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Penguins Phone call nets deal for Leroux; Signs two-year contract with Penguins

Wednesday, July 17, 2002

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Francois Leroux was nearly burned out.

The Berlin Capitals, the team he played for last season in the German Ice Hockey League, went bankrupt in March. That left him without a contract, without a clue where to go. He manned the phone around the clock, calling general managers across Germany, asking if they might be interested in a 6-foot-6, 247-pound defenseman with NHL experience.

Francois Leroux
A long journey back to the Penguins after 1997 trade

No reply.

Demoralized, he returned to his home in Bridgeville a month ago and began considering other options.

"I wasn't sure what to do. I thought I was toast. All I knew was that I wanted to keep playing."

Monday morning, he had a wild idea. He decided to call the one general manager who knew best what he brings to a team: Craig Patrick of the Penguins, his boss when he spent 1994-97 in Pittsburgh.

"I got Craig's secretary and left a message for him to call me back. I didn't think too much of it, really."

A half-hour later, there was a ring.

"It was Craig, and he said, 'Let's get something done.' Just like that. And we did it. It feels so great I don't have words for it. It's the greatest surprise ever."

The Penguins yesterday brought back Leroux, 32, with a two-year contract for an undisclosed amount of money. He will receive a fraction of his NHL salary for time he spends with the team's American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, which he is highly likely to do.

"I don't care," he said. "I'll be happy to be in Pittsburgh or Wilkes-Barre or whatever. After what I've been through, I'm just so happy to have the chance."

Leroux was a fan favorite in his previous stint with the Penguins, not only because of his willingness to use his huge frame in physical fashion -- best evidenced by his 356 penalty minutes in 165 games -- but also because he clearly had to give an extra effort to keep up with the pace of the NHL game. For every stride other players took, it seemed he needed to take two.

His moment in the sun with the Penguins came May 14, 1995, when he assisted on left winger Luc Robitaille's overtime goal in a Stanley Cup playoff victory against the Washington Capitals.

The play started when Leroux gambled and took off with the puck down the right wing on a two-on-one break, much to the dismay of his teammates and most of the crowd.

"I remember all of the players and fans were yelling, 'No, Frankie, no!' Next thing you know, I put this perfect, backhand, saucer pass in the slot for Lucky, and it's in the back of the net. Then, all of a sudden, everybody's yelling, 'Yeah, Frankie, yeah!' "

It all went quickly downhill, though, after the Penguins traded him to Colorado Sept. 28, 1997, for a draft pick. He appeared in 50 games for the Avalanche in 1997-98, but a shoulder injury that season kept him from playing at full strength for more than a year and nearly derailed his career.

After recovering, he spent two years in the AHL before giving Germany a try last season.

"I felt it would help my game, my skating to be on the bigger international ice," he said. "I'm not going to lie to you. For the first month, it was really tough chasing those little guys all over that huge rink. But I adjusted and got a lot better."

In 56 games for Berlin, he had a goal, 10 assists and 110 penalty minutes. The latter figure, he explained, would have been much higher except that fighting majors in Germany draw an automatic ejection and a fine of roughly $1,000.

"Without all the fighting, though, I was able to concentrate on my game and improve."

And, ultimately, make it back to the organization that gave him his first big break. He was a first-round pick of the Edmonton Oilers in 1988, but he never stuck in the NHL until he arrived in Pittsburgh.

That's one reason he chose to make the city his home. Another is that his wife, Lori, hails from Monongahela. Another is that he still can walk into Redbeard's, a bar on Mount Washington, and find a framed Penguins sweater bearing his name and No. 18 prominently displayed on a wall.

"I've always felt like people here appreciated the hard work I give them on the ice, and that meant so much to me. I'm just so ecstatic that I have another chance to give them more."

NOTES -- Three of the Penguins' restricted free agents -- center Randy Robitaille, right winger Aleksey Morozov and left winger Dan LaCouture -- filed for the right to salary arbitration before the Monday midnight deadline. Not all declarations result in hearings, as contract negotiations can continue until hearings begin in early August. Those who had the option to file but declined were right winger Shean Donovan, left winger Ville Nieminen and defenseman Jamie Pushor. ... The Penguins' intent in signing left winger Vladimir Vujtek out of the Finnish Elite League Monday was to have him play in the NHL. He has a one-way contract which will pay $600,000 next season with a club option for $800,000 in 2003-04. Vujtek, 30, has not played in the NHL since appearing in three games in 1999-2000. ... The deal signed Friday by left winger Steve McKenna is for $400,000 each of the next two seasons. ... The Penguins yesterday released their promotional schedule for next season, including four bobblehead doll giveaways. Two will be for current stars, center Martin Straka Dec. 23 and right winger Alexei Kovalev March 6. The other two will be for former stars, defenseman Ulf Samuelsson Nov. 23 and right winger Joe Mullen Feb. 12. "We wanted to honor the present and the past," said Tom McMillan, vice president of marketing. "Ulfie and Joey were very, very popular here." The only bobblehead given out last season was one of center Mario Lemieux. The other major giveaways will be practice sweaters featuring Lemieux's No. 66 Nov. 2 and goaltender Johan Hedberg's No. 1 Jan. 25.

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