When Komets coach Al Sims was doing some research on his newest player, 21-year-old center Chris Francis, something in the biographical information jumped out at him: Hometown: Las Vegas.
I did a double-take when I saw where he was from because its unusual to see a kid playing at that high a level of hockey from Las Vegas, Sims said. But you are seeing more California and Las Vegas kids coming into the pro ranks now.
Heading into last springs NHL draft, five of the top 100 players ranked by Central Scouting were from California, highlighted by Beau Bennett, who was selected 20th overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins. One of them, Jason Zucker, grew up in Las Vegas and went in the second round to Minnesota.
There is an explanation for players like Francis.
My parents really liked hockey and they grew up in Los Angeles and that was when Wayne Gretzky finally showed up in California and made (hockey) big, Francis said. So they just fell in love with the sport. My dad (Dave) started coaching me when I was 5, and it just went from there.
There were two rinks in Las Vegas, and Francis played other sports, loving hockey the most but not truly realizing there might be a future in it. But at age 17, he went to a tournament in Oregon and was discovered by a Western Hockey League scout.
Francis played from 2006 to 2010 with the Portland Winterhawks – he was coached by Rich Kromm, now with the Evansville Icemen, in 2007-08 – and he tallied 50 goals and 159 points over his last 151 games.
Francis parlayed that into a minor-league contract with the NHLs Columbus Blue Jackets, who assigned him to their American Hockey League affiliate in Springfield, Mass., to start this season. He had one goal and two points in four games before the Blue Jackets moved him to lower-level Fort Wayne on Wednesday.
It was great hockey (in the AHL), and I learned a lot when I was there, just how to train hard and be ready for games, Francis said. I tried to stay positive because everyone has gone through it, not playing many games when theyre young. I talked to the veterans a lot and they helped me out with it.
The Komets, who are off to a 1-2-1 start in their first Central Hockey League season, could use Francis offense heading into Fridays game against the Bloomington PrairieThunder at Memorial Coliseum. The Komets have been outscored 11-5 and have only one even-strength goal.
Im more of a skill guy, said Francis, who has been put on a line with Lincoln Kaleigh Schrock and newly signed Marc Rechlicz. I like to make plays, shoot the puck. Im more an offensive guy and hope to bring offense to the team.
Francis is only 5-foot-9, 189 pounds.
Ive always been the small guy, so I just work on moving my feet and getting around the ice pretty quick, he said.
To make room for Francis and Rechlicz, the Komets waived forwards Matt Ward and Tyler Fletcher, who were both scoreless with minus-2 ratings.