When Francis Pare left Grand Rapids after helping the Griffins win their first Calder Cup, it marked the beginning of an incredible journey that would take him to places he could never have imagined. A decade later, the ever-popular Pare is ready to start a new adventure.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
While Francis Pare was spending five seasons with the Grand Rapids Griffins, he had one destination in mind.
Like any hockey-playing French Canadian, he dreamed of playing in the NHL. And though that day never came, he never could have imagined the extraordinary life that awaited him as a hockey globetrotter.
His talents would take him halfway around the world and back.
His hockey career had him packing his bags for places as distant as Belarus, Croatia, Finland, Russia, Slovakia, and Switzerland. In the decade after leaving Grand Rapids, Pare played for a total of 11 different hockey clubs – some good, a few not-so-good, but every one of them an adventure.
“I’ve been a world traveler, that’s for sure,” said Pare from a hotel in Paris on his way back to his home in Quebec City. “I’ve had to ask for a new passport every three or four years with all the visas – from places like China, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Russia. I certainly have put a lot of miles on my body.”
And it all started because of Grand Rapids.
In 2012-13, Pare was in his fifth season with the Griffins. The team had failed to qualify for the postseason three consecutive years and Pare was eager to return to the playoffs for the first time since his rookie campaign of 2008-09.
“When I think about that season, it still gives me goosebumps,” Pare said. “We had a little bit of everything. In Jeff Blashill, we had a really good coach who brought everyone together. We had strong leadership with so many good veterans, along with some great up-and-coming talent like [Gustav] Nyquist, [Tomas] Tatar, [Tomas] Jurco, [Riley] Sheahan, and others.
“Looking back now, their careers all went different ways, but at the time they were all solid players. And of course, we had some amazing goaltending from Petr Mrazek. Everybody accepted their role and everyone wanted to win for Grand Rapids. Nobody was worried about who was going to get called up or get sent down. It was like everyone was playing for a bigger purpose.”
Grand Rapids was where Pare’s pro career began after then-Griffins general manager Bob McNamara took a chance on the undersized center from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League – a little-known player who had remained undrafted because of his size.
“When I came to GR that first year, I didn’t speak a word of English,” Pare recalled. “Five years later, after winning the Calder Cup, I was giving a speech in English at the baseball stadium in front of a few thousand people. I arrived as a kid and I left as a man. The whole experience made me into the person I am today and I will be forever grateful.”
Pare would be the first to admit that he had lessons to learn as a young hockey player. He cites the positive influence of longtime Griffins equipment manager Brad Thompson as one example.
“When I first got to the city, I could be grumpy or in my own bubble sometimes and Brad came to me and said, ‘Frankie, you’ve got to change your attitude. It’s not right.’ Now he could have said, ‘I don’t like that kid’ and he could have let me die in the East Coast League. Instead, he took me under his wing, and I think that’s why the Griffins have had so much success over the years. They treat everyone like family.”
Unable to crack the Red Wings’ roster during his five years with the Griffins, despite racking up 102 goals and 237 points in 363 games for Grand Rapids – totals that still rank second, third and fifth, respectively, in franchise history – Pare decided to try his luck overseas. He started the 2013-14 season with TPS Turku in Finland, where he got to play with a 16-year-old kid named Mikko Rantanen.
“You could see he was a good player as a teenager, but I never thought he would become one of the top 10 players in the world,” Pare said. “But, wow, that kid worked hard. He was always staying on the ice, spending more time in the gym, and doing extra. He didn’t take his talent for granted. Playing pro hockey in his hometown in Finland wasn’t good enough for him. He wanted more and he finally became a Stanley Cup champion with Colorado – what a great story.”
Of course, Pare was already a champion, which is why the Metallurg hockey club in Magnitogorsk purchased his contract from Turku midway through the season. Mike Keenan, who won a Stanley Cup in 1994 with the New York Rangers, was looking to bolster his roster with proven winners, and Pare fit the bill.
It was a good move for all involved. In 21 playoff contests, Pare tallied seven goals, which was fourth-best on the team as Metallurg won the Gagarin Cup, the trophy presented to the winner of the KHL playoffs and named in honor of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space.
Winning back-to-back championships became the consummate calling card for Pare as his agent – a Belarusian named Dmitri Yernomin – was able to parlay the achievement into gainful employment for the next decade.
“He has been amazing to me because he took me to places that I could never have imagined, coming from a family that had almost zero money,” Pare said. “He allowed me to travel the world and open my mind and experience things like the Russian culture. I spent the best years of my life overseas because of him and I’m really grateful that my life put me through his path.”
Pare spent the better part of six seasons in Russia, including the city of Yekaterinburg – hometown of current Griffin Kirill Tyutyayev – which was one of his favorite places where he played. He spent the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons with the Automobilist hockey club there, recording 64 points (27-37—64) in 107 games – his best back-to-back years in the KHL.
“Yekaterinburg is a really nice city but it’s close to Siberia, so it’s very cold in the wintertime,” Pare said. “There’s always a stretch of two or three weeks in the middle of the winter when you can’t even walk outside because it’s minus 30, almost minus 40. But it was such a cool experience playing there and the people there were so warm.”
His next two seasons were in Belarus, where he played for Minsk Dynamo, a team that included several imports. Teemu Pulkkinen, who played for the Griffins from 2012-15, was a teammate during his first season in Minsk. In his second year there, he shared the ice with Adam Almquist, who was also a member of the 2013 Calder Cup team.
“It was almost like an AHL team where we would go for dinner together almost every other night,” Pare said. “Teemu hadn’t changed his game. He was still a sniper, still taking snapshots from the red line, and it was fun to play again with Almy because we always stayed in touch.”
Pare played long enough and in enough places that it seemed like he was always running into someone with a Grand Rapids connection. When he led Zagreb Medvescak in points during the 2016-17 season, the top goal scorer on the team was Alexandre Giroux, who had spent his rookie pro season in Grand Rapids 15 years earlier.
“Big G,” as Pare calls him, was a prolific scorer in the AHL, recording back-to-back 60-goal and 50-goal seasons with the Hershey Bears between 2008-10. “To score that many goals in the AHL, you have to have super talent and it was cool to learn from him about how he saw the game,” he said.
Croatia is another country that ranks high on Pare’s international itinerary. “We had a lot of guys from the AHL who just wanted to have a good time,” he said. “There was no pressure, no drama like you might experience with some teams in Russia. It was a year where I had to be focused and everything just clicked.
“It’s not a big hockey country, but in the summer, Croatia is a hard place to beat. Zagreb is an amazing city with amazing fans. It almost seemed like nobody worked. Everybody was on the patio, enjoying a little espresso in the middle of the day, watching football games. It felt almost surreal.”
Last season, Pare spent time in Lausanne, Switzerland, where he was able to play with Cory Emmerton, who played parts of six seasons (2006-11, 2013-14) with the Griffins. “There have been so many great players who have come through Grand Rapids, so it’s cool to catch up with guys as you’re traveling overseas.”
Over the years, Pare had to change his playing style almost as much as he changed hockey sweaters. If there is a secret to being able to adapt to new cities, new countries, and new teams, it’s to not get too comfortable wherever you may be.
“The main thing is to stay open-minded – and travel light with only a couple of suitcases,” he said. “You’re going to encounter different players, different coaches, and different styles. Every country has a different style of hockey. I would say it takes a month, sometimes two, to adjust completely to the way they play and to understand how they see the game.
“It’s unpredictable. Sometimes you’re playing for championship-caliber teams that are so good that if you don’t win by three goals, it almost feels like a loss. Other times you are playing for teams where you’re just trying to survive and trying to get paid.”
“It’s been a great ride. I’ve loved every second of it, even my first season in Minsk when we had one of the worst years in KHL history. When I look back at all my years, I don’t remember the bad times. I only remember the good teams, the good dinners with the guys, and all the good laughs.
“When you’re battling hard in the game and you come back to the room and enjoy a beer with the boys, for me, that’s what hockey is all about. It’s competing together, having a good time, and winning some hockey games. You can say the words in Russian, English, or French – it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, you’re just having fun.”
That’s why Pare’s 2022-23 season ended after four games. He was on the roster for EHC Visp, a second-tier team in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, so he asked for a trade to a team in a French-speaking city. When his request was denied, he figured it was time to pull up stakes – this time, maybe for good.
“I love the game of hockey,” he said. “But I’m 35 years old and it’s gotten harder to put my body on the line every night. Considering the caliber of hockey, plus playing some nights in front of 1,500 people max, made things hard mentally, and I’m at my best when I’m emotionally involved. It didn’t feel like it was worth it anymore, so we shook hands and decided to move on.”
A family road trip ensued. Pare had never been to Paris, so after a tour across Switzerland, the family packed up their belongings and flew to France.
‘We just enjoyed Disneyland yesterday and today we’re going to see the Eiffel Tower,” Pare said when reached by phone in late November. “We want to take some cool pictures of the kids so we can tell them that they’ve been there. We might not come overseas again for a long, long time.”
Pare, however, is not ready to rule out returning for the playoffs one last time.
“I still love hockey,” he said. “I love to share my passion and want to share my knowledge. On the other hand, it requires a lot of your body and your mental being and, most of all, your family. Right now, I’m not going to say no to the possibility of a two- or three-month contract at the end of the season. But the situation would have to be right. If I thought the team could win, I might consider it. But to go somewhere to just make money would put me on the fence about whether to go.
“I need to do what’s best for my family.”
At present, that means staying home with his wife and kids. Pare and his wife, Daisy, have three kids. Their oldest, Rose, was born six years ago in Croatia and is trilingual – French with her mom, mostly English with her dad, and Russian with her schoolmates. Filip is two years old and he’s into big trucks and cars. Victor, the youngest, was born on Pare’s birthday (June 30) last summer.
“I love hockey but it’s time that my family takes priority,” he said. “I didn’t put three kids on this planet to be away from them. I want to be with them and my wife, so we’re going back to Canada. We’re not sure where we’ll end up living, but we trust that the universe will point the way.”
In the meantime, they’re planning to stay in Quebec City. “We’re excited to get back home and get the kids with their grandparents for Christmas for the first time. It will be the first time in 15 years that my wife and I will be back home. Of course, it’s going to be a big change. Even now, I can see how much I will miss the game of hockey.”
Pare has a plan to combat those feelings.
“When we get back home, I’ll hopefully make a little ice rink behind our house. We bought Filip his first pair of skates a couple of months ago. I know he’s a little young, but I would like to get him on the ice so he can see me skate. I want him to enjoy the smell of fresh air and hear the ice crack.
“To me, that’s what hockey is all about. That’s how I grew up with my dad and my grandfather – learning to skate and enjoying being on the ice with family where there’s no pressure, no winning or losing. It’s only fun.
“Hopefully the kids will find that same passion that I had and if they don’t want to be hockey players, so be it. I’ll watch some videos on YouTube so I can teach them something else. But if they like hockey, I may know a couple of things that could help them. But there will be no pressure.”
Pare is thankful that he was able to play at a high level for as long as he did. If he has any regret, it’s that he never got to play a game in the NHL.
“I had an amazing career without playing one NHL game, but I have a little bitter taste that I never got the chance to play there,” he said. “Of course, one game would not have made me a better or worse hockey player, but it would have been cool to have been able to tell my kids that I got to play in the NHL.”
Instead, Pare will take pleasure in sharing the memories of all the great places where he was able to play. Grand Rapids will be at the top of the list.
“I wasn’t from GR, but after five years, I felt like GR was part of me. It became my home. When I think about Grand Rapids, I think of the friends I made there who had no connection to hockey. If I walked through the city right now, I would have so many good memories. We plan to go back to GR someday with our kids. I won’t tell them all the crazy stories, but I will tell them about all the good experiences I had.
“It’s one place I’ll never forget.”