Ed Francis is the very definition of a journeyman hockey player. The 29-year-old has spent his entire career as a steady but unremarkable depth defenseman. After graduating from Lake Huron State in 2010, Francis spent a couple years playing in Switzerland before joining the SHL. In four seasons split between Washington and Saskatchewan, he never made much of an impact, never scoring more than 7 goals or recording more than 11 points in a season. He is known as a hard worker and a positive clubhouse personality (earning the nickname “Easy Ed” for his gentle demeanor), but he hasn’t been quite fast or talented enough to nail down a starting job.
Francis was a free agent in the offseason, in a crowded market for blueliners. When it became clear that he wouldn’t receive a major-league contract, he gave serious thought to retiring. Francis had an open offer to become a high-school gym teacher in his hometown of Charlevoix, Michigan. He and his wife Judy have two young children, and the thought of spending less time on the road and more time raising his kids held considerable appeal.
In the end, though, Francis decided “I hadn’t gotten the game out of my blood quite yet.” He signed a minor-league deal with the New York Night and reported to their CHL affiliate, the Utah Owls. Finally having a chance to play every day, the defenseman has found joy with the Owls. And this week, he recorded an achievement he never imagined possible: he scored a hat trick in Utah’s wild 6-5 overtime win over the Idaho Spuds on Sunday.
It was unusual enough that Francis was the first one on the board, receiving a pass at the blue line from RW Mickey Simpson and firing a slapshot past Idaho goalie Kelvin White less than 2 minutes into the game. His tally was quickly forgotten, though, as the Spuds beat Utah netminder Corey Franklin-Lee three times in a five-minute span to take a two-goal lead at the first intermission.
The Owls quickly erased the deficit with a pair of scores early in the second period, only for D Brady Prussian’s slapper to put Idaho on top again. But just past the halfway point of the second, Utah generated some pressure in the slot in front of White. Francis crashed the net, picked up a deflection from C Gilles Valmont, and stuffed it over White’s catching glove for his second goal of the game, tying it at 4.
“At that point, I was just focused on the fact that we’d tied it up,” said Francis. “I wasn’t even thinking about [a hat trick].”
At 1:25 in the third period, Francis fired another blue-line shot that RW Harris Wondolowski redirected into the net, giving the Owls a 5-4 lead, their first edge since Francis’ opening tally.
“A three-point game? That was huge for me, probably my first one since high school,” Francis noted afterward. “And it gave us the lead, which was great.” Little did he know that the best was yet to come.
The Spuds didn’t go away quietly, as Prussian went five-hole on the power play to equalize the score again. Somewhat surprisingly, neither team scored again in regulation, sending things to overtime.
About a minute into the extra session, Francis joined a three-on-two rush for the Owls. “Usually on an odd-man rush like that, I don’t have the speed to be part of it,” he explained. “But I happened to be in a good spot when Gilles picked it off and started going the other way.”
Valmont found RW Jake Grifka below the hash marks. Grifka faked a shot, then slid a pass to Francis, who went top-shelf over a sprawling White to win the game as the crowd at Wasatch Arena exploded with delight.
It wasn’t until their hats began hitting the ice that Francis realized what he’d done. His mouth flew open as his teammates lifted him up and carried him off the ice.
Francis still seemed in shock as he talked to reporters after the game. “In my whole life, I never imagined I’d get a hatty,” he said. “It never even crossed my mind, not in my craziest dreams. It’s a good thing I didn’t know it was happening at the time, or I’d have shot it fifty feet over the goalie’s head.”
Owls coach Wiley Kiyotie was delighted by the unexpected achievement. “Ed’s the kind of guy who really deserves a moment like this,” Kiyotie told reporters. “He’s paid his dues, and he works his butt off and never complains. A guy like that ought to get to be the hero once in his life, at least.”
Once his postgame interviews were over, Francis pulled out his phone and called home to Judy, the wife who’d agreed to stay back in Michigan with the kids while her husband chased his dream for one more season. When she answered, Francis exclaimed: “Honey, you’ll never believe what just happened to me!”