as a builder in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1982. For his contributions to hockey in the United States, he was awarded the Lester Patrick Trophy and the International Wayne Gretzky Award. He was a longtime member of the Hockey Hall of Fame Veterans Committee and became an exceptional storyteller and ambassador for the game.

He and his wife, Emma, ​​who died in 2020 after 68 years of marriage, had two sons: Bob, who had a brief playing and coaching career in the NHL, and Rick. He leaves his two sons.

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Rodney N.

The author Rodney N.