By Bob Wage

In case you were not aware, the Carolina Hurricanes were once known as the Hartford Whalers! Just ask anyone at ESPN, they will be more than happy to confirm this.

The club got its start when the World Hockey Association awarded a group of businessmen, (led by Howard Baldwin), a franchise back in 1971. At the very beginning, the team was named the New England Whalers and they were based out of Boston. The Whalers won the WHA championship in their inaugural season in 1972-73, but it would be quite a spell before they would see another league championship of any type. The franchise moved to Hartford in the 1974-75 season and joined the NHL as an expansion team in 1979.

Once in the NHL, the Whalers struggled in Hartford and only managed three winning seasons out of 18 while at that location, and won just a single playoff series the entire period.

In July 1994, Peter Karmanos and his partners bought the franchise and moved it to North Carolina in the Summer of 1997. The club then played for two seasons in the "black hole" of Greensboro (joking here) while waiting for the completion of a brand new arena in Raleigh. Once their new home was completed, the team quickly built a strong and loyal following and went on to enjoy more success than the franchise had ever seen before.

In 2002, the underdog Hurricanes battled their way to the Stanley Cup Finals before losing to a group of future Hall of Famers on the powerful Detroit Red Wings. After finishing dead last in the league the following year, the 2005-06 Canes stormed back and put together the best record in franchise history, coming just one point shy of winning the President's Trophy.

They went on to win their first ever Stanley Cup Championship with a Game 7 victory in front of their home faithful. Three years later, the team played in their third Eastern Conference Championship in eight years before losing to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

But enough history. My task? To choose the four most significant players in franchise history. Players who define the franchise and who have truly earned a place on Carolina's "Mount Puckmore".

1. Ron Francis, Center (1981-1991, 1998-2004; Franchise Stats: GP 1186 G 382 A 793 P 1175)

There is no reason to disregard Whalers history in this assignment because my first selection's greatness transcends from one location to the next.

Not only is the player one of the four best in franchise history, he's one of the best players who ever laced them up, period. Ron Francis has accumulated the second most assists, (1249), is third in games played, (1731), and is fourth intotal points, (1798), in NHL history. This exceptional player was inducted into the NHL Hall of Fame the very first time he was eligible. When you combine his time with the Whalers and the Hurricanes, he is the franchise leader in games played, assists, goals, and total points.

The franchise officially retired his "No. 10" during a ceremony in January of 2006.

While specifically with the Hurricanes, Francis won the King Clancy and Lady Byng Memorial Trophies. Perhaps most importantly, when Francis agreed to sign a free agent contract and play in Carolina in1998, he helped to legitimize the franchise.

The center, appropriately nicknamed "The Franchise", did his research and came to realize that Raleigh, North Carolina was rated as one of the best places to raise a family and that is the reason he gave for deciding to play for the Canes. Francis did not change his mind about living on "Tobacco Road," as he stayed in Carolina after he retired and eventually signed on to work for the franchise in the front office. He currently wears several hats and does a variety of things for the club while working under the dual title of "Associate Head Coach" and "Director of Player Development".

2. Rod Brind'Amour(notes), Center (2000-2010; Franchise Stats: GP 694 G 174 A 299 P 473)

One player's photo will permanently have a cherished place in team history and he will always be known as the captain who first hoisted the "Holy Grail of Hockey" over his head.

While Cam Ward(notes) won the Conn Smythe, Rod Brind'Amour's significant contributions to winning the Cup can not be denied. He seemed to score the big goals when the team needed them the most. He came up with key defensive plays. He led by example. He was a beast in the face off circle. He was, simply put, a player's captain and always did much more than just "talk the talk".

Not only did he have a tremendous year in 2005-06, his career stats while in Carolina speak volumes as well. He is number three in total points for the franchise, (473), (number one while in Carolina). He is third in games played with 695 and second only to Francis in assists with 299. He won the Selke Trophy twice while with the Canes, in 2005-06 and 2006-07 and he will certainly be under consideration for the NHL Hall of Fame, as his total of 1464 games played is 16th best in NHL history and his 24 short-handed goals is good for 24th best. But most importantly, he was a heart-and-soul type of player who brought it all every night.

Recently retired, he will also stay with the club and will work in a position, which has yet to be announced.

The franchise will honor Brind'Amour by formally retiring his "No. 17" with a ceremony scheduled for February, 2011.

3. Eric Staal(notes), Center (2003-present; Franchise Stats: GP 479 G 193 A 235 P 428)

If any Carolina player has a chance to top the franchise records held by Ron Francis and Rod Brind'Amour, it has to be Eric Staal.

As a matter of fact, he already holds several franchise records and he has yet to even celebrate his 26th birthday. Some of his current franchise records include: the most playoff points (43), most playoff goals (19), most playoff points in a single season (28), most playoff assists in a single season (19), consecutive playoff game scoring streak (15 games), most hat tricks in a single season (4), and most career hat tricks (10).

He is in or near the top five in every major scoring category for the franchise and will do nothing but move up.

Staal has participated in three consecutive NHL All-Star Games and is the only player in franchise history to be named as an All Star Game MVP. He has won a gold medal while representing Team Canada in the Olympics and is one of only 24 hockey players in the world to be a member of the Triple Gold Club.

In 2008, the center signed a very lucrative $57.75 million dollar contract, making him the face of the franchise for years to come.

4. Glen Wesley(notes), Defense (1994-2008; Franchise Stats GP 913 G 51 A 176 P 227)

There are a couple of players you could slide into this slot, but Glen Wesley gets the nod because of his successful contributions to the franchise over the long haul.

The defenseman served as alternate captain during the successful Stanley Cup winning season and he was the first player who captain Rod Brind'Amour handed the Cup to during the post game celebration. He was also alternate captain during the 2002 Stanley Cup run. Wesley is second in franchise history to Ron Francis in games played, (913) and has the best career plus/minus stat, (+35), for the Canes, (while in Carolina).

Hurricanes management obviously believes Wesley is worthy of this honor as they retired his "No. 2" in Feb. 2009 and hired him to be "Director of Defensemen Development."

(Honorable Mention):

Kevin Dineen is right up close to Francis for many of Hartford's leading scoring stats and he was Carolina's first captain when they moved, but his stats are a bit over-shadowed by the success of the top four, who were able to excel and contribute in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Cam Ward is the only player in franchise history to win the Conn Smythe and has won more games than any other franchise goalie, but longevity played a major factor here and it was considered that his overall career numbers did not quite make the cut. For instance, Arturs Irbe has a slightly better save percentage and lower GAA while playing for the Canes, and also has more career shutouts, (20), for the franchise than Ward does, (12).

(Hall of Famers, Paul Coffey, Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe, and Dave Keon each played for the franchise, but over too short of a period to be seriously considered.)
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