The modest beginnings of a massive task can be found across the street from a bustling arena construction site, inside a historic single-story brick building that once functioned as an auto garage during the Great Depression. Most of the square footage is reserved for sales staffers of the NHL’s 32nd franchise, though a small section has been staked out for the nascent hockey ops department. General manager Ron Francis has an office. Same for Alexandra Mandrycky, director of hockey administration. Technically they also share a conference space. Then again, as Francis says, “There’s only two people, so I’m not even sure we need all three rooms.”

Soon that will change. Since Francis was hired nealry a month ago, charged with steering Seattle toward its inaugural season in 2021-22, not a single day has passed without his mailslot filling or his inbox pinging with another batch of résumés. Assistant GMs, pro and amateur scouts, analytics gurus … everyone wants a piece of the grand expansion project happening beneath the Space Needle. “There’s nothing here in place,” Francis says. “It’s just Alex and myself. We’re basically at the ground level, building it up. But it’s exciting to see what we can do with it.”

It was this blank canvas that drew Francis back. Reassigned and then subsequently—not to mention unceremoniously—fired from his longtime post atop the Hurricanes’ front office in spring 2018, the Hall-of-Fame center had initially explored a life removed from hockey. Sat through a 75-hour real estate class. Passed a two-part exam. Earned his North Carolina broker’s license. Took a job in commercial real estate at NAICarolantic Realty last January and happily reported to a desk from 8 to 5:30 every day, working the phones while relishing the bullpen camaraderie.

Then, perhaps predictably, hockey came calling him again. Asked to help run Hockey Canada at the 2019 IIHF World Championships as part of a three-person management team, Francis leapt at the chance. Between a week of training camp in Vienna and the two-week tournament hosted by Slovakia, where the Canadians wound up losing in the gold medal game to Finland, Francis found himself surrounded by NHL executives, coaches, players, equipment managers, medical trainers … not to mention the roller-coaster thrill ride of competition. “You start looking, going, ‘Okay, this is where I belong. This is what I’ve done my whole life,’” Francis says. “I started thinking, ‘Why am I sitting on the outside? I should take a look at trying to get back in.’”

It used to be that Francis would joke with friends about wanting to become Seattle’s second GM; after all, he reasoned, the poor soul hired first couldn’t possibly replicate the instant success enjoyed by the NHL’s last expansion team in Las Vegas. But the challenge was irresistible. His first interview was conducted with team president Tod Leiweke and COO Victor DeBonis over dinner at the Seattle Four Seasons. (“Right smack in the middle of halibut season,” Francis reports. “It was really good.”) A battery of other meetings with everyone from team owners to cubicle staffers followed the next day, as well as a tour of the ongoing construction at Seattle Center, site of the franchise’s future home rink.