Hockey defenseman Will Francis sometimes feels like he forgets something at night.
For two years, Francis followed a strict daily pill regimen that required him to take anywhere from three to 25 capsules, depending on the day of the week. After two intensive phases of chemotherapy, this maintenance plan was put in place to maintain remission. For a total of 848 days, Francis underwent treatment for B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. His treatment ended in July and he still has to remember that he does not miss his evening medication.
The Anaheim Ducks selected Francis in the sixth round of the 2019 NHL Draft with the 163rd pick. Previously, Francis played for the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders for two seasons before joining the University of Minnesota-Duluth hockey team. As an NCAA athlete and NHL prospect, Francis can only attend Ducks development camps while playing at Minnesota-Duluth.
Last July, Francis attended camp in California and worked on defensive positioning and gaps. Ducks coach Dallas Eakins asked him to stand up during camp’s rookie dinner and praised his battle with cancer.
“When we think we’re having a tough day,” Eakins said, “Will Francis knows what a tough day is.”
Only four days earlier, Francis had completed his last chemotherapy treatment.
“I had no idea something like this was going to happen,” Francis says. “It shows how good he is of a person and also the organization as a whole. I don’t think you can get very far in anything you try to do in life without first being a right person. And so, you know, that kind of thing was just awesome.
Francis took his first steps on the ice at 2 years old. His father used boards and nets to create a skating rink in their backyard at their home in Lino Lakes, Minnesota. A year later, his parents signed him up for a skating lesson, hoping it would burn off the exuberant toddler’s energy.
“He had this mindset as a little kid that he was going to do it,” says his mother, Heather Francis. “He wasn’t going to give up and say, ‘Come get me and get me out of the ice.’ He was going to figure out how. »
Once Francis entered kindergarten, his parents enrolled him in youth leagues. A family member asked him if he was excited to start playing real games, and Francis replied, “I don’t know why he signed me up. I don’t want to play.
Francis was diagnosed with cancer in March 2020, when he was 19 years old. A jubilant spring break trip to the family cabin quickly turned bleak when he checked into the local hospital after continuing sore throat and fatigue. Tests showed that Francis’ white blood cell count was 178,000; a normal range is 10,000. Doctors informed him that the culprit was leukemia.
The star athlete began chemotherapy during the height of COVID-19. The Francis family gazed out the hospital window at the empty Minneapolis city streets that would typically be bumper to bumper with traffic. The first four months were the hardest; Francis was receiving high doses of nine different chemotherapies. He spent 56 nights in hospital and remission resulted in several months of aggressive treatment.
Extreme fatigue, muscle aches and nausea are common side effects of chemotherapy. During the most grueling periods of treatment, Francis rode a stationary bike in the hospital, as the NHL prospect continually asked doctors how he could stay active. Just months after being diagnosed, Francis got a summer job driving a Zamboni just so he could touch the ice. He would wave to the crowd while operating the machine at his sister’s hockey games.
On days when Francis felt healthy, he would put on his skates and shoot the puck. His stick skills remained intact, but he sometimes had trouble catching his breath. Sometimes he played weeknights with his father’s adult hockey league or his old high school team.
“I think just being the athlete he was getting into really helped the way he took the treatment,” his father, Jeff Francis, said. “We might notice, you know, that month by month would pass and [he’s] come back. His body is recovering from the disease.
When classes resumed in September 2020, doctors recommended Francis take the semester due to the severity of his treatment phase. But Francis took 12 hours of classes that semester so he could be on the right academic path when hockey resumed. The maintenance phase of his treatment began in early 2021 and has brought some semblance of normalcy back to his life. That summer, Francis attended a Bulldog team camp, the first time he really stepped back on the ice with a team. The college hockey player received a jersey with his number.
“He came home and he had his jersey with the number 23 on it,” Heather said. “He was beaming from ear to ear because he knew he would get that number and be part of the team.”
In August 2021, Francis returned to Duluth for school. Strength and conditioning was a priority for the defender.
“Like any other athlete, I always wanted to be bigger, faster, stronger,” says Francis. “I just had kind of a roadblock of going for treatment. I would take three steps forward and then it would be one step back with the treatment.
He continued treatment and would travel two hours to the Twin Cities for appointments. Sometimes the training was missed, but treatments were often scheduled around training and classes. Endurance management was a learning curve for Francis and his coaches. On treatment days, Francis still showed up for training even though his energy was drained from the chemotherapy. As the season went on, the defenseman learned how his body would react on the ice after treatment and how to perform at his best during this time. The second played five games with the Bulldogs in the 2021-22 season. Francis remembers he couldn’t stop moving his feet during his first shift on the ice, adrenaline buzzing through his body.
Doctors deemed Francis fully recovered when he rang the doorbell at Fairview Masonic Children’s Hospital. His blood counts are now back to normal and his improved health has translated to the ice. He plays at such a high level that his new strength and conditioning coach had no idea he was fighting for his life just two years ago. Coach Scott Sandelin believes the non-stop training this year has instilled noticeable confidence in Francis. This season, the hockey star isn’t worried about hospital visits, but focused on his position as the dominant college player for the Bulldogs and, maybe one day, the Ducks.
“I can’t even put it into words because it was amazing. I hadn’t seen him play at that point in over two years,” says Heather. “I will always think back to when he was in the hospital and then to see him do what he loves so much, to go there, it’s just amazing.”