Two months ago, Chris Francis feared his career might be over.
So to get a chance to step back on the ice again this weekend is very meaningful.
"Being able to get back and play with this team again, it’s exciting. I’m a little nervous, too," he said. "For myself, personally after what I’ve had to go through, I’m just excited to be back on the ice, playing the game I’ve been playing my whole life."
Francis is expected to make his season debut tonight when the Quad-City Mallards take on the Kalamazoo Wings at the Wings Event Center. The Mallards captain has missed the first 19 games with an injury that caused him to be released before the season.
"He’s looked really good (in practice), and he’s only going to get better," Mallards head coach Phil Axtell said. "I’m thrilled. ... One of the guys you count on over the summer is no longer in your lineup over the first 20 games."
Francis was one of the first signings in the offseason after scoring a career-high 27 goals and totaling 60 points in 63 games last year for the Mallards.
He had high expectations for the season, but they were quickly tempered when he failed his entrance physical, the result of an injury suffered just before the start of training camp.
He had little strength in his arm and couldn't move his neck or head, and results of an MRI showed he had suffered a herniated disk in his back. The prognosis was the injury could cost him anywhere from six weeks to an entire season and was possibly career-ending.
"It frustrated me and sent me to a dark place, and I didn’t know how to get out of it for a while," Francis said. "I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I didn’t want to be around anybody. It was rough."
Things got even worse as just three days after getting the results of the MRI, the Oct. 1 mass shooting on the Las Vegas Strip left 59 people dead, including the perpetrator, and 546 injured.
One of those injured was UNLV assistant hockey coach Nick Robone, a close friend of Francis, a Las Vegas native.
"I was actually texting with him when it went on, and I asked him ‘Are you OK?’ and he told me, ‘No, I got shot,’ and I went into panic mode," Francis said. "I thought he was joking around with me and then all of a sudden I didn’t hear from him, and I had to call people back home and they said he was in the hospital, in surgery."
Robone survived and, according to Francis, is doing well, but the immediate impact took an emotional toll.
"I don’t think I slept for 24 hours straight when that happened," he said. "There were a lot of people there that I know, and there were a lot of people there that were affected that my friends knew so it was a rough time for them especially, and with everything that was going on with me here, it was difficult."
Francis credited the people around him — specifically his mother, who called him every day from Las Vegas — for helping him recover and start rehabbing the injury.
"I just had to pick myself up and be strong for myself and be strong for the people back home," he said.
The Mallards released him on Oct. 11, but once he cleared waivers, Francis knew he didn't want to come back unless it was with the same team.
He stayed in the Quad-Cities to rehab, and about four weeks into the process, he began to think he might be able to return this season. He re-signed with the team Nov. 27.
"I had the mindset that if I came back this year, I didn’t want to be anywhere else," he said. "I like the way Phil treats us in the room. I wanted to be a part of his first full season, to help him as much as I can. Phil’s a good coach in this league. I want to see him move on, too."
However, in his absence the Mallards have struggled. They're 8-10-1 and currently in fifth place in the Central Division, seven points out of a playoff spot.
Without Francis, and also without Justin Kovacs, who has missed eight games with an upper body injury, the Mallards are averaging a league-worst 2.32 goals per game.
His return will help, but the Mallards don't expect Francis to provide a quick fix for the team after not playing since April.
"I just want him to play simple for the first few games," Axtell said. "I don’t expect him to come out of the gates scoring hat tricks and go on a 27-goal run. Just play simple, team hockey. Offense will come second."
Francis admitted seeing the team struggle was frustrating, but he also doesn't expect to come out firing right from the start. He's seen plenty to think the team has the potential to start winning games as his recovery and the season progresses.
"Just because I was out on the lineup and now I’m coming back into the lineup, it’s not all about me," he said. "Yeah I can help a lot but you have guys that go out there and play hard every night to help the team win.
"It’s a team effort, it’s not one guy, and what I’m focusing on now is just to play simple and play my game, move the puck, create opportunities, play well defensively and just be a leader."