As they headed out onto the ice of Braemar Area in Edina for their first game in Da Beauty League on a sultry July night, the trio of K’Andre Miller, Riley Tufte and Will Francis might have confused a few people regarding what sport they were about to watch.
Miller, who logged 53 games in the NHL last season, is actually the smallest of the bunch, standing 6-foot-4. Next to him, the 6-6 Tufte, who has spent two seasons in the Dallas Stars’ farm system, and Francis (6-5) fit right in. With all three of them on skates, towering over seemingly everyone else on both teams, for just a second it looked like a basketball game was just a few minutes from tip-off.
While Miller and Tufte are both playing for sizable paychecks, Francis has yet to suit up for a college game — something he expects to come in a matter of weeks when the University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs hit the ice for the 2021-22 season. In a more perfect world, Francis would be a junior for the Bulldogs this season. But the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune have meant a few unexpected delays to his debut in maroon and gold.
North Shore Nightmare
Francis expected to spend the 2019-20 season playing juniors with the USHL’s Cedar Rapids Roughriders. But after just 10 games there, he suffered a serious knee injury in practice and needed surgery. Determined to get a jump-start on college, Francis started taking classes at UMD and rehabbing his knee.
By March 2020, just as the pandemic was starting to wreak havoc on every aspect of life around the world, Francis had started skating again. But there was something else going wrong inside his body, and he could not quite figure out what.
“I just started to feel tired and a little weak. I went from lifting pretty heavy to being unable to lift what I was doing in January. That’s when I first noticed something,” Francis said. “I started skating in early March. But I would do a lap around the rink and need to sit for five minutes.”
Figuring that maybe he was just out of shape, Francis went on a spring break snowmobiling trip with his family to the Arrowhead of Minnesota between Lutsen and the Canadian Border. Not only was the fatigue constant, but he couldn’t eat and was getting bloody noses.
During the week college hockey and all other sports shut down due to COVID, family members took Francis to the hospital in Grand Marais to get tested for mononucleosis. With the pandemic raging, the first reaction from the medical staff there was less than welcoming.
“They thought I had COVID and were saying ‘don’t bring this up here.’ I was saying we should maybe figure out what’s going on first,” Francis recalled. A series of blood tests revealed no mono and no COVID. But Will’s white blood cell count was nearly 20 times higher than normal, indicative of Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia — a cancer of the blood.
On Friday the 13th of March, 2020, Francis was transported by ambulance from Grand Marais to the Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis, where he would spend the next week in the intensive care unit, starting a chemotherapy regimen almost immediately.
In one more oddity brought on by the pandemic, Francis was forced to be inside and isolated at a time when seemingly everyone else he knew was forced to be inside and isolated while the first wave of COVID infections struck.
“I was in the hospital 20 out of the first 28 days. The nurses would ask what my buddies were doing and I’d say, ‘Nothing. They’re all stuck at home right now,’” Francis said. “So that was a nice part, I wasn’t really missing anything and I was talking to all my buddies. I had a super-strong support system.”
Included in that system of support were the UMD coaches, who first saw Francis while he was playing for Centennial High School in the Twin Cities and loved the combination of size and skill. While Francis was in the hospital getting spinal taps and IV medication and 28 days of steroids (“Not the kind Barry Bonds uses,” he pointed out), he received assurance that he had a place to study and play hockey on the other side of the illness.
“You just try to support him. The biggest thing we wanted him to know is you still have a place,” Bulldogs head coach Scott Sandelin said. “It’s all determined by how things go. He’s going through a lot and the last thing we wanted him to worry about is whether he had a place with us. We tried to encourage him and communicate with him as best we could through the process. We gave him his space at times, too.”
By June 2020, with a few rinks starting to re-open, Francis began the long, slow process (with his doctors’ blessing) for getting out on the ice a little, and getting his body back into shape, all while still taking chemotherapy. There was still some pain, which Francis said he can tolerate pretty well. And there was good news too, like on July 9, 2020 — a date he will never forget — when doctors told Francis he was cancer free.
Flash forward almost exactly a year to that opening night of Da Beauty League, where Francis skated a regular shift for Team Jimmy John’s, scoring twice on Minnesota Gophers backup goalie Justen Close.
“Amazing,” Francis said the next morning, sipping a cup of coffee after an early morning workout. “I feel like myself again.”
His coaches know there is endless potential. And they also know patience will be key, as Francis comes back both from cancer and a serious knee injury.
“He was on a great progression, but now that he hasn’t played for a while, I see him as a little bit of a project, to some degree, but I’m excited to see where he’s at and how quickly he can get back to the level that he needs to be,” Sandelin said.
Attitude of Gratitude
For Francis, he stresses the need to build on-ice trust from his coaches and teammates that he will do the right thing defensively in all situations. Once that is established, he feels the offense will come. And with that hulking frame on his side, Francis admits that he enjoys the physical part of the game.
Drafted by the Anaheim Ducks in the sixth round (163rd overall) of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, Francis has been to one NHL development camp. He lives in a house with five Bulldogs teammates near the UMD campus, and admits that being a spectator while they went to the Frozen Four last season was a challenge mentally. But Francis harbors a good feeling that the Bulldogs will be playing in April again sometime in the next few years.
As for his health, he doesn’t think much about the leukemia, which has a relatively high cure rate for a young person in good shape. Still, when the alarm clock buzzes for those early morning workouts ahead of his first season of college hockey, Francis admits there is a new attitude at play as he rises and heads to the rink.
“I wake up every day thinking, ‘I’m not going to waste it,’” he said. “I’m up every weekday at 5 a.m., going to work out at 6. Sometimes I can be a little groggy, but it’s better than waking up in a hospital.”