RALEIGH, N.C. - Ron Francis wasn't going to play forever. It just seemed that way.
The four-time all-star announced his retirement Wednesday, ending a 23-year career in which he won two Stanley Cups and ranked as one of the NHL's career leaders in games played, goals, assists and points.
"I think you always hope you can play forever, but you always realize that time will come," Francis said. "I was fortunate I was able to make a decision, move on and do it comfortably."
Francis, 42, played for Hartford, Pittsburgh, Carolina and Toronto, and leaves the game with a resume few can rival. He is second to Wayne Gretzky with 1,249 assists, and ranks among the league's all-time leaders with 1,731 games (third), 549 goals (19th) and 1,798 points (fourth).
He won a pair of Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh in 1991 and 1992, and helped Carolina make a surprise run to the finals in 2002.
In addition, Francis was a three-time winner of the Lady Byng Trophy, awarded to the player exhibiting sportsmanship and gentlemanly play combined with playing ability.
True to his low-key manner, he announced his retirement through a news release posted on the NHL Players' Association Web site Wednesday morning.
"His announcement was in a way like his career - very professional," said Jim Rutherford, Carolina's president and general manager. "He went about his business quietly and he's one of the all-time great players to play the game."
Francis said the labor dispute between the league and players' association that wiped out the 2004-05 season was "pretty much the writing on the wall" that his playing days were done. He joins other notable players such as Mark Messier, Scott Stevens and Al MacInnis who retired from the game this month.
"Looking back overall, it was a long ride," Francis said. "I certainly wasn't expecting it to be that long, but I certainly enjoyed many aspects of it and look back with fond memories and absolutely no regrets. It was a great part of my life."
Francis said he was most proud of his career consistency - he had 20 seasons with at least 20 goals - and being a part of successful teams.
Of course, being alongside the game's greats like Gretzky and Gordie Howe on the all-time lists is pretty special, too.
"I think anybody would certainly be honored to have their name mentioned with Wayne Gretzky," he said.
"I don't really look at myself in that category, but hearing your name mentioned alongside them is something I'm proud I've accomplished, and I take that as a huge compliment."
Francis turned down a front-office job with Carolina last summer, and remained noncommittal about his future Wednesday.
Rutherford said the Hurricanes plan to retire Francis' No. 10 jersey, and said they might revisit bringing Francis into the front office.
"We have the utmost respect for what he's done in the game and our organization," he said.
BRUINS: Free-agent goaltender Tim Thomas agreed to a one-year contract, which gives the team insurance while Andrew Raycroft holds out.
OILERS: Forward Ryan Smyth re-signed, agreeing to a $7-million, two-year deal.
Smyth was already in camp under a one-year deal while his agent and Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe worked on a longer contract.