Emile 'The Cat' Francis: North Battleford's hockey builder

Emile Percy Francis was born on Sept. 13, 1926 at North Battleford. He received his elementary and high school education in the city's Catholic school system. Emile's childhood was not easy. His father died when he was eight. Without a primary breadwinner, the family had little money. Fortunately, Emile's mother, Yvonne (Tiny), was a hard-working, energetic and determined woman who saw to it that her family's basic needs were met.

Emile's love for hockey began early in life. He was intent on seeing his first hockey game - the North Battleford Beavers against the Flin Flon Bombers on home ice. The ticket price was 75 cents for an adult and 25 cents for a kid. Unfortunately, Emile did not have a quarter. Undaunted, he devised a plan to get into the arena free. He checked out the hotel where the Bombers stayed. In those days a visiting team would dress in their hotel rooms, put their coats over their uniforms and carry their skates and sticks. Emile waited for the biggest player to come out - Butch Stahan. He said, "Mr. Stahan, I don't have a quarter. Would you put me under your coat and get me through the door and into your dressing room?" The big hockey player was more than happy to oblige. Emile melted into the crowd. This was the first opportunity Emile had to watch a senior hockey game. He was mesmerized - completely hooked. From that moment forward, Emile's overriding goal in life was to play hockey.

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Emile spent almost every spare moment of his boyhood playing hockey in the winter (and baseball in the summer) with his friends and against their rivals. Regardless of the cold and the weather, Emile and the boys would be found scrimmaging after school and weekends on the Notre Dame outdoor rink. They would lace up on the hard snow banks on the periphery of the ice surface. They had little equipment and much of this was improvised. No helmets in those days, and virtually no other protection. Broken hockey sticks were taped back together. A goalie's glove was a discarded baseball mitt. Skates were likely handed down from an older brother or relative and were often ill fitting and worse for wear. These youthful contests were highly competitive; the idea was to win at all costs. Emile was not above flipping the puck into the snow to slow the game down if the game was not going in his team's favour. Friendships were often severely strained, at which point two boys on opposite sides would square off and have a go at it. Then a truce would be called so the game could continue. Games were played until it was too dark to see. When the big boys took over the rink, Emile and the younger boys played road hockey with frozen horse "pucks". It was in this environment that Emile developed and honed his skills as a goalie. And although he couldn't know it at the time, the hard-fought hockey games of his boyhood prepared him for the big leagues - the NHL.

Emile began his career playing minor hockey, and then junior hockey with the hometown Beavers in 1941-42 and 1942-43. He quickly built a reputation as an exceptional goalie. At the age of 17, Emile headed south to play in the Eastern Amateur Hockey League. He suited up for the Philadelphia Falcons and later played for the Washington Lions where he won MVP honours.

The Canadian Armed Forces drafted Emile for a year of compulsory service during the 1944-45 season. He returned after his tour of duty and signed with the Moose Jaw Canucks in 1945-46. Emile shone in goal leading the team to 18 wins without a loss. On one occasion, the Canucks were playing the Regina Capitals in Regina. A Regina Leader Post sports reporter was extremely impressed with Emile's lightning-fast reflexes. The next day, the newspaper described the young goaltender as "quick as a cat." The nickname stuck. Emile was "The Cat." Emile had enhanced his natural quickness playing shortstop with the North Battleford Beavers baseball team during the summer breaks. In fact, baseball was a big part of Emile's life from 1944 to the late 1950s. As playing manager, he led the Beavers to three Western Canadian League Championships - in the 1951-52, 1952-53 and 1953-54 seasons.

By joining the Canucks, Emile became the property of the Chicago Blackhawks. He was invited to the Hawks training camp in the fall of 1946, which put him one step closer to achieving his boyhood dream. It came down to money. The Blackhawks were outbid by Bill Hunter who offered Emile a chance to play in the Western Hockey League in Regina. But as fate would have it, in January 1947, the Blackhawks were mired in last place. They were desperate and needed to make some key personnel changes. After some hard bargaining, the Blackhawks paid Bill Hunter $25,000 in order to sign Emile.

Early in his career with the Blackhawks, Emile created quite a stir by customizing his goalie's glove. The standard gloves of the time had little webbing between the goalie's forefinger and thumb. Catching a puck in the middle of his hand caused severe pain. To remedy this, Emile took a baseball glove and had a cuff sewn onto it. Officials and coaches strenuously objected. After much wrangling, NHL President Clarence Campbell talked to Emile for more than an hour. Finally, he said, "OK, you can use it." Within a month, the sporting goods stores were offering the new glove.

The Blackhawks finished last in 1946-47 and 1947-48. Emile was traded to the New York Rangers who then sent him to their American Hockey League farm club, the New Haven Ramblers. Then he was called up to the Rangers to replace their injured goaltender. Over the next four seasons, "The Cat" played a handful of games with the Rangers and the rest of the time in the AHL. In the 1952 season, he won the league's top goaltender award, was selected for the all-star team and named MVP. He played 95 regular season games with the Chicago Blackhawks and New York Rangers. In all, he played 15 seasons with the National, American, United States and Western Hockey Leagues and "…enjoyed every minute of it."

Emile's career in hockey didn't conclude with playing hockey. He was a valuable commodity. He was invited to join the Blackhawks' organization as a coach. Detroit and New York also wanted him. The New York Rangers had the successful bid. In his first year, led by future superstars Rod Gilbert and Jean Ratelle, the Rangers' junior team, the Guelph Royals, finished first in the OHA. Remarkably, Emile was then asked to be the Rangers' bench boss. The peak of his career was reaching the NHL playoffs in 1972. As a testament to his popularity and ability, Emile enjoyed a 16-year association with the Rangers franchise.

Emile left the Rangers in 1972 to manage the Saint Louis Blues' front office. Typically, his resourcefulness, hard bargaining and business acumen pulled the franchise out of a deep hole. When his contract ended in 1984, the Hartford Whalers, who were losing $4,000,000 a year, were desperate to hire Emile as their GM. Under his guidance, the club reached unimaginable heights eventually selling for $50,000,000.

During his 47-year career in hockey, in addition to his exploits between the pipes, Emile built three hockey franchises - New York, St. Louis and Hartford. In 1982 Emile was awarded the prestigious Lester Patrick Trophy and inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. He was inducted into the Saskatchewan Hall of Fame in 1989, the New York Hall of Fame in 1991 and the North Battleford Sports Hall of fame in 1998.

On the occasion of North Battleford's centennial, we reflect on Emile Francis' extraordinary career as a player, coach and GM. Asked if he had something to say about his glorious career, he replied, "Hockey is the greatest game in the world." Indeed, and Emile Francis is one of our greatest citizens.

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