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Francis retires after 23 NHL seasons

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Ron Francis wasn't going to play forever.
It just seemed that way.

The four-time all-star announced his retirement Wednesday,
ending a 23-year career in which he won two Stanley Cups and ranked
as one of the NHL's career leaders in games played, goals, assists
and points.

"I think you always hope you can play forever, but you always
realize that time will come," Francis said of retirement. "I was
fortunate I was able to make a decision, move on and do it
comfortably."

Francis, 42, played for Hartford, Pittsburgh, Carolina and
Toronto, and leaves the game with a resume few can rival. He is
second to Wayne Gretzky with 1,249 assists, and ranks among the
league's all-time leaders with 1,731 games (third), 549 goals
(19th) and 1,798 points (fourth).

He won a pair of Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh in 1991 and 1992,
and helped the Hurricanes make a surprise run to the Cup finals in
2002.

In addition, Francis was a three-time winner of the Lady Byng
Trophy, awarded to the player exhibiting sportsmanship and
gentlemanly play combined with playing ability.

True to his low-key manner, he announced his retirement through
a news release posted on the NHL Players' Association Web site
Wednesday morning.

"His announcement was in a way like his career -- very
professional," said Jim Rutherford, Carolina's president and
general manager. "He went about his business quietly and he's one
of the all-time great players to play the game."

Francis said the labor dispute between the league and players'
association that wiped out the 2004-05 season was "pretty much the
writing on the wall" that his playing days were done. He joins
other notable players such as Mark Messier, Scott Stevens and Al
MacInnis who retired from the game this month.

"Looking back overall, it was a long ride," Francis said. "I
certainly wasn't expecting it to be that long, but I certainly
enjoyed many aspects of it and look back with fond memories and
absolutely no regrets. It was a great part of my life."

Francis said he was most proud of his career consistency -- he
had 20 seasons with at least 20 goals -- and being a part of
successful teams.

Of course, being alongside the game's greats like Gretzky and
Gordie Howe on the all-time lists is pretty special, too.

"I think anybody would certainly be honored to have their name
mentioned with Wayne Gretzky," he said.

"I don't really look at myself in that category, but hearing
your name mentioned alongside them is something I'm proud I've
accomplished, and I take that as a huge compliment."

Francis was taken by the Whalers with the fourth overall pick in
1981, and averaged 27 goals in his first nine seasons before being
traded to Pittsburgh in 1991. He went on to score 17 points in the
playoffs to help the Penguins win the Cup, and scored the
Cup-clinching goal the following season in Game 4 at Chicago.

After arriving in Carolina in 1998, he helped the former Whalers
franchise gain its footing in a region known for basketball. His
best season came in 2002, when he tallied 27 goals and 50 assists
to help the Hurricanes win the Eastern Conference title.

He spent nearly six seasons with the Hurricanes before being
traded to Toronto in March 2004. The move was to give him another
shot at the Cup, but his career ended with a second-round playoff
loss to Philadelphia.

Francis turned down a front-office job with the Hurricanes that
summer as he decided whether to keep playing, and remained
noncommittal about his future Wednesday.

Rutherford said the Hurricanes plan to retire Francis' No. 10
jersey, and said they might revisit bringing Francis into the front
office.

"We have the utmost respect for what he's done in the game and
our organization," he said.