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July 5, 2015

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Wranglers’ center Chris Francis doesn’t have the same background as other rising hockey stars

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STEPHEN SYLVANIE / SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Chris Francis (12) pushes the puck ahead after slipping underneath the check of Aces defenseman William Wrenn during Friday night ECHL hockey action at the Orleans Arena.

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Chris Francis doesn’t surprise people when he tells them he’s a professional hockey player — unless he adds where he’s from in the sentence.

Francis is 100 percent Las Vegas, which isn’t known for producing hockey players or for having a quality youth hockey system. But Francis, who was born and raised in the valley, and is a prominent member of the Las Vegas Wranglers hockey team, is bucking that trend.

“They’re shocked. They say, ‘It’s pretty cool that you’re still doing it,’” said Francis, who has scored 12 goals and has seven assists in 29 games played this season. “It’s a little weird, but (I tell them), ‘It does get cold here.’”

The lone Las Vegas native on the Wranglers will represent his hometown squad in the upcoming ECHL All-Star game. Francis, a center, was named to the Western Conference All-Star team and will participate in the game Jan. 23 in Loveland, Colo.

“It was shocking that I got selected, but it’s a great accomplishment,” Francis said. “All of the great players, I’m glad to be recognized as one of them.”

The selection to the all-star team is long way from three seasons ago, when Francis’ hometown team cut him. It wasn’t a talent issue, Wranglers coach Ryan Mougenel said, but rather a commitment thing.

“He wasn’t committed to his own end. He wasn’t committed to the game,” Mougenel said. “He needed that in his life to set him straight. (Being named an all-star is) well-deserved. I don’t think I’ve coached a kid with that amount of skill.”

Mougenel’s comment about Francis’ ability speaks volumes to how special Francis is.

Let’s face it, Las Vegas isn’t necessarily the ice capital of the world nor does it have an abundance of snow, creating ice rinks for aspiring hockey stars to go smack around a pine cone with hockey sticks.

Instead, the 23-year-old Francis sharpened his skills through another sport: roller hockey. He picked up the sport at 6 years old, playing with both an orange ball and a puck that weighs less than a standard ice hockey puck.

It was those times playing in indoor and outdoor venues that helped Francis develop his stick handling and hand-eye coordination.

“That’s why I’m a finesse player,” Francis said.

There was also another added bonus. Playing street hockey fostered creativity within Francis’ puck handling, and his teammate Mike Madill has taken notice.

“It’s more of a free-wheeling, creative game. You get a lot of flavor from that,” Madill said of roller hockey. “A lot of his creativity (comes from) ball hockey; you can see him do things like that (on the ice).”

Francis was 10 years old when he first stepped onto the ice, where he had to make a few adjustments from the roller to the ice game.

“Stopping was the hardest,” said Francis, who still plays roller hockey. “Roller hockey, it’s more of a turn and glide into (a stop), and on the ice you have to use your edges and stop with both feet.”

While he was a talented player, he, understandably, didn’t receive any offers to play hockey at the collegiate level. Luckily for him, he did have a future in hockey. At 17, he was drafted into the United States Hockey League, a league geared toward 16- to 20-year-olds.

He couldn’t agree to terms with the team, prompting him to leave Las Vegas to play hockey with the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League — a Canadian-based league for 16- to 20-year-olds.

Francis spent four seasons in Portland before splitting his time among the American Hockey League, Central Hockey League and the Las Vegas Wranglers in 2010-11. He re-signed with the Wranglers after being cut for the 2011-12 season, helping them last spring reach the Kelly Cup Finals to become one of the team’s mainstays.

“It’s a fun place to play and be with friends and family,” said Francis, who attended Eldorado High School and helps out the Junior Wranglers program in his spare time.

Paul Delos Santos can be reached at 990-2416 or paul.santos@lasvegassun.com. Follow Paul on Twitter at twitter.com/pauliedelos.

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