NHL Seattle general manager Ron Francis said Wednesday he hopes to learn from his experiences with the Carolina Hurricanes and put fallout from the Bill Peters situation behind him.
In a sit-down interview near the team’s Queen Anne headquarters, his first since his one-time Hurricanes coach, Peters, resigned last month from the Calgary Flames following accusations of past racist remarks and physical abuse, Francis addressed some lingering issues. Most notably, he explained why he gave Peters a two-year contract extension in July 2016 after earlier having imposed unspecified corrective action on him for striking two players on the bench during a game.
“We looked where the team was and how it was playing,” Francis said. “It was moving in the right direction. We’d made a huge increase from where it was the year before to where we were that year. And quite honestly, we looked at that (physical-abuse) situation, we addressed it and we felt it was behind him.”
The Hurricanes had jumped from 71 points the previous season to 86 points.
Francis would not specify what corrective action he took, saying such personnel issues are “not for public discussion.” He was asked whether he’d handle the situation — including the contract extension — any differently today given what’s come out lately about coaching abuses.
“I think you deal with it the best you can with the situation you have at the time,” Francis said. “I think within the last week there have been some changes the league has made. I think that’s positive moving forward. I don’t claim to be perfect. I make mistakes. I try to learn every day from the people I talk with in situations. That’s what I try to do and take that knowledge moving forward. And hopefully you’re never in that situation again.”
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on Monday, addressing reporters at the league’s board of governors meetings in California, said physical abuse and homophobic and racist comments will not be tolerated. Bettman added the league “doesn’t like surprises,” and the Peters situation was just that.
Going forward, he expects the league office to be informed by teams of any conduct incident they become aware of.
“There will be zero tolerance for any failure to notify us, and in the event of such failure the club and individuals involved can expect severe discipline,” Bettman said.
Bettman also said he continues to explore discrepancies between former Carolina owner Peter Karmanos, who said in an interview with The Seattle Times he was never told about the physical abuse, and Francis, who later claimed he had briefed ownership.
Francis said Wednesday he stands by his statement and won’t engage in a back-and-forth with Karmanos, who sold majority control of the Hurricanes to Thomas Dundon in December 2017. Francis was fired a few months later, and Peters opted out of his contract and took the Flames job.
Francis couldn’t recall having personally witnessed a coach physically abuse a player at any point during his 23-season playing career. He added that no red flags came up on Peters ahead of hiring him as coach.
“We did our due diligence (before hiring Peters),” Francis said. “We talked to a lot of people, and there was nothing that popped up at that point.
“We took it (the player abuse) very seriously and addressed it.”
At the time, he said, players and coaches felt he’d handled things correctly and he never heard further complaints. Current Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour, an assistant under Peters, confirmed as much to reporters two weeks ago.
“Listen, it’s easy at this point to look back on things,” Francis said. “But when you’re in the situation, you deal with it the way you think is best at the time. And that’s what I tried to do.”
There have been subsequent reports out of North Carolina that longstanding relationships within the organization were ruined because Peters stayed on. Also, that Francis allowing Peters to name Jordan Staal and Justin Faulk as co-captains in 2016-17, instead of newly returned veteran Justin Williams, contributed to a deterioration of the coach’s relationship with players.
“The captaincy thing, there are different decisions on how that’s made,” said Francis, a captain much of his playing career. “The two guys that shared the captaincy wanted it. It’s an internal decision.”
He added: “We went from 86 points the year before to 87 points that year.”
But clearly, recent events have stung — especially hearing about how Peters, the first coach Francis hired, was alleged to have used a racist slur toward black player Akim Aliu a decade ago in the minors.
“It’s a tough situation to hear about,” Francis said. “I think our league’s taken some steps that are encouraging. I think where we are as a game and as a society, we’re better than five years ago. And five years ago we were better than we were 10 years ago, and hopefully we continue moving in that direction.”
After the Aliu accusations surfaced, former Hurricanes defenseman Michal Jordan tweeted that Peters had kicked him in the back and punched a second Carolina player during a game.
Peters resigned from the Flames on Nov. 29.
Francis knows he has a chance now to build on his experiences from his first stint as a general manager.
“When you look back, there were some things we did well and certain things we need to improve on to get better,” he said. “That’s part of the learning process, I think.”
Francis said he always has tried to respect people he works with and earn their respect.
He had a reputation in Carolina for keeping things “close to the vest” — even from ownership. But he’s been heavily engaged with NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke and owners in Seattle, given the expansion team’s situation and need for multiple presentations and ownership approvals on myriad topics.
Leiweke said he fully supports Francis and believes the GM is “a man of utmost integrity who stands behind his word, and just about anyone who’s ever dealt with him will tell you that. I talked to a lot of people about what happened in that (Peters) situation and I have every reason to believe he handled it in a professional and appropriate manner he felt was best.”
Francis said he’s “learned a lot already” and hopes to be a better GM for it.
“I’ve been very impressed since I’ve been here — getting to spend time with Tod (Leiweke) and some of our owners,” he said. “It’s been articulated very clearly what we expect the standard to be here in Seattle.
“And it’s my goal to build that operation to meet those standards. That’s what we’re focusing on. Trying to build the people and the staff and the players that can accomplish that.”