It will be Emile Francis' night to howl Monday and there could be no more appropriate site than Washington, where the boss of the St. Louis Blues first was tagged with that inescapable nickname, "The Cat."
Francis is the recipient of the Lester Patrick Trophy for outstanding service to hockey in the United States. He will be honored at Monday's National Hockey League All-Star Dinner, the $150-a-plate black-tie benefit that precedes the 34th NHL All-Star Game Tuesday at Capital Centre.
Francis was a 17-year-old goaltender for the Washington Lions of the old Eastern Amateur Hockey League during the 1944-45 season and his shifty moves were duly noted by a Washington Post reporter named Joe Holman, who first called him "The Cat."
"To get in the United States at that time, you had to be under 18 or over 40," Francis recalled. "Everybody else was either in the army or working in a factory. There were about four kids on the team and the rest were old men. I guess Joe made me a favorite because I was so young.
"I got my first award in hockey in Washington, a watch for being the most popular player. The night they gave it to me I blew one from the blueline and Joe wrote that I was too busy looking at the watch.
"I still have the watch and I still have my first hockey jacket, the Washington Lions, a green jacket with gold trim. I've been a lot of places and seen a lot of things and I've always had good memories of Washington. That's really where it started for me. It's so good to see them in the National League."
As an added sentimental touch, Holman, the director of community relations for the Capitals, will be at Monday's dinner.
"Emile Francis was a daring little guy, the way he was always sliding in and out, and he had tremendous agility," Holman said. "Somehow you knew he was going to go on to something bigger and better."
Francis spent six seasons in the NHL and played for 12 pro teams in various leagues before he retired in 1960, to become a minor league coach for the New York Rangers. Eventually, he would become the Rangers' general manager for 10 seasons and the coach on three separate occasions. Moving to St. Louis, he guided a struggling franchise through near-bankruptcy to a change in ownership, and a dramatic rise from next-to-last in 1979 to next-to-first, three points behind the New York Islanders, a year ago.
"I got experience fast in Washington and it really helped me," Francis said. "One of the teams in the league was the Baltimore Coast Guards, with Frankie Brimsek, who was always an idol of mine, and John Mariucci (another Lester Patrick winner) and a lot of other great players. They really whipped us, but the experience paid off when I went to Moose Jaw (Saskatchewan) the next year. Playing against guys my own age, there were no problems at all."
Francis earned $50 a week in Washington, plus a few dollars on the side, although the legal limit was $25 and his visa specified no employment outside hockey.
"We lived three blocks from Uline Arena (now the Washington Coliseum) and we'd go over early and set up chairs and work around the rink to make a couple of extra bucks," Francis said. "We made $50 a week, but there was a law that we could only get $25, so the other $25 was sent back to a bank in Canada. But even with $25 a week, there was no problem. I saved more from that than I ever did. It was the first time I was paid for playing.
"When we played junior hockey back home in Saskatchewan, I didn't get anything. But I played commercial league on weekend afternoons and I'd get a chicken and a dozen eggs for playing. I was only 15 then and it really helped our family, the way things were in those days."
Francis was in Washington in April 1945, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt died.
"I was at the train station when they brought his body back. It's the kind of thing that stays with you always," said Francis.