CEDAR RAPIDS — It was a week ago last Saturday when Cedar Rapids RoughRiders Coach/General Manager Mark Carlson summoned every member of his hockey team for a telephone conference call.
RoughRiders players were allowed to go home a week and a half ago after the United States Hockey League put a pause on its 2019-20 season because of the emerging coronavirus pandemic. The league canceled the remainder of the season last week.
But this call wasn’t about that. Carlson wanted to inform his guys that one of their own was sick with something else.
Defenseman Will Francis had been diagnosed with leukemia.
Francis played all last season with the Riders and had played in 10 games this season, incurring a knee injury in a practice that required him to have surgery in November and miss the rest of the campaign. An Anaheim Ducks draft pick last summer, Francis is 19.
“Our guys right away were sending positive vibes from all over the country to Minneapolis, where Will was,” Carlson said. “That we knew that he was going to be strong and beat this.”
Carlson said he has texted with Francis every day and was planning on calling him Monday. Francis began chemotherapy March 16 and was released from a Minneapolis hospital over the weekend to his parents home in the Twin Cities suburbs.
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“He’s doing great, has attacked this situation in a way that has been very admirable,” Carlson said. “(My) initial reaction was devastating. Then shortly after that, doing some reading and talking with some people, I became cautiously optimistic. Based on Will’s attitude and Will’s demeanor, and how he attacks everything, it’s not going to be easy, but that he’s going to do this, and he’s going to beat this.
“Right away when we first spoke, we were kind of saying the same thing immediately, as far as how Will will compete and beat this thing.”
The RoughRiders ended up with a 19-23-4-1 record for 43 points. That was good for seventh place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference, though the team had two games in hand on sixth-place Muskegon and three games in hand of fifth-place Youngstown for the final two available playoff spots in the division.
Injuries were a theme all season for Cedar Rapids, which lost multiple key guys with season-ending injuries. That included two NHL picks in Francis and goaltender Shamil Shmakov.
That the club was still on the cusp of the playoffs despite so many man games missed was a tribute to its resolve.
“I can say that, for sure, I’ve never had a group that I’ve been more proud of,” Carlson said. “We have had a lot of teams here that we’ve been very, very proud of, but I have never had a group that I am more proud of than this one.”
Carlson pointed out that the RoughRiders had to use five goaltenders this season, and all five of them picked up at least one victory. Derek Mullahy played the team’s first regular-season game in Pittsburgh way back in October, then got sick and couldn’t play the second.
That was the theme of the season.
Carlson said hockey operations is focused now on preparing for the USHL Draft May 4-5. Since that has always been an online endeavor, that should definitely be a full go.
Tryout camps and everything else, of course, is in the air.
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“Let’s get this virus under control, so everyone can get back to a ‘normal’ life,” Carlson said. “Nobody loves hockey more than I do, no one loves coaching more than I do, no one loves being with the team more than I do, nobody loves running the RoughRiders more than I do.
"But in the end, there’s more to it. Rather than being down in the dumps because we can’t play, and we can’t be providing entertainment in our building the way we want to, we’ve got to be positive and do everything we can to get through this. Be optimistic and pull together and kind of look forward to the moments as a city where this is our time to shine. That’s the way I look at it.”
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