North Battleford’s Emile Francis, nicknamed “The Cat,” has been honoured with the Wayne Gretzky International award.
Francis is a former player, coach and general manager in the National Hockey League, most notably with the New York Rangers. He played for the Chicago Blackhawks and the Rangers as a goaltender throughout his career. He got his nickname for his quickness in net, moving post to post.
Francis played six seasons for the Blackhawks and the Rangers. It wasn’t until 1961 when he started his coaching career with the Rangers’ junior team in Guelph, Ont. He was first named general manager of the Rangers in 1964 and took over as head coach the following year. He still holds records for games coached, wins, winning percentage, playoff games and playoff wins.
He also joined the St. Louis Blues in 1976 and served as executive vice- president, general manager and coach during his seven seasons with the team. Years later, he became the general manager of the Hartford Whalers in May 1983 and spent 10 years with them before ending his NHL career as team president in 1993.
The award, however, is not for his success in the NHL, it’s for developing the game of hockey at the youth level.
Established by the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in 1999, the Wayne Gretzky award pays tribute to international individuals who have made major contributions to the growth and advancement of hockey in America.
Francis is the founder of the Metropolitan Junior Hockey Association, the longest operating junior hockey league south of the border. He also founded the St. Louis Metro Junior B League. The Cat serves as a consultant to the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States as well.
The 89-year-old said his interest in building the game of hockey at the grassroots level came after an encounter during his early days as a general manager of the New York Rangers. According to Mike G. Morreale of NHL.com, Francis was walking down Ninth Avenue in New York before a date with the Montreal Canadiens. It was there he noticed children in roller skates, something he had never seen before. It was at that point where he got the idea of building a junior program that not only would teach kids how to play hockey, but give them the opportunity to watch the game at the professional level.
Francis is one of the most successful people in the game, whether it was in the NHL or developing future stars at the junior level. He won the Lester Patrick Trophy in 1982 for his contributions to hockey in the United States, while also being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the builders category that same year.
The Cat will be the ninth recipient of the honorary Wayne Gretzky International Award, joining only Murray Costello (2012), Anatoli Tarasov (2008), Herb Brooks (2004), Bobby Hull (2003), Scotty Bowman (2002), Scotty Morrison (2001), the Howe family (2000) and Wayne Gretzky (1999).