MEMO TO any other NHLers mulling retirement: If you want to get into the Hall of Fame in your first year of eligibility, plan on playing another year. Last week center Ron Francis, 42, called it quits after 23 NHL seasons, bringing to four the number of surefire Hall of Famers who have skated into the sunset since the lockout ended. (Mark Messier, Scott Stevens and Al MacInnis retired earlier this month.) Four is also the maximum number that can be inducted in one year. Consider the class of 2008--the first year this Fab Four will be eligible--booked.
One of the lockout's repercussions is that it deprived fans of a chance to bid these stars a proper farewell. Francis, who played with a gentleman's understated grace, wouldn't have had it any other way. After 10 years with the Whalers (he's the best player in their otherwise barren history), he played in Mario Lemieux's shadow in Pittsburgh, where he won Stanley Cups in 1991 and '92. A decade later he led the Hurricanes' run to the 2002 finals. He finished with 1,249 assists, second only to Wayne Gretzky, and is third in games played (1,731).
In typical fashion, Francis departed not with a glitzy press conference but with a statement posted on the players' association's website. He'll get plenty of attention when the Hall of Fame comes calling.
Bill Wippert (Francis Playing)
With 20 20-goal seasons, Francis (with Pittsburgh, above) trails only Gordie Howe.
Karl DeBlaker/AP (Francis Waving)
[See caption above.]