Rick Martin, Part of Famed N.H.L. Line, Dies at 59 After Car Accident

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BUFFALO — Rick Martin, a member of the Buffalo Sabres’ celebrated French Connection, one of the most prolific scoring lines in the National Hockey League in the 1970s, died after he was involved in a car accident on Sunday near his home in Akron, N.Y. He was 59.
The state police said Martin might have had a heart attack shortly before he veered off the road and crashed into a utility pole. He was pronounced dead at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital in Williamsville, N.Y.

Martin played left wing for the Sabres, mostly with the Hall of Fame center Gilbert Perreault and right wing Rene Robert. United in 1972, all three were from Quebec, and they were soon being called the French Connection, after the 1971 film about a drug-smuggling ring starring Gene Hackman.

Martin, who was left-handed, possessed a powerful and accurate slap shot and wrist shot. He is the Sabres’ career leader in hat tricks, scoring three or more goals in a game 21 times.

“He hit the blue line, he was going to find a way to put it in the net,” said Mike Robitaille, a Sabres broadcaster and former teammate who as a defenseman for the Vancouver Canucks played against Martin.

“Scoring was everything to him,” Robitaille said.

Buffalo selected Martin fifth over all in the 1971 amateur draft. He made an instant impact with an N.H.L. rookie-record 44 goals in the 1971-72 season. Playing with Perreault and Robert, Martin became one of the most potent scorers in hockey. He scored 52 goals in consecutive seasons beginning in 1973-74. In 1975, the French Connection led the Sabres to the Stanley Cup finals, where they lost in six games to the Philadelphia Flyers.

Martin would not reach the finals again. In 1981, the Sabres traded him to the Los Angeles Kings. He played only four games over parts of two seasons with Los Angeles before retiring because of a knee injury.

In 685 games, Martin scored 384 goals and 701 points. He played in seven All-Star games. In 1995, the Sabres retired his No. 7; it joined those of his linemates Robert (14) and Perreault (11).

Martin reunited with the French Connection on the ice before a game at HSBC Arena here on Feb. 23 for a ceremony introducing the new Sabres owner, Terry Pegula, to Buffalo fans.

Richard Lionel Martin was born July 26, 1951, in Verdun, Quebec. He is survived by his wife, Mikey, and his sons, Corey, Josh and Erick.




A Farewell to a Member of Sabres’ French Connection

Ron Moscati/Buffalo Sabres

From left, Rick Martin, Rene Robert and Gilbert Perreault starred for the Sabres in the 1970s.
The public memorial service for the former Buffalo Sabre Rick Martin will be held at HSBC Arena in Buffalo on Thursday. For the hundreds, perhaps thousands, expected to attend, it will be an emotional and significant event. For some, saying goodbye to Martin, who died March 12 of a heart attack at age 59, will be a little like saying farewell to their favorite Beatle.

Martin was the left wing alongside Gilbert Perreault and Rene Robert on the Sabres’ line of the 1970s known as the French Connection, perhaps the league’s most electrifying combination of that era and one of the last great lines in the history of the game.

But beyond all the on-ice accolades of his 10 seasons — the 384 career goals, the 21 hat tricks, the selection to four straight postseason All-Star teams — Martin stood for something more to his fans.

“I’ve loved that man since I was 9 years old,” the 49-year-old Paula Pierce, wearing a No. 7 Martin sweater and fighting tears, told The Buffalo News the day Martin died. “I remember I fell in love with him when he first stepped on the ice. It was like, he was mine.”

Martin, Perreault and Robert, with their mustaches and layered hair, their flair and creativity, were the manly ideal for that era in Western New York and Southern Ontario, in much the same way young New Englanders looked up to Bobby Orr and Derek Sanderson.

Boys especially idolized the French Connection, who were themselves in their early 20s, the age of admired older brothers. As Perreault, then Martin, then Robert joined the fledgling Sabres in 1970, ’71 and ’72, junior-high and high-school boys of the Niagara region affected the Québécois accents and crooked smiles of their heroes, growing wispy Fu Manchus that never seemed to fill in properly.

Martin, nicknamed Rico, was a little different, in that he spoke English without an accent. He liked a good joke. “There’s a time for fun and a time to be serious,” he said. “If you can’t have fun, that life isn’t very much, is it?”

He did not have Perreault’s powerful skating stride and almost preposterous stick-handling élan, which enraptured the young Wayne Gretzky, watching in Brantford, Ontario, on a Buffalo television station. Nor did Martin have Robert’s smooth sense of defensive responsibility.

What Martin did have was a shot so powerful, so intimidating, that for a time some considered him the second-best left wing in hockey history, after Martin’s idol, Bobby Hull.

In his N.H.L. debut, the opening game of the 1971-72 season, Martin took a slap shot that tore the glove off the hand of Pittsburgh goalie Jim Rutherford. The puck was cleared out of play, but the awed murmur that rippled through Memorial Auditorium made it clear: those fans knew they were witnessing the birth of a remarkable career.

Martin scored 44 goals his rookie season, breaking the N.H.L. record of 38 set the year before by Perreault. The two knew each other well. They both played, albeit on different lines, for the Montreal Junior Canadiens, who won back-to-back Memorial Cups in 1969 and ’70.

Perreault and Martin teamed up on the Sabres, and Robert soon arrived in a trade from Pittsburgh to complete the French Connection. They unit remained intact until October 1979, when Robert was traded.

During that time Martin recorded consecutive 52-goal seasons and tore the glove from the hand of another goalie, Aleksandr Sidelnikov, with a shot during the Sabres’ 12-6 rout of the touring Wings of the Soviet on Jan. 4, 1976. On that play, Fred Stanfield touched the puck into the net while Sidelnikov’s glove lay useless in the crease.

A 1980 knee injury effectively ended Martin’s career and he sued the Sabres, charging that the club forced him back to play too early. But he had already settled in the Buffalo area and raised a family there, and, as a scratch golfer, became a fixture at local charity tournaments.

He reconciled long ago with the Sabres, and was at HSBC Arena last month when Robert, who had been feuding with the previous owners, returned to the fold. Perreault, Martin and Robert reunited to welcome the new owner, Terry Pegula, another longtime Sabres fan who idolized the linemates.

The French Connection skated together to center ice to a thunderous ovation from the adoring Buffalo crowd. They were plumper and grayer in late middle age, but still charismatic and dashing.

It would be Martin’s last public appearance.

“I’m going to miss him dearly,” Perreault said when told of Martin’s death.

Robert had just lost an older brother that morning to a heart attack.
“It’s like a bad dream – first my brother, then my left winger,” Robert said. “I lost Rico.”

Just a few hours after Martin died, Buffalo beat Ottawa, 6-4, at home.

At the end of the game the Sabres gathered at center ice and pointed their sticks upward, where alongside the No. 11 for Perreault and the No. 14 for Robert, there hung a banner for No. 7, Richard Martin.



day, March 25, 2011
Copyright 2011 by the Buffalo News

Former teammates, son honor Rick Martin in memorial service
By John Vogl
News Sports Reporter

Buffalo News photo by P. J. McCoy

Approximately 2,500 people attended the memorial service for Rick Martin in HSBC Arena.

Rene Robert, more than anything else about Rick Martin, could always picture his friend holding a beer in one hand and a cigar in the other. When it came time to say goodbye Thursday, there could be only one fitting tribute.

"This is for you, my friend," Robert said as he raised a Budweiser and an unlit stogie.

Martin's friends, family members and fellow Buffalonians in HSBC Arena applauded the gesture, one of many toasts to the late Sabres legend during a first-class memorial. A crowd of 2,500 -- dressed in everything from suits and dresses to jerseys and ball caps -- gathered at the foot of Washington Street to bid adieu to the French Connection star who died March 13.

"Our family would like to thank each and every one of you here for coming out," said Robert Martin, the younger brother and frequent golf partner. "We really appreciate what you're doing for my brother, what you've done for my brother in the 40 years he's been here.

"The outpouring and the indelible mark he left on the community here continues to amaze us."

The 70-minute event featured nine speakers, including program host Ed Kilgore, a bagpipe tribute and two videos that encapsulated the life of the 59-year-old. Martin became a star in Buffalo on the ice during the 1970s and continued to be one off it through his jokes and charitable contributions until succumbing to sudden cardiac arrest brought on by cardiovascular disease.

"When I stood up on that podium and saw all the fans that were there, to have the opportunity to come and give their condolences or just to be around a celebration of life for Rico, I thought it was great," said fellow Sabres Hall of Famer Danny Gare. "He would've loved every minute of that. He felt he was part of this community, and the community felt they were part of him."

Every speaker who walked onto the flower- and picture-filled stage covering the ice spoke of Martin's infectious smile. They told stories of his mischievous pranks and borrowed from his unending joke list.

"We're going to laugh, and that's OK," said Kilgore, the Ch. 2 sportscaster who worked on Sabres broadcasts during Martin's career, which began in 1971 and ended because of a knee injury in 1981. "He wanted to make us laugh. That's what Rico was all about."

The memorial featured recollections of Martin riding airport baggage carousels. Friends and teammates spoke of the good times had by all in various taverns. They talked of the way Martin welcomed fans close on the golf course, at the hospital -- basically anywhere in town.

"Rico also had such an easy way with fans, always taking time to sign an autograph or answer a question," said Ian McPherson, Martin's friend. "He greeted everyone the same, and his unique humility shone through each time. Never once did he not have time, believing that the fans were the reason he was where he was."

Martin first created his legion of fans by performing on the ice. The Sabres' first-round draft pick in 1971 scored 44 goals his rookie year. He averaged 42 during his first nine seasons in Buffalo. He finished with 384 goals in 685 games, all but four spent in Blue and Gold.

"Rico was a flamboyant hockey player," said Gilbert Perreault, the French Connection center who skated with Martin and Robert by his side. "Every time he stepped on the ice, I'm telling you, he was a great performer."

The tribute featured tears along with laughs, with Martin's brother and son, Corey, bringing the most. Robert Martin told of his brother visiting a child stricken with cancer and staying with the parents throughout a delicate surgery. Corey, one of Martin's three sons, earned a standing ovation after his speech.

"This is not just my loss, my family's loss. This is a loss for everybody," Corey Martin said. "This has been an overwhelming thing that has happened with us. We always knew he was a public figure. We saw what he meant to the community, but it wasn't until his passing that it was apparent this was bigger than we ever could have expected."

The 25-year-old said his grief has been tempered by the fact his father was so happy when his life ended. The French Connection was primed to again be an integral part of the organization under new owner Terry Pegula. Father and son discussed that during a two-hour conversation over coffee before Rick Martin walked out the door with his beloved dog to partake in the Sunday routine of visiting friends at various stops.

Martin never returned, but his zest for life continues.

"You could see the excitement," Corey Martin said. "There was a noticeable lightness in the air about him. It's comforting to know that when he walked out that door with his dog that you know he passed doing what he loved."

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