Ron Francis played less than a year and a half of junior hockey before joining the Hartford Whalers in the NHL early in the 1981-82 season. He was selected fourth overall at the 1981 NHL Entry Draft, although initially the Whalers had no intention of selecting him. They wanted Bobby Carpenter, but the team unwisely made their preference for the American-born Carpenter publicly known. The Washington Capitals, choosing third, beat Hartford to the punch and took Carpenter, as the Whalers selected Francis fourth overall.
Although just a 19-year-old rookie, Francis showed maturity well beyond his years when he first stepped onto NHL ice. He had 25 goals and 68 points his first season and instantly became a fan favorite both for his playing skill and his unfailing work in the community. He was blessed to be able to room with the great Dave Keon on road trips, and the two became fast hockey friends.
While the Whalers were happy to have Francis, the team missed the playoffs the first four years he was with the team while it developed its young talent. Then it became a consistent playoff team but had an awful time winning even one round of the playoffs each spring, playing in the same division as Montreal, Boston and Quebec. Midway through the 1984-85 season, he was made team captain when incumbent Mark Johnson was traded to St. Louis. At 22, Francis became one of the youngest captains in NHL history, but he was able to live up to the expectations of wearing the "C" without it affecting his play. He routinely scored 25 goals and 80 points, but midway through the 1990-91 season coach Rick Ley stripped him of the captaincy without an explanation. Francis took the demotion in stride, but just a few weeks later he was traded to one of the Stanley Cup favorites, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
In Pittsburgh he played behind Mario Lemieux and a young Jaromir Jagr, but he took his game to another level. He became not only a goal scorer but one of the best passing centers and two-way players in the league. Pittsburgh won back-to-back Cup titles in 1991 and 1992, and Francis twice reached the 100-point plateau. He was equally consistent in the playoffs as in the regular season, and for 1994-95 he was named Penguins captain while Mario Lemieux recovered from injuries and missed the year. At the start of the next season, though, the captaincy was given back to Mario, and Francis just kept on leading by example. His sportsmanship paid off, for when Lemieux retired in 1997, the captaincy was once again sewn onto his sweater.
Although he has played in four All-Star games and has won the Selke Trophy (1995) and the Lady Byng Trophy (1995, 1998), Francis is perhaps the quietest superstar in the league. He reached 500 career goals in 2002, is one of only a few to record 1,000 career assists, and is climbing into the top 10 of all-time scorers, yet few would put him in the same class as Lafleur, Dionne or Lemieux.
In the summer of 1998 he returned, sort of, whence he came. Pittsburgh felt Francis was getting on in years. He was 35 years old and an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career and was in a position to negotiate possibly one final contract. He signed with the Carolina Hurricanes, which was where the Hartford Whalers had relocated the previous season. In 2002 Francis led the Hurricanes to their first Stanley Cup Final only to fall to mighty Detroit Red Wings and was the recipient of the King Clancy Memorial and his third Lady Byng Memorial.
Francis went on to play parts of six seasons in Carolina before being dealt to the Toronto Maple Leafs at the 2004 trade deadline. Following a lock out year in 2004-05, Francis called it a career in the summer of 2005. In November 2006, Francis returned to the Carolina Hurricanes as the club's Director of Player Development.