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 endured treatment for B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia. His treatment ended in July and he still has to remind himself that he doesn’t miss his nightly medication.
The Anaheim Ducks selected Francis in the sixth round of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft with the 163rd pick. Previously, Francis played two seasons for the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders before joining the University of Minnesota-Duluth hockey team. As an NCAA athlete and NHL prospect, Francis can only attend Ducks development camps when he plays in Minnesota-Duluth.
Last July, Francis attended camp in California and worked on defensive positioning and gaps. Ducks coach Dallas Eakins asked him to stand during the camp’s rookie dinner and praised his fight against cancer.
“When we think about having a tough day,” Eakins said, “Will Francis knows what a tough day is.”
Just four days earlier, Francis had completed his last round of chemotherapy.
“I had no idea something like this was coming,” Francis says. “It shows what a good person he is and just 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 good person. And so, you know, that kind of thing was just awesome.”
Francis stepped on the ice for the first time at the age of 2. His father used planks and netting to create an ice rink in their Lino Lakes, Minn., home. A year later, his parents signed him up for a skating lesson, hoping it would burn off the rambunctious toddler’s energy.
“He had this mentality 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 off the ice.’ He was going to figure out how to do it.”
As soon as Francis entered kindergarten, his parents enrolled him in youth leagues. A family member asked him if he was excited to start playing in real games, and Francis replied, “I don’t know why he signed me. I don’t want to play.”
Francis was diagnosed with cancer in March 2020 when he was 19 years old. A happy spring trip to the family’s cabin quickly turned dark when he visited the local hospital after persistent sore throats 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 started chemotherapy during the COVID-19 coronavirus. The Francis family would look out the hospital window at the empty streets of downtown Minneapolis that would normally be between the bumpers and the traffic. The first four months were the hardest. Francis was receiving high doses of nine different chemotherapy treatments. He spent 56 nights in the hospital, and remission brought more months of aggressive treatment.
Excessive fatigue, muscle pain, and nausea are common side effects of chemotherapy. During the most grueling periods of treatment, Francis rode a stationary bike to the hospital as the NHL prospect kept asking doctors how he could stay active. Only months after his diagnosis, Francis took 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 wand skills remained intact, but he occasionally struggled to catch his breath. He sometimes played on weeknights with his father’s adult hockey league or his former high school team.
“I think just being the athlete that was dealing with it really helped with how he handled the treatment,” says his father, Jeff Francis. “We could observe, you know, as it went from month to month and [he’s] return, returning. His body is recovering from the disease.”
When classes resumed in September 2020, doctors advised Francis to take the semester off due to the severity of his treatment phase. But Francis took 12 hours of class that semester so he can be on track academically when he resumes hockey. The maintenance phase of his treatment began in early 2021 and has restored a semblance of normalcy to his life. That summer, Francis attended a Bulldog team camp, the first time he actually got back on the ice with a team. The college hockey player was given a jersey with his number on it.
“He came home and he had his No. 23 jersey on,” says Heather. “He was just beaming from ear to ear because he knew he was going to have that number and be part of the team.”
In August 2021, Francis returned to Duluth for school. Strength and conditioning were a priority for the defender.
“Like any other athlete, I always wanted to be bigger, faster, stronger,” says Francis. “I just had such a barrier to going to treatment. I would take three steps forward and then it would be one step back with treatment.”
He continued treatment and made the two-hour drive to the Twin Cities for an appointment. He occasionally missed practice, but treatments were often scheduled around practice and class. Managing endurance has been a learning curve for both Francis and his coaches. On treatment days, Francis would still show up for practice even though his energy had been sapped by chemotherapy. As the season progressed, the defenseman learned how his body would react on the ice after treatment and how to perform at his best during that time. The sophomore appeared in five games for the Bulldogs in the 2021–22 season. Francis remembers how he couldn’t stop moving his legs during his first shift back on the ice, adrenaline coursing through his body.
Doctors thought Francis had fully recovered when he rang the bell at Fairview Masonic Children’s Hospital. His blood counts have returned to normal and his improved health has translated to ice. He’s performing 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 training without a break this year has instilled a noticeable confidence in Francis. This season, the hockey star isn’t worried about hospital visits, but is focused on establishing himself as a dominant collegiate player for the Bulldogs and, maybe one day, the Ducks.
“I can’t even put it into words because it was incredible. I hadn’t seen him play at that point for over two years,” says Heather. “I’ll always remember the times he was in the hospital and then seeing him doing what he loves so much, it’s just incredible to go there.”