Seattle GM Ron Francis may have more time than Vegas did to put together an NHL expansion franchise, but there is plenty on his plate before the inaugural 2021-22 season.
The modest beginnings of a massive task can be found across the street from a bustling arena construction site, inside a historic single-story brick building that once functioned as an auto garage during the Great Depression. Most of the square footage is reserved for sales staffers of the NHL’s 32nd franchise, though a small section has been staked out for the nascent hockey ops department. General manager Ron Francis has an office. Same for Alexandra Mandrycky, director of hockey administration. Technically they also share a conference space. Then again, as Francis says, “There’s only two people, so I’m not even sure we need all three rooms.”
Soon that will change. Since Francis was hired nealry a month ago, charged with steering Seattle toward its inaugural season in 2021-22, not a single day has passed without his mailslot filling or his inbox pinging with another batch of résumés. Assistant GMs, pro and amateur scouts, analytics gurus … everyone wants a piece of the grand expansion project happening beneath the Space Needle. “There’s nothing here in place,” Francis says. “It’s just Alex and myself. We’re basically at the ground level, building it up. But it’s exciting to see what we can do with it.”
It was this blank canvas that drew Francis back. Reassigned and then subsequently—not to mention unceremoniously—fired from his longtime post atop the Hurricanes’ front office in spring 2018, the Hall-of-Fame center had initially explored a life removed from hockey. Sat through a 75-hour real estate class. Passed a two-part exam. Earned his North Carolina broker’s license. Took a job in commercial real estate at NAICarolantic Realty last January and happily reported to a desk from 8 to 5:30 every day, working the phones while relishing the bullpen camaraderie.
Then, perhaps predictably, hockey came calling him again. Asked to help run Hockey Canada at the 2019 IIHF World Championships as part of a three-person management team, Francis leapt at the chance. Between a week of training camp in Vienna and the two-week tournament hosted by Slovakia, where the Canadians wound up losing in the gold medal game to Finland, Francis found himself surrounded by NHL executives, coaches, players, equipment managers, medical trainers … not to mention the roller-coaster thrill ride of competition. “You start looking, going, ‘Okay, this is where I belong. This is what I’ve done my whole life,’” Francis says. “I started thinking, ‘Why am I sitting on the outside? I should take a look at trying to get back in.’”
It used to be that Francis would joke with friends about wanting to become Seattle’s second GM; after all, he reasoned, the poor soul hired first couldn’t possibly replicate the instant success enjoyed by the NHL’s last expansion team in Las Vegas. But the challenge was irresistible. His first interview was conducted with team president Tod Leiweke and COO Victor DeBonis over dinner at the Seattle Four Seasons. (“Right smack in the middle of halibut season,” Francis reports. “It was really good.”) A battery of other meetings with everyone from team owners to cubicle staffers followed the next day, as well as a tour of the ongoing construction at Seattle Center, site of the franchise’s future home rink.
“Everybody seemed to be happy doing what they're doing,” Francis says. “Now, we haven’t lost a game yet, so that could change.”
After handing off some of his final realty projects, Francis stepped down at NAICarolantic and launched full-throated into NHL Seattle. Among his earliest moves was to dial Predators GM David Poile, who oversaw Nashville’s birth in the late-1990s, and Vegas’ George McPhee and Kelly McCrimmon for advice. “They all said the same thing,” Francis recalls. “It’s a lot of stuff. It’s a lot of work, but just an incredibly gratifying process to go through.”
Indeed, much like McPhee remembers getting bogged down in the minutiae of selecting insurance and retirement benefits for his employees when the Golden Knights were getting underway, so too has Francis been taken aback by the volume of tasks. It helped that Dave Tippett preceded Francis in the Seattle front office, lending a veteran NHL voice as a senior advisor before leaving to coach the Oilers. But every day brings another detail that needs attention. “Even little things like locker room design,” Francis says. “You’re looking at plans for the trainer’s portion of the room and you're going, ‘Hey, we didn’t put sinks in there.’”
Fortunately, Seattle has a full year of extra runway compared to Vegas, which barreled from expansion vote to puck drop in 16 months. Whereas McPhee headed straight upstairs to his office and began calling prospective hires after his introductory press conferences, Francis simply fired off a few thank-you texts and enjoyed a quiet evening with his family in Seattle, followed by a staff-wide barbecue at Leiweke’s house the next afternoon.
But the roadmap is taking shape. Asked for his broad vision for the front office, Francis replies, “I want an environment with our staff that’s inclusive. Everyone should feel like they have a voice and they should be willing to express that voice without any fear of ridicule and retribution.” He hopes to find an assistant GM soon, as well as bolster the analytics staff under Mandrycky to begin building the team’s expansion draft tools. Citing the looming possibility of a lockout-shortened season in ‘20-21, Francis also stressed the importance of finding “four to five” pro scouts “in the right locations” this year. The projected window for hiring a coach won’t come until Jan. to June 2021, though that could change with the right candidate.
And then there is the question on every fan’s mind. “Nicknames?” Francis says. “Tod keeps trying to drag me into that one, but I’m trying to stay out of it. They have a firm that’s working on that. There’s a meeting every week on it. The plan is to have a name as we get early into 2020.”
It is all very fluid. “We have a rough draft and we’re fine-tuning it as we move forward,” Francis says. The auto garage offices are only temporary, for instance, just until construction finishes on a spanking-new, three-sheet practice facility at Northgate Ice Center. (The communications, marketing, finance and HR departments are based in another building, about a half-mile away.)
Francis, meanwhile, is still sleeping out of a hotel in Seattle. He will still be largely based out of the Raleigh area for the upcoming season, scouting at rinks along the East Coast, occasionally heading out west in week-long bursts. “The good news is, two direct flights a day, jump on the old Alaska Air and you’re there,” he says. “Not bad.”
The plan is for his family to relocate to Seattle in early 2020, once their North Carolina house has been sold. Francis figures he’ll let a realtor handle that job. His plate is full enough already.