Francis, 56, has been known to dabble in “the grape,” which is about as unsurprising as a player from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, making the Hockey Hall of Fame. A city of only 73,000 bordering northern Michigan, “The Soo’’ has a disproportionately large Italian community that included Francis and fellow native Hall of Famers Phil and Tony Esposito, while the local Greyhounds junior team helped groom Wayne Gretzky, Adam Foote, Paul Coffey, John Vanbiesbrouck, Craig Hartsburg and Joe Thornton, among others.
Francis, his Italian family loving its wine at large dinners, started trying it by age 9 in a glass mostly filled with soda. Then, with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the early 1990s, fellow Hall of Famer and renowned wine collector Mario Lemieux turned teammate Francis on to the joys of keeping a more serious stash.
That’s led to a private collection of his favorite wines from Barolo and Barbaresco in Italy, as well as others from France and Napa Valley — some from as far back as the 1970s. He admits wine collecting can require patience similar to what he’s shown as a GM with young players.
“I think the beauty of wine is, just because it’s from a certain country, or a certain grape or a certain type, it doesn’t mean it’s something you’re going to like,’’ Francis said Friday morning. “You have to find the things that you like. And with wine, a lot of the times, just because you buy it, it’s not ready to drink. You’ve got to sit and wait until it matures.’’
Francis took criticism his four years as GM with the Carolina Hurricanes for waiting on prospects. He was ultimately fired by a new owner in April 2018, only to see his crop of draftees and trade acquisitions take off this past season and reach the Eastern Conference final.
Among them was 30-goal-scorer Sebastian Aho, a second-rounder from 2015 that led the Hurricanes with 83 points. The guy right behind him with 76 points was Teuvo Teravainen, 24, acquired by Francis from Chicago for second- and third-round picks in 2016.
His drafting of defenseman Noah Hanifin at No. 5 overall in 2015 produced an instant NHL player, whose trade last year to Calgary brought in defenseman Dougie Hamilton and forward Micheal Ferland to key Carolina’s playoff run. As well, the majority of players that helped Carolina’s AHL affiliate in Charlotte win a championship this past season were Francis picks.
Compared to a wine crop, Francis said: “They’re close to being ripe.’’
For now, in his newest NHL job, he’ll eschew the wine equivalent and focus on building the cellar.
“You’re trying to find the player that you like, the one you think has a chance,’’ Francis said. “And then when you have them, you try to give them the tools — like storing your wine in the right place — to try to develop.’’
Francis doesn’t expect to hire any assistant GMs or coaches right away as he starts building that supportive infrastructure, but has prepared an organizational flow chart of what his staff will look like on the professional and amateur side — including the AHL team operations, the medical staff and the high performance and analytics fronts.
He’ll pinpoint the right time frame for filling those positions and budget it out with NHL Seattle. The analytical side will start right away because hockey operations director Alexandra Mandrycky is already on board, and Francis plans to use her expertise and that of some local team owners and other technology professionals within the market “to do some pretty special things’’ pinpointing future player targets for the June 2021 NHL expansion draft.
Francis hopes to project a model of what he wants Seattle’s team to look like and use analytics to figure out whether it will work.
“We want to know — and there are a lot of things that can change over the next two years — who potentially is someone that needs to be protected,’’ Francis said. “Who someone is that may not be protected. Whose contract may be coming up that will be a free agent. There are a lot of things in that regard that we can start looking at, getting ahead of the game with different analytics stuff where we can start pulling information and analyzing how players are playing and what they may look like moving forward.’’
Much of it amounts to playing the percentages. Only 11 of his 33 drafted players with the Hurricanes have made the NHL, though that will likely change after the AHL team’s recent success.
Francis scored arguably his biggest wine pick back in 2000 when he snagged a store’s 14 remaining bottles of 1997 Antinori Toscana Solaia from Italy for $72 per bottle. Soon after, Wine Spectator magazine listed it as that year’s No. 1 wine in the world and a bottle today sells for roughly $350.
“I got a bit lucky on that,’’ Francis said. “I think I still have one left.’’
And he’ll likely need similar player luck more quickly here than in his previous job. Though the projection game often amounts to a crapshoot, he’ll be given financial resources in Seattle he rarely had with Carolina to tilt the odds more favorably.
And if anyone’s capable of beating the odds, it’s a guy from “The Soo’’ with something to prove. Francis isn’t sure why his hometown has spawned an impressive 43 NHL players, or whether its Italian influence — including him, the Esposito brothers, Gene Ubriaco, Lou Nanne, Paul DiPietro, Matt D’Agostini, Rico and Drew Fata, Mike Amodeo and Marty Turco — had anything to do with it, or the success of its junior team producing even more future All-Stars born elsewhere.
“I think they’re definitely going to be well fed because of the Italian influence,’’ Francis quipped. “There’s no shortage of homemade pasta and good meals and restaurants in that town. As a kid growing up there, it always a gets lots of snow in winter — last year, I think they had about 15 feet — and as a kid, you have to learn to get out and do things.
“So, you either had rinks in your backyard, or neighborhood or street hockey games. There was always something to do, and that bodes well on getting out and practicing your skills.’’
Not to mention, honing your wine palate at an age still in single digits.
Francis hasn’t tried Washington wine yet but hopes to get out to Woodinville to taste local brands from a Northwest terroir that should appeal to his European-style tastes.
As for his player picks, he’ll lay the groundwork for now, cross his fingers and hope it eventually yields more Solaia than Two-Buck Chuck.