30th anniversary of Penguins-Whalers trade: Why would Hartford ever give away Ron Francis? – TribLIVE

Posted: March 5, 2021 at 5:01 am

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As a Pittsburgh sports fan growing up in Connecticut, I wasnt sure how to feel about the Penguins trade with the Hartford Whalers in March of 1991.

I knew the players that the Penguins were getting were good and filled a need in Pittsburgh.

But, man, John Cullen was fifth in the league in scoring! And what if Zarley Zalapski honed all those offensive tools and became more physical and defensively stout?

My doubts were erased, though, when I got on the school bus while wearing a Penguins cap.

You guys stole Ron Francis and Ulf, grumbled the Whalers fan. You (expletive).

I stammered back. Yeah, but you guys got John Cullen and Zarl,

Go (expletive), he snarled.

Well, Im pretty sure if I did that on the bus, Id get suspended. But I let it go because the kid was older and bigger than me (which isnt saying much).

Regardless, the Whalers fan version of Scott Farkas was onto something.

Thats where we begin our second installment of looking back at The Trade of 1991 as Francis recalls the chain of events that eventually led to the Penguins big steal at the trade deadline. And the teams first Stanley Cup.

The explanation surrounding why the Penguins made the trade that they did on the night of March 4, 1991 is pretty clear. They had offense to spare. And they needed to get more defensive responsibility and toughness.

So you get a two-way specialist in Selke Trophy candidate Ron Francis to replace the offensively oriented John Cullen as a second-line center complement to Mario Lemieux.

You give up a young puck-moving defensemanwhich Hartford neededin Zarley Zalapski and get the nasty, net-front defensive presence of Ulf Samuelsson.

You give up the size, grit and enforcement up front in minor league prospect Jeff Parker. And you get an NHL-ready version on the blue line instead with mass and reach in Grant Jennings.

Got it.

The dynamics at play in Hartford were more complex, though. Why would they ever be willing to get rid of a 28-year-old Francis, who left the team as the franchises career leader with 264 goals, 557 assists and 821 points in 714 games?

He was team captain. He appeared to be well-liked by the other players. Almost every Whalers fan seemed to love him.

But what Francis didnt have was a contract beyond the end of the year. Nor did he have a good relationship with coach Rick Ley, who had taken the C off his chest and had given it to Pat Verbeek. Something that Jennings would describe as a gut punch for Francis.

Rocky relationships with Ley werent restricted to Francis.

Rick Ley had some different kinds of relationships with different players. Thats a nice way of putting it, Jennings said. He was going off on a lot of players. Having personal meetings with guys like myself and Ronny. Lots of people. I could sense I was on the block for sure.

But I had no idea they were making the deal they did.

As the Hartford Courant described things the day after the trade, Francis contentious contract negotiations as he was playing out his $370,000 option year were very much an undercurrent to the process.

The paper quoted the centerman as saying that Whalers general manager (and former Penguins GM) Eddie Johnston contacted him a few weeks before the deadline in an attempt to reopen negotiations.

Francis thought that meant the Whalers genuinely wanted to keep him, as they insisted that signing him after the trade deadline would be no problem.

In retrospect, they were trying to do a lot of things to get me to say, I want out. Which I didnt, Francis told me during Wednesdays Breakfast With Benz podcast. Then they called a couple of weeks before the deadline and said they were happy with me and wanted to sign me. So I said great, well talk after the deadline.

And then they traded me. Interesting times.

Francis admitted during our conversation that things were not great between him and Johnston during that last year in Hartford. Which, for most people who have met either person, is almost impossible to fathom. If you show me one person who has had a bad interaction with Francis, thatd be exactly one more person who has ever told me theyve had a bad experience with Johnston.

And vice versa.

Before ever meeting either Johnston or Francis, I heard lots of words to describe them. For Johnston, they are usually affable, ingratiating, friendly, outgoing and jovial.

I often only hear only two words to describe Francis, consummate gentleman.

After interacting with both on multiple occasions since then, I cant argue. So, for a lot of Penguins fans who are aware of Johnstons and Francis individual reputations, the notion of static between the two men may be hard to picture.

But Francis is now on his second go-round as a general manager himself. After holding that title with the Carolina Hurricanes (ironically, the team that used to be the Whalers), Francis is now the GM for the expansion Seattle Kraken. And he seems to have a better grasp now on why things were so tense then.

Looking back, I cant point the finger directly back at E.J. You work directly for the owner sometimes. Thats where a lot of this stuff came from, Francis said.

Bingo!

Its a great deal for the Hartford Whalers, owner Richard Gordon declared after the trade was announced.

History would look back and disagree. In time, so would Gordon himself.

Johnston would eventually return to Pittsburgh and coach Francis. Hes still with the organization as a community relations liaison at the age of 85. During a team documentary about the 1991 Stanley Cup season, Johnston told AT&T Sportsnet, We had no choice. He said if (Francis) is here on Monday, you guys (Johnston and his staff) wont be here. Get Ronny out of there.

According to Penguins GM Craig Patrick in that same documentary, Johnston then started calling every general manager in the league. And he put together the best package to pry Francis out of Connecticut.

By 2006, Gordon was telling the Hartford Courant, I consider the trade we made the worst trade in the history of hockey.

Now, on that front, history may look back and agree.

A quick return

Three games into their Penguins careers, the three ex-Whalers returned to Hartford with their new team for a road game.

I remember being floored by the support of the fans, Francis recalls. Pictures along the glass wishing me well. I had been there 10 years. A lot of good friends. Good to see those folks after the deal.

Cullen scored. Francis didnt. But he had an assist, and the Penguins won 5-2.

Theyd go 8-2-1 over the first 11 games after the trade, climbing from third place in the Patrick Division to first. During that stretch, the Pens allowed just 2.36 goals per game. They had allowed 5.60 goals per game in their five-game winless streak before the deal.

The plan at the time of the trade was falling into place.

Sometime after Game 3, Ulfy and I went out for a bite to eat, and I said this team can win the Cup. We felt that it had that much talent, Francis recalls.

And they did. Twice. As Francis contributed 28 points in 38 total regular-season and playoff games in 91. Jennings and Samuelsson contributed everything they were supposed to on the blue line.

For the ex-Penguins on the Whalers, it didnt go as well. They failed to win any of their final seven games. Then they lost to the Boston Bruins in six games during the first round of the Adams Division playoffs.

Zalapski made the All-Star team in 93 and topped out with 65 points that season after a career-high 20 goals in 92. But he never quite lived up to his fourth overall draft-choice status or Olympic pedigree that he had coming into the league.

For his part, Parker only played four games with the Whalers before suffering career-ending head and knee injuries.

Cullen was pretty good with 16 points in the final 13 regular-season contests and nine points in six playoff games. Plus 77 more the next season contributing 102 total points in 109 regular-season games during his time in Hartford.

But it was never the same for him there as it was in Pittsburgh.

Ronny was such an icon, such a legend. Hartford loved Ronny, Cullen said. You cant replace anybody else in their shoes. You have to stand on your own two feet. But it was tough. If I had bad games, people would boo. It was not a great situation for me in Hartford.

Jennings did have some sympathy for the fans the trio left behind in Hartford.

Every time we won a series and would go to the next level, it would make it look that much better for Pittsburgh and worse for Hartford, Jennings said. The fans took that on the chin. I felt sorry for them. But that was the decision management made. And they had to live with it.

The Final 20

Francis recalls the atmosphere in the locker room between the second and third periods of that Stanley Cup-clinching Game 6 against the Minnesota North Stars. It was 6-0 at the time.

It started with one guy throwing out a typical hockey cliche. Keep the shifts short! Then the next cliche. Get it over center ice and get it in deep. And then it was Third man high!

And it kept getting louder and louder and louder until Tom Barrasso said, Take a deep breath. Were up 6-0. Were going to be fine.

It was Paul Coffey, however, who said something even more sage as the clock got down to two minutes left at 8-0.

I remember standing on the bench watching the clock wind down the final seconds, Francis continued. And Paul Coffey said, As great as this moment is, its just going to get better every day of your life.

A very true statement from a guy who had won a few cups before that one.

Samuelsson and Jennings were around through most of 1995, at least long enough to see Cullen return to Pittsburgh for a year.

Francis would stay in Pittsburgh for 1992. He was an indispensable force on the team while Lemieux missed time due to injury during the teams second Stanley Cup run. And then for six more years beyond that, as he patched up his relationship with Johnston and played under him as a coach for four years.

A relationship Francis says is still good to this day.

In all, the Hall of Famer had 713 total points in 630 combined games played for the Penguins between the regular season and the playoffs.

So, in the end, I guess Hartfords Scott Farkas was right.

But I bet hes still ticked off about it. And that makes me smile.

You can hear Tim Benzs entire conversation with Ron Francis here.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@triblive.com or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

Categories:Penguins/NHL | Sports | Breakfast With Benz | Tim Benz Columns

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