"The Cat" Turns 95 (Part One)

Legendary goaltender/coach/GM Emile "The Cat" Francis turned 95 this week. Hear Emile giving his life story, starting with his road to the NHL, in the first of this two-part feature on The Cat!

On Monday, Emile “The Cat” Francis turned 95 years old. The former goaltender, coach and general manager, most notably with the New York Rangers, is one of the oldest living former NHL players.

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of interviewing Emile on numerous occasions. He was always one of the best interviews because he loved to talk about the history of the game and his upbringing with me.

Francis even wrote the foreword for my second book Mr. Zero: The Frank Brimsek Story. And I am forever indebted to him for that.  

This is a two-part article on Francis talking about his hockey life, so stay tuned on Friday for the finale!

Without further adieu, here is Emile Francis talking about his road to becoming an NHL goaltender with the Chicago Black Hawks and New York Rangers.

CHILDHOOD

My father died at the age of 36 from leukemia when I was eight years old. Fortunately, though, my mother came from a family with a couple of brothers and five sisters, including herself, so I had an uncle who was like a father to me. He played senior hockey, and in those days, senior hockey was the big thing out west. He was also a baseball player in the summer months, so he was the one who started me in the hockey and baseball playing business, so I can thank him and my mother, of course, for whatever I did in hockey. Growing up, I always played against guys that were older than myself because when you come from a town of 12,000, it’s slim pickings for players, so I played with older guys for the most part.

I played in the commercial league when I was only 14 years old. I was playing junior hockey in Saskatchewan, and normally players would be 17-18, but they needed a goaltender, so I played, and that’s how you get better, by playing against guys that are better and older than you. So I quickly improved!

Funny story, but as a matter of fact, I think I lost my amateur status when I was just fifteen. My team was practicing on a Sunday, and there was a guy watching from behind the net the whole time I was on the ice, and he came up to me after practice and said, ‘’Is this what you always do on Sunday?”. And I told him, yes, and he said, “I run a commercial league team just outside the city. We are a bunch of farmers, and we need a goalie, so how about playing for us?” And I said sure. We played the first game, and I got a shutout. After the game, he said, “We really want you to play for us for the rest of the year. We can’t pay you as we have no money. But we’ll bring you something every Sunday you play.” I said no problem, so he brought a chicken and a dozen eggs for me! That went a long way, I’ll tell ya!

PRE-NHL DAYS

When I turned eighteen, I was in the army. And I got out of the army in the middle of September 1945, receiving my discharge after the war was over. The major called me in and said, “You don’t have enough points to discharge, so you’ll probably have to guard POW’s. We are going to recommend that you go to officer training school in Kingston, Ontario.” I said, “Well, I like the army, but there’s no war. What the hell am I going to do if there’s no war?” They said to think about it, and they’ll talk to me again in the morning. The morning came, and I spoke to another major who was from Moose Jaw and also served on the hockey committee there. So he said that he received a call last night, and they all know who I am in Moose Jaw and told me that if you assure the army that you’ll finish your high school, you can get a discharge on that basis. I said that would be fine, and that was that. He said, “I’ll have you out of the army in 24 hours; just be sure to take your rifle with you.”

And the next day, I was on my way to Regina. But the major told me that when you get out at the gate, there will be a car waiting for you with a couple of gentlemen who will take you right to Moose Jaw. 24 hours later and I was in Moose Jaw and let me tell you, we had a heck of a hockey team there with Bert Olmstead and Metro Prystai. In fact, sixteen of us off that team turned professional. So from Moose Jaw, I became the property of the Chicago Blackhawks because they sponsored the team.

At the end of that season, we were told that the guys picked off a list would go to the Black Hawks training camp in Regina, and I was included on that list, so I stayed at the camp for a month, playing in exhibition games and whatnot. Finally, the GM called me into his office and told me that they were going to turn me pro. He said, “We’ll give you $500 dollars to turn pro, $5,000 to play in the NHL and $3,500 to play for the farm team in Kansas City”. I wasn’t stupid, though. I’d been on my own for quite a few years, so when they made me that offer, I said to them, “Well, I could do better than that by staying here and playing in the Western League.” They said, “I don’t think you’re telling the truth.” And I said, “Is that right? Well I’ll tell you what, see ya later, thanks for having me at your training camp.”

What had happened is I had talked to three teams in the Western League (Calgary, Lethbridge, Regina), and Bill Hunter had bought the Regina team over the summer, so he came after me then and said, “I want you to come to Regina, I’ll give you $1,000 to sign and $5,000 to play”. I said, “Well, I want to play in the NHL,” and he said, “Well, you think about that, and we’d love to have you.”

So I told the Chicago GM Bill Tobin that I have to call the Western League teams that I talked to earlier. The first guy that I called was Bill Hunter, and he said, “Any chance you decided on playing here?” And I said, “Yeah, if you got the deal you offered me in the summer, I’ll be staying here in Regina.” He told me, “Well, get a cab and come on over to the hotel because we’re starting training camp tomorrow.” So I stayed in Regina until around January because Chicago was in last place, of course, and when you’re in last place, you either get a new coach or fire your goalie. And they started coming at me in early December. Tiny Thompson was their chief scout, so he and I became very close. He’d come in and watch my junior games because he was the guy whose job it was to get me signed. Eventually, we made a deal, and Tiny Thompson and Bill Tobin both came to Regina, and I signed with Chicago under one condition. I said, “Bill Hunter and Regina were good enough to make me an offer so I can have a living here, and now you come in and take me. But I’m not going to do that unless you replace me or make a deal with Regina that they can live with”. So the next day, he made a deal with Hunter, offering him $2,500, which he grabbed quickly, and I was on my way to Chicago.

THE CAT

How I got my nickname was when I was playing in Moose Jaw. In the first game of the year, we opened in Regina. They had two teams, the Commandos and the Regina Abbotts. There was a sportswriter there by the name of Scotty Melville who was covering the game, and the next day in the paper, he said, “the Moose Jaw Canucks unveiled a new goalie last night, and he’s quick as a cat.” That was it, and “The Cat” stuck with me as my nickname for most of my life.

MINOR LEAGUES

In those days, it was very difficult breaking into the NHL. You only carried one goaltender, and plus there were only six teams in those days, so only the six best goalies in the whole world could play in the NHL at one time. I got traded from Chicago to New York, and Chuck Rayner was there, who was a great goalie at 28, so of course, they sent me down to their farm club, and I got to play wherever New York shifted their teams.

That was the time where if our goalie ever goes down to be ready because you’re the next guy, so I didn’t mind that at all. I was getting good pay even in the minors. In fact, I was getting paid like I would be in the NHL because if you’re the number two guy, that’s the way they treated you. But you had to play in the minors because they wanted you playing. I didn’t mind one bit playing in New Haven, Cincinnati, Vancouver and Cleveland. They were all farm clubs of the Rangers, and it was a job, and I enjoyed what I was doing.

Stay tuned on Friday for part two!

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