TORONTO – Back in the summer of 2011, three months into his first gig inside an NHL front office, then Carolina Hurricanes director of hockey operations Ron Francis walked into his boss’ office with his head spinning.
The star player with 1,798 NHL points under his belt didn’t want to complain to his boss, GM Jim Rutherford, but he wanted to know if hockey-management life was as unpredictable and overwhelming as it felt.
“Is it always like this?” the Hall of Fame player asked the (now) Hall of Fame builder.
“I’ll tell you something,” Rutherford replied. “Every day is something different. And you never know what it is.”
So, it is with a readiness to be flexible and try fresh things that Francis is throwing himself into his new job as general manager of the blank-slate Seattle NHL franchise that will take the ice at the outset of the 2021-22 season.
Considering the 2017-18 Vegas Golden Knights came within three wins of lifting a Stanley Cup at the end of their maiden voyage, and that Seattle will be plucking from its competitors under identical rules, Francis has the distinct pleasure of constructing the first major-league expansion team that will be projected to be competitive immediately.
“It’s a daunting task, but I gotta tell you, it’s absolutely thrilling to have this opportunity to do this and create something from the ground up,” Francis said Tuesday at the PrimeTime Sports Management Conference in downtown Toronto.
“I used to say that you want to be the second GM in Seattle, but unfortunately I wasn’t smart enough to do that. I took the first job. So, we have to live with the expectations. Our goal is not to be compared to Vegas. Our goal is to build an outstanding franchise for the people in the city of Seattle.”
Accomplishing that is, as they say, a process. Here are seven things we learned about the steps the Seattle TBDs are taking toward colouring that blank canvas.
Do you have a name yet?!
It’s the most frequently asked question of Francis, who does sit in on ownership’s naming meetings. Expect a finalization of a nickname in the early part of 2020.
“They have a few selections left, and it’s a question of trying to come up with a logo to match the names and see what everybody’s comfortable with,” Francis explained. “Once they get to that point, then they’ll trademark it and make sure we’re protected.”
Seattle is considering alternatives to traditional season tickets
The demand for season tickets is so strong, Seattle Hockey Partners are considering doing away with traditional 82-game commitments and offering mini packages instead. Or, perhaps, some combination of the two.
“They’re certainly looking at a lot of options,” Francis said.
“The league said, ‘You get six weeks to get 10,000 season-ticket deposits,’ and they did that in 12 minutes. They got 25,000 the first hour. They got 32,000 the first day. And it’s my understanding, there’s another list of 30,000 that want to get on that list of 32,000. So, I think Tod (Leiweke) and his staff are looking at a lot of different ways to make as many people happy as possible.”
Seattle is purposely operating with a skeleton staff (and no head coach) … for now
Francis, the organization’s second-ever hire, jokes that he grew employment by 50 per cent on Sept. 3, when he hired Ricky Olczyk as his first assistant GM. Seattle now has six pro scouts, including Hall of Fame American player Cammi Granato, who have begun to build out a scouting platform and take in games.
But operational staffing won’t ramp up until summer 2020 because Francis is trying to be respectful of ownership by not spending big on salary until necessary.
Come summertime, he’ll be staffing out a group of amateur scouts to prepare for the 2021 entry draft, more hockey operations personnel as well as a head of equipment and a head athletic trainer.
The pursuit of Seattle’s first head coach is still 18 months away.
“For coaches, we’re comfortable waiting till the ’21 season because you never know what’s going to happen leading up to June of that year,” Francis said.
Expansion draft mock-ups have already begun
On the surface, it may appear to be an exercise in futility, surveying 30 opposing 2019-20 rosters (Vegas is exempt) and estimating which players are likely to be available for the 2021 expansion draft.
But Francis and his associates have already started making their wish lists.
“We do it now, but I promise you, what we’re looking at now and what we look at June of ’21 is going to be dramatically different,” Francis explained.
“It’s more about the process and understanding what we want to do and how we want to go about it. And so when we get to that point where we’re prepared to make the decisions, we want to make them quickly in a short window.”
The top three qualities Francis is looking for in his roster are…
Speed, character and competitiveness.
Yes, Francis is picking the Vegas brain trust
In addition to leaders of other startup businesses, Francis has sought counsel with Golden Knights architects George McPhee and Kelly McCrimmon as well as Nashville Predators GM David Poile (expansion 1998) on how they built successful hockey clubs from scratch.
McPhee and McCrimmon offered to show Francis their original blueprint, which was a five-year, draft-and-develop plan built on patience. They got lucky, took advantage of the long gap between expansion drafts and turned aggressive once they found themselves to be contenders.
“George and Kelly did an absolutely incredible job in Vegas — that’s not the norm. But we’ll certainly try and do what I can to replicate what they did,” Francis said.
“We have a unique challenge in the sense that Vegas just did this a few years ago. Vegas got to the Stanley Cup Final, and everybody expects to we’re either going to get to the Cup Final or win in our first year.”
Francis is a busy man, but the GM meetings aren’t on his agenda
Even with the NHL GM meetings going on just a brief walk from the conference at which Francis appeared, he’s not permitted through the doors.
“I’m not allowed in until we make our final payment,” he said, “which I believe will be May of ’21.”
Not that Francis is aching for another item on his to-do list. He’s been bouncing between NHL and AHL games on a scouting mission. He recently returned from Helsinki will be flying to the world juniors in Prague over Christmas.
Ousted from the Hurricanes shortly after Tom Dundon took ownership, Francis is still living full-time in Raleigh — he wants to see his youngest son through university in Carolina — but he is spending a week in Seattle every month for meetings.
He’s sitting in on discussions involving everything from the name to the suites, from corporate partnerships to community relations. Plus, his input is requested on the three rinks the franchise is erecting: the home arena, plus a practice facility seven miles north of Seattle and a brand-new AHL rink in Palm Springs.
“There’s every little thing that you take for granted within an organization you move from job to job,” Francis said. “We have nothing. So we have to build everything.”