Alumni Q & A: Lou Franceschetti
Fan favorite and energy guy during the 1980s
At Niagara Falls, you played on the same line with Mike Gartner. And then a few years later, you guys are both playing for the Capitals. What was that like?
“It was funny because Mike and I really started together in Tier II hockey. I was 17 and he was 16 at the time. We played on the same line there. Then he got drafted first round by Niagara Falls and I got drafted third round by Niagara Falls. We got to know each other pretty well as young kids then. When we both got drafted by The Falls, we were both quite happy because at least we knew somebody going into the training camp. I didn’t know exactly what to expect.
“When he left the first year – he left Niagara Falls as an 18-year-old to jump to the WHA before I got drafted – I didn’t know he was going to get drafted by Washington the next year. It was kind of nice knowing that a guy you played together with during the crucial years of your teens would be playing there, too. We ended up playing together as linemates a little bit when I came up in ’84-85. But Mike had a great career, especially early on. I was just enjoying knowing that I played with somebody that I thought would one day be in the Hall of Fame.”
You won a championship in your second year pro.
“Yep. That’s another funny story. That year, Gary Green was the head coach of Hershey. I figured after the year I had previously in Port Huron [45 goals, 103 points], that there was no way in hell I’d be back in Port Huron again. I didn’t think I was going to make Washington, but I figured I’d be in Hershey. Gary Green came in and decided that I wasn’t good enough to play in Hershey. So he sent me back to Port Huron. Gary gets hired by the Caps in November. I get called up [to Hershey] Thanksgiving Day. I ended up scoring I think 27 goals that year and winning the Calder Cup with a team that had no right to win.
“We played New Haven, who had beaten us 11 of the 14 times we played against them during the regular season. We got real lucky in a couple of games and our goaltender Gary Inness stood on his head, and so did [goaltender] David Parro. And then we go into the finals against Moncton. They beat us all six times during the regular season; not one game was even close. We end up beating them in six games, and we walked into their building and took two there. It was quite the second year. It was unbelievable for me because I had never been part of a championship team before. And then Bryan [Murray] came in the next year.
“We had the 25th anniversary a few years ago. It was unbelievable. There were only about four guys missing. We came in, played a little bit of golf and got to talk over old times. Gary [Inness] thought he had the only champagne bottle left. I said, ‘Gary, sorry to break your bubble, but I’ve still got a champagne bottle and it’s full.’ The night we won the Calder Cup, I can’t remember who got the puck from that night.
“We went to look at the brand new complex, and we said, ‘What are we doing here?’ And then we went to look at the old one [Hersheypark Arena]. I was hard to imagine after all these years that we played in that little barn.”
And then some of you guys started getting called up to Washington after Bryan took over.
“I played for Bryan [in Hershey] the year after we won the Calder Cup. They fired Gary Green and hired Bryan and I was up and down that second year [1981-82]. I ended up scoring my first NHL goal in Madison Square Garden that year. They decided I wasn’t ready on a full-time basis. So I thought, ‘Fine. I’ll go back down and work hard and see what happens the year after.’
“That’s when everything pretty well blew up. They fired Max McNab and then Roger Crozier. They brought in David Poile. And David swung that big deal for Rod [Langway]. David said, ‘Okay guys, we’re going with 25 guys in training camp and these are the 25 guys we plan on taking.’ They left everybody else out in the cold. We thought we all had a chance at making the team, but David ran it the way he wanted to run it. I guess I did enough good things that I got called up for the playoffs that year. We lost to the Islanders.
“The following year, I went down to Binghamton and tore up the league there. I think we had like 11 players who ended up playing at least eight years in the National Hockey League on that Binghamton team. To me, it was a blessing that I went there.”
You played in quite a few AHL cities.
“I played in New Haven toward the end of my career. Buffalo was stockpiling players in Rochester to bring up and I wasn’t in their future plans. So they sent me over to New Haven, because New Haven was more or less a team that would pick up anyone else’s scraps, so to speak. They were an independent team back then. At Christmas, their plan wasn’t going so well, so they called me back. They had me play at Rochester the last half of the year.”
How does Hershey stack up with the rest of those AHL cities?
“Hershey is at the top of the list. Because I spent five years there, Hershey has to be No. 1 on the list and Rochester No. 2. The fan support was unbelievable. I really didn’t get a chance to get out in the community in Rochester because I didn’t live there. I lived in Buffalo then. I was in Hershey for two years when I was single and two years when I was married. Diane really loved it there. I liked it there. The fans really came out and supported the team. We were like gods in that town.”
That first partial season you were with the Caps, that was the last year they missed the playoffs. The next year began a stretch of 14 straight years in the playoffs. You were one of those glue guys, energy guys on that team. Talk about that transition of being one of the league’s doormat teams to being one of the best regular season teams in the league in the 1980s.
“I like the way you put that: ‘regular season.’ It really is unfortunate that we had to play against the teams within our own division [in the playoffs]. It was just one of those things. The Islanders were our nemesis. I think David did a great job of building that team around four or five guys.
“They drafted Scotty Stevens and [Bobby] Carpenter finally developed into the player they thought he was going to be. And when things got a little edgy, they dealt Bobby to New York for Kelly Miller and Mike Ridley, which helped stabilize the franchise even more. From the last two months of ’85 to 1989, I would say we probably had one of the top five teams in the National Hockey League.
“Unfortunately for us, we could never get out of our division [in the playoffs]. We always had to play the Islanders; I think we played the Islanders the first four years. The next year we played the Flyers in the first round and Dale Hunter put everyone on his back and carried them. That was the year that we should have beaten New Jersey, but Rod Langway gets his Achilles sliced by Patty Verbeek. Just when we were about to get over that hump and go to the final four, something like that happens.”
You were a fan favorite here. You’d step on the ice and hear the fans chanting your name. That had to be incredibly gratifying.
“It really was. I knew exactly what my role was on the hockey team. I was a little different player in the American Hockey League where I would put up pretty good numbers. But knowing that if I wanted to stay in the National Hockey League, this is what I had to do.
“You go to training camp and you look over your shoulder and there’s always a guy there who is trying to take your job. Yvon Corriveau and Jeff Greenlaw were both left wingers they took in the first round. It made me that much more determined knowing that they were going to put those guys in, but sooner or later they’re going to have to give the hockey team the same kind of energy that I did [if they wanted my job]. I pretty well played knowing that was my job. I enjoyed the physical part of the game because it was part of my nature to be physical, and I would chip in with a goal here and a goal there.”
I know you played in Buffalo too, but talk a little bit about playing in Toronto, which was your hometown.
“Toronto was probably the most satisfying place to play because growing up as a kid in Toronto, being born and raised in Toronto, I sat in front of the TV every Saturday night watching the Leafs play. Then all of a sudden my dream came true and I went back home. That first time I stepped on the ice was unbelievable.
“It’s funny because when the Caps dealt me that year [on June 10,1989], I was a total free agent at the age of 31. They dealt me before July 1, so technically I was still an unrestricted free agent when July 1 came around, and I had a chance to go to Pittsburgh and play with Mario Lemieux. Back then I thought it was a great idea, but I had given my word to Toronto. The money was the same; there weren’t any money issues. But I told Pittsburgh that I had to honor my deal. I had told the Leafs I was going to play there. That’s where I stayed.”
I’m sure they understood that though, you grew up there.
“Yeah. And Pittsburgh wasn’t that good a hockey team back then. I was going to play a larger role on the Pittsburgh team, because Eddie Johnston and Gene Ubriaco really wanted me.
“But I was kind of lucky that when I went to Toronto, Doug Carpenter was the head coach in Toronto. He came over from New Jersey, and he had seen a lot of what I could do. He came up to me and it was the first time that a coach had said, ‘Lou, the job is yours.’ Hearing those words made me a little bit more relaxed. I didn’t have to worry and look over my shoulder to see who was trying to take my job. Whether it was a third or fourth line player, I didn’t really care knowing that I was going to be there. Every previous year in Washington, I had to more or less wonder, ‘What kind of young stud is coming in here and trying to take my job now?’
“I went out and scored 21 goals playing on the third line and killing penalties. I more or less put my face on the map in Toronto where nobody knew who I was, even though I had spent four or five years in the league with the Caps. My rookie card is with a Leafs uniform instead of a Washington Capitals uniform.’
You never got on a hockey card before that?
You had a few good years here. You scored a dozen goals one year.
“I was good for anywhere from 20 to 30 points a year.”
That would make you a million and a half bucks these days.
“Twenty-one goals might be worth even more, but I was just happy playing. The money was all irrelevant to me. I was just so happy being there and doing what I loved. I never came to the rink with a frown on my face; it was always with a smile. I just loved playing the game. I probably could have played until I was 40 years old, but they didn’t give me the chance. I just loved the game that much.”
That leads me to my next question. You’re one of the few guys I can think of who played roller hockey in the same city [Toronto and Buffalo] as he played NHL hockey. And you coached there, too.
“I coached there, but it was only because of the dollars and cents they offered me and because I wasn’t doing anything back home. I played a little bit with the Toronto Planets in Toronto, so I got to understand the game a little bit there. The Buffalo Wings at that time wanted a name popular or familiar with the city of Buffalo. They went with Robbie Ray at the beginning and Robbie was still playing ice hockey at the time, so they decided to call me. I coached there for two years, and that was the last two years that they actually had the game of roller hockey.”
As a player, what would you tell people is the biggest different between the two surfaces, and the wheels vs. blades?
“You had to be very, very patient. There was a lot of misdirection. It was a completely different game. It was four-on-four, and it wasn’t a straight north-south kind of game. It was more of an east-west kind of game. Because if you had a kid who was really good on his wheels and could turn on a dime and go laterally, you had a stud. You had a really good hockey player on your hands. Anybody can go straight or in a straight line. It’s a matter of how fast you can change directions going east-west, and making the defender more or less try to do that at full speed. You know he’s going to end up on his ass.”
Then you coached in Jacksonville and Detroit, back to ice hockey. Was that something that, when you were playing, you said to yourself, ‘When I’m done I want to stay in the game as a coach?’
“It was, because I always wanted to stay in the game. I did a lot of mock drafts when I was a kid and when I was still playing. What I’d try to do was look at every other team, see what every team wanted and what their weaknesses and strengths were. I’d try to make deals in my head. I figured it was something I wanted to get into when hockey was over.
“Coaching came up with Jacksonville. It wasn’t a recognized league, but it was something where I could get my feet wet and get accustomed to changing lines, running practices, work on the power play and penalty killing and work on the bench. I went down there the year after I got out of the game. I was lucky that I was in a pretty good town in Jacksonville. I brought my family down and we had a great time down there.
“That year I went to the [NHL] draft in Quebec City and talked to [ex-Caps assistant coach] Doug MacLean a little bit. He was in tight with the Detroit Falcons of the United Hockey League, or the Colonial League back then. They were getting ready to make a coaching change because they wanted an aggressive type of coach who liked to fight and who would install that kind of game.
“Doug gave me a call and told me, ‘Lou, this is what you’ve got to do.’ I went there and interviewed for the job and got it. We had a great season, ended up in second place. I screwed up really bad in the playoffs. I ended up having a game [forfeited] because of my stupidity. I think I’ve been blackballed ever since.”
“It was an incident during the warm-up. We had a little bit of a flare-up in Game 5 in our building. We almost had a bench-clearing brawl; as a matter of fact the fights carried themselves right into the dressing rooms. The commissioner of the league decided not to show his face in Game 6 in Flint.
“One of our players, who was a pretty tough guy, skated around the red line and one of their players decided to take a pitch-fork [shot] at him and missed his face. It wasn’t caught on tape. The tape was tampered [with]. There was nobody from the league there and there were no referees watching the warm-up. I decided that unless this guy got suspended for that one game, that we wouldn’t go out. They ruled that he wasn’t going to get suspended. The guys didn’t want to go out and play. Because I planted the seed, I was the one who was fried at the end.
“That was the same year that Stevie Ludzik coached his first year in Muskegon. Who knows what would have happened at the end of it? I still think that was probably the main cause.”
So you haven’t had a sniff since?
“I haven’t had a sniff of anything professional. I’ve had a sniff for coaching Tier II or junior A teams back home. Some of the jobs I did were because I wasn’t working and I figured I’d like to do something I’d really enjoy. Another one I took was a team that had three first-year defensemen – it was a very young team – and all three kids were the owners’ kids. I knew it was going to fail sooner or later, but I tried to build that team and it didn’t work out for me.”
During your years in Washington, give me one of your best memories on the ice and off the ice.
“Off the ice, it would have to be when my daughter was born in 1986. On the ice, I’ve got a couple that really stand out. Scoring my first goal in the playoffs against the Islanders was one. Losing a heartbreaker in that five overtime game against the Islanders in ’87. That had to be the most disheartening, because we had a 3-1 lead in that series and we had a real good team. That was the end of the New York dynasty. They didn’t make the playoffs next year.”