Jeff Seide The Hockey Writers
The French Connection
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle lived well before hockey ever existed, but his quote, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” certainly applies to the Buffalo Sabres’ French Connection. The famous Sabres line, comprised of Gilbert Perreault, Richard Martin and Rene Robert was a point-producing, highlight-making trio from 1972 until the fall of 1979. Each of the three French-Canadians from Quebec was talented individually, but when they were put together on the same line, magic ensued. The trio was unstoppable.
Perreault and Martin were first-round draft picks in the franchise’s first two years, starting in the fall of 1970. Robert arrived via a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins late in 1971-72 and the trio had instant chemistry. Together, they amassed 738 goals and 1,681 points in 1,536 games. In 1974-75 they led the upstart Sabres to the Stanley Cup Final, the franchise’s first appearance.
The Sum: The French Connection Line
The French Connection line was the league’s most electrifying and explosive combination of the era and one of the last great lines in the history of the game. With their flair and creativity, not to mention their mustaches and layered flowing hair of the era, they were looked up to admired and idolized by fans of all ages. New Englanders wanted to be Bobby Orr; Western New Yorkers and those in Southern Ontario wanted to be part of The French Connection.
The line was dubbed the French Connection by writer Lee Coppola referring to the origins of the players and to the 1971 Academy Award-winning crime thriller, The French Connection. It was one of the most feared scoring lines in NHL history. Each player finished his Sabres career with more than 200 goals and better than a point-per-game average despite consistently facing the opposition’s top defensive lineups. It even had a song written about it.
Through the Years
When George ‘Punch’ Imlach, the Sabres first coach and general manager, built the team in 1970, his goal was to create an exciting, high-octane, high-scoring offense. After drafting Perreault and then Martin the following year, new coach Joe Crozier knew he wanted a winger who could complement them. He found Robert and the rest is history.
The French Connection’s impact was immediate. Once together, they were the driving force behind the Sabres making the playoffs. They did so every season they were together, except for the 1973-74 NHL season when Perreault suffered a broken leg and missed a few months.
1971-72 – The Sabres selected Rick Martin fifth overall in the first round in the 1971 draft. He immediately had chemistry with Perreault as the two led the Sabres in scoring with 74 points each. Martin tallied 44 goals in his first season, breaking the NHL rookie record of 38 set the year before by Perreault. At the end of the season, Rene Robert was acquired from the Penguins in a trade for Eddie Shack. The Sabres finished in sixth place with a 16-43-19 record.
1972-73 –The first full season with all three members of the French Connection was 1972-73. With Perreault flanked by Martin and Robert, the Sabres were no longer a one-man show. The Sabres started the season with a ten-game unbeaten streak, went unbeaten in their first 21 home games and finished with a record of 37-27-14, good enough to make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Perreault, Robert and Martin led the team in scoring, finishing with 88, 83 and 73 points, respectively. They fell to the veteran Montreal Canadiens in the first round in six games.
1973-74 – The Sabres came out of the gate strong, winning six of their first nine games, but Perreault suffered a broken leg and was sidelined for eight weeks. The team then lost goaltender Roger Crozier with pancreatitis. Tragedy struck on Feb. 20, when Tim Horton died in a car accident on the Queen Elizabeth Way. All of this was too much to overcome and the Sabres finished with a record of 32-34-12, missing the playoffs.
1974-75 – The goals came in bunches–354 for the team. More than a third of them off the sticks of the French Connection. Martin had 52, Robert tallied 40 and Perreault 39. The trio all finished among the league’s top-10 scorers while leading the team to a tie for first in the regular season standings. All three were chosen to play in the NHL All-Star game. Most important, they led the Sabres to a Cinderella run towards the Stanley Cup. In only their fifth season in the NHL, the Sabres made their way to the Stanley Cup Final. The Sabres defeated the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round. In the second round, Rene Robert scored the game-winner in overtime to move past the Montreal Canadiens. Then the met the Philadelphia Flyers.
Game 3 of the Final against the Flyers is still known as the famous ‘Fog Game’ played in Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium. With early summer hot and humid temperatures outside the arena, a raucous crowd and a lack of air conditioning, the ice was shrouded in fog. It was like a sauna inside, with temperatures near the ice approaching 90 degrees. In an apparent attempt to cool off, a bat flew down around the ice surface. That’s when Sabres winger Jim Lorentz took matters in his own hands and knocked it right out of the air with his stick. From that point on, Lorentz became known as ‘Batman’ by his teammates.
The game was stopped a total of twelve times due to foggy conditions. Given the extremely poor visibility, Flyers coach Fred Shero and Sabres coach Floyd Smith instructed their players to shoot as much as possible. With roughly a minute remaining in overtime, Martin picked up a loose puck along the boards and fed it to Perreault. After gaining the Flyers zone, he dished it to Robert in the far right corner. Robert beat the Flyer defenseman to the puck and shot the puck at an extreme angle. The puck surprised Flyers’ netminder Bernie Parent, slipping by him for the game winner. “It’s almost impossible to score from that angle,” said Robert. “But I shot at the net, hoping somebody could get the rebound. It seemed to me he (Bernie Parent) wasn’t ready for the shot. It went between his legs.”
Though the French Connection scored four goals and 11 points in the series, the Sabres lost in six games. Little did they know it was the closest any member of the French Connection would get to winning the Stanley Cup.
The playoff MVP was Flyers goaltender, Bernie Parent. “He was outstanding,” said Perreault. “They had a great team, too, but he beat us. We just couldn’t score on him. He was stopping everything.”
1975-76 – The team continued their winning ways with an impressive record of 46-21-13. The dynamic line put up 286 points; Perreault finished third in the league with 113 points, Robert with 87 and Martin 86.
During this season, the Sabres hosted part of a series against the Russia’s Soviet Wings. On Jan. 4, the French Connection piled up four goals and five assists, leading the Sabres to a 12-6 win, the worst defeat ever by a Russian hockey team in international competition.
1976-77 – After a slow start, the Sabres finished in second place in the division with a 48-24-8 record. Perreault led the team with 95 points, Robert was second with 73 points and Martin, who only suited up for 66 games, had 65 points. They stampeded through the Minnesota North Stars in the first round of the playoffs but were swept by the New York Islanders in four straight close games in the second round.
1977-78 – The Sabres topped 100 points for the fourth straight season finishing with a record of 44-19-17. Once again, Perreault led the team with 89 points. Robert had 73 points in 67 games, and Martin had 63 points in 65 games. The team got by the New York Rangers in a three-game series, before losing to the Philadelphia Flyers in five games.
1978-79 – Once general manager Punch Imlach was fired mid-season and head coach Marcel Pronovost was shown the door, the Sabres picked up steam and finished in second place again with a record of 36-28-16. Once again, Perreault led the way with 85 points. Robert finished third on the team in scoring with 62 points. And Martin 53 points. The Sabres lost to Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the playoffs.
1979-80 – Scotty Bowman, who had led the Canadiens to four straight Stanley Cup Finals, was hired as the Sabres coach and general manager by George H. Knox III. He broke up the French Connection by trading Robert to the Colorado Rockies for defenseman John Van Boxmeer.
The move paid dividends as the Sabres won the Adams Division with a 47-17-16 record. Perreault tallied 106 points (40 goals and 66 assists) and Martin notched 79 points during the season. In the playoffs, the Sabres got by the Vancouver Canucks in four games, swept the Chicago Blackhawks but fell to the New York Islanders in six games.
1980-81 – Despite Perreault being sidelined for 22 games with rib injuries, the Sabres won their second straight division title. On March 11, Martin was traded to the Los Angeles Kings for draft picks.
Stats, Accolades and Honors
Perreault spent his entire 17-year career with the Sabres. When he retired on Nov. 24, 1986, he was at the top of every single offensive category in the history of the franchise; ones he still retains today. He has the most regular season games played, goals, assists, points, game-winning goals, 30-goal seasons (ten), 20-goal seasons and shots on goal. In 1971, Perreault earned the Calder Memorial Trophy and the Lady Byng Trophy in 1973.
Martin holds the franchise career records for hat tricks (7), four-goal games, 40-goal seasons, consecutive 40-goal seasons, 50-goal seasons (tied with Danny Gare) and consecutive 50-goal seasons.
While Robert’s name does not fill the team’s record book, his 40-goal and 60-assist 1974-75 season was the club’s first 100-point season by a player.
During the seven full seasons the French Connection was together, Perreault led the Sabres in scoring five times while Robert and Martin led the team once each. Martin led the team three times in goals, Perreault twice and Robert once. Perreault led the team in assists four times and Robert did so twice.
All three members of the French Connection were selected for multiple All-Star games; Perreault in nine (1970-71, 1971-72, 1973-74, 1974-75, 1976-77, 1977-78, 1978-79, 1979-80, 1983-84), Martin in seven consecutive All-Star games (1971-72 through 1977-78) and Robert was selected to two All-Star games (1972-73, 1974-75). Each was named to the official NHL All-Star Team at least once and to the All-Star Game at least twice while playing together.
In 1977, Martin was named the All-Star game’s Most Valuable Player. In 1978 All-Star Game, hosted at Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium, Perreault scored the game-winning overtime goal. In 1990, Perreault’s No. 11 was retired by the Sabres and he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. “I didn’t enjoy attention when I played, but the Hall of Fame is different. It’s the greatest honor a player can have,” beamed Perreault. “Having a chance to play for the same team for seventeen years was a highlight. In my first year, I set a record in the NHL for scoring 38 goals. That was a highlight. Scoring 500 goals was a highlight.”
Gilbert Perreault, Center
In 1970, when Sabres general manager Punch Imlach won the spin of the wheel for the No. 1 overall pick, he wasted no time choosing Perreault. The Vancouver Canucks missed out, choosing Dale Tallon with the next pick.
In Perreault’s first season, he scored 38 goals and added 34 assists and was named the NHL’s Calder Trophy winner as rookie of the year. “In my first seasons, Imlach told me to go for goals and not worry about checking. That really helped me get my confidence,” Perreault admitted. “The first few years I was there, it was loose. I was rushing the puck a lot. We had style.”
Perreault is the Sabres franchise leader in both goals (512) and assists (814); marks that are likely to stand for many years to come. He currently sits 28th on the all-time list for assists, 33rd for points and 41st for goals. He not only led the team in stats, he led them from a newbie expansion franchise to legitimate contenders in short order.
Perreault played his entire 17-season career with the Sabres. The centerpiece of the French Connection was regarded as one of the most gifted playmakers in the NHL. Former Sabres coach Floyd Smith once described Perreault as a blur. He had soft, playmaking hands to go with his effortless speed. His stickhandling and head fakes posterized even the best defensive players in the world. The talented Victoriaville native was capable of making an end-to-end rush at any time.
“From pee wee to junior and even the first two or three years in the league, I tried to beat everybody by myself,” said Perreault. “But, after three years, you have to change your style. You have to come up with something new. I had better vision of the game. See more of my players on the ice. I was more of a playmaker than a rusher, after a while. I was looking more to Rick and Rene to make my plays.”
“He carried the teams on his shoulders for many nights,” said former NHL head coach and broadcaster Jacques Demers. “Punch Imlach gave him all the ice time that you could give any young kid. But the key to that franchise was getting a guy like Gilbert Perreault. He lifted the franchise to a different level.”
Demers was a huge fan of Perreault. “Very few players in hockey over the years will bring the fans off their seats. Guy Lafleur, Bobby Orr, Gretzky and Perreault was one of them. Gilbert Perreault was Jean Beliveau, in a more physical way to get to the net than Jean. Smooth. Great vision. Electifying. Perreault was the one who wanted to take charge. Give me the puck I’m going to make something happen.”
“It wasn’t that long ago that the big guys were usually slower and cumbersome on the ice. Then you get this big man who’s so elegant and he’s wide and thick and can just fly on the ice,” said fellow NHL Hall of Famer, Bobby Clarke. “You knew if you were gonna stop him it was gonna have to be through physical play because you certainly weren’t going to skate with him. He was an elegant player. He wasn’t physical, but he had great speed and great moves. Like a great French Canadian player flying down the ice. For the years that I played, he was as good as anybody who played the game.”
“Every kid in Canada wanted to be Gilbert Perreault,” said six-time Stanley Cup Champion Bryan Trottier. “His one-on-one skills and stickhandling skills and his speed and how he went from one end to the other. I never did any of that, but I tried to steal a little something from him.”
Perreault played on a line with Lafleur and Gretzky in the 1981 Canada Cup. The line, perhaps the best ever constructed in the history of the game, totaled a whopping 32 points in seven games. It was one of the highlights of Bert’s career. “It was an easy game to play with those two.”
“The Canada Cup in ’81 was the greatest experience of my life,” recollected Lafleur with a big smile. “We had so much fun. Every time that we see somebody like Wayne or Gilbert, even myself when I was carrying the puck, I was laughing…because I knew who was behind or beside me. It was something very, very special.”
The nine-time NHL All-Star is the first Sabre to have his number retired. In 1990, his No. 11 was raised to the rafters of the Memorial Auditorium. The same year he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“People will suggest that Gilbert Perreault’s career was incomplete because he didn’t win a Stanley Cup, that it doesn’t measure to some other superstar players through the years,” said Broadcast journalist Mitch Melnick. “It was not Gilbert Perreault’s fault that he arrived in Buffalo in 1970 at a time when the Boston Bruins had Orr and Esposito and Hodge and Bucyk, followed by the Canadiens of 1972-73 in Scotty Bowman’s first year, followed by the Philadelphia Flyers that beat the Sabres in one of those Finals, followed by the Canadiens dynasty of four straight. It wasn’t Perreault’s fault. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time for a Stanley Cup. That should not take away from the incredible career that he had.”
Rick Martin, Left Wing
Martin, a left winger from Trois-Rivieres, had a powerful and intimidating shot. He was a sniper… a marksman, able to pick a corner and send a shot that would test the strength of the mesh surrounding the goal. In his NHL debut, the opening game of the 1971-72 season, Martin fired a slap shot that literally tore the glove off the hand of Penguins goaltender Jim Rutherford. The puck was cleared out of play, but the oohs and aahs that filled the Aud were only foreshadowing for the excitement that remarkable career that “Rico” would have. All but four games of his injury-shortened 11-season career were played with the Sabres. The others were with the Los Angeles Kings
There’s no question Martin was an excellent player, but with Perreault’s and Robert’s skill and vision, he became even more of a force. For a few years, some fans and media considered him the second-best left wing in hockey, after Martin’s idol, Bobby Hull. The five-time 40-goal scorer and two-time 50-goal scorer finished with 701 points in 685 career NHL games.
In addition to a passion for scoring, Rico had an affinity for pranks and jokes. One of his favorites was to walk out of an airport restroom with toilet paper trailing out of his pants. The entertainer on and off the ice was also known to put a string through a $20 bill and tug it along the floor as unsuspecting people attempted to pick it up.
Martin’s No. 7 was retired by the Sabres in 1995. He raised his family in the area was proud to call Buffalo his home, becoming a fixture at community charity tournaments. On March 13, 2011, at the age of 59, Martin died of a heart attack. The public memorial service held at HSBC Arena in Buffalo was an emotional and significant event for the thousands who attended. Some related it to saying farewell to their favorite Beatle. Perreault, Robert, Danny Gare and others spoke.
“This is for you my friend,” Robert said at a tribute held at the Aud. “Rico used to say all the time, that if you can’t have a laugh, this life ain’t worth living. So, he lived it to the fullest.”
In a horrible sequence of events, 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.”
Rene Robert, Right Wing
Robert was a speedy right winger with a lethal shot. He was a complete player–one of the league’s most highly regarded power play point men who also commonly played on the penalty kill unit. He finished his checks and was a workhorse in the corners.
The Verdun native sparked the creation of the famed French Connection line when he was acquired in a trade on March 4, 1972. He played twelve games for the Sabres during the in the 1971-72 season. He also played for the Penguins, Colorado Rockies (now the New Jersey Devils) and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Robert could fill the net as easily as he could dish a sweet pass. The playmaker notched two 40-goal seasons and a 60-assist season. He’s one of only five Sabres to reach 100 points in a season–the others are Perreault, Pierre Turgeon, Alexander Mogilny and Pat LaFontaine.
Memorializing the French Connection
The members of the French Connection were the first three players to accumulate 200 goals in a Sabres uniform. They each have had the honor of having their jersey numbers retired; Perreault’s No. 11 was retired during a ceremony on Oct. 17, 1990, Robert’s No. 14 and Martin’s No. 7 were retired on November 15, 1995. The three numbers hang together from the rafters of KeyBank Center under a French Connection banner.
On Oct. 12, 2012, the Sabres unveiled an impressive 7-foot-high bronze statue honoring the French Connection in the team’s new alumni plaza outside First Niagara Center (now KeyBank Center).
Perreault, Robert, and family members of the late Martin attended the public ceremony along with over 30 Sabres alumni and Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula.
The sculpture was created by award-winning sculptor Jerry McKenna and styled after a photograph taken during a playoff game in April 1975 by former team photographer Ron Moscati. In that game, each player scored a goal against the Philadelphia Flyers. Both McKenna and Moscati were in attendance. Legendary Sabres play-by-play announcer Rick Jeanneret served as the master of ceremonies.
“The people in this city loved the French Connection and made that team an instant success for a new team,” said Moscati. “All these years I knew I had that picture, and I wanted them to somehow make it big so people could enjoy it.”
”Our mission here was to put a great show on the ice for the Buffalo fans,” said an emotional Perreault. “The French Connection was something very special. We had some great years together. It’s a great honor. It’s a very special night. We sure miss Rico, but it’s part of life.”
The Connection’s Connection with Fans
Beyond the goals, All-Star games and playoff runs, the French Connection stood for so much more. The charismatic trio connected with the fans in Western New York and the city of Buffalo in a special way. They launched one of the most exciting eras in Sabres history.
When billionaire Terry Pegula bought the Sabres, the three players greeted him with a surprise welcome at center ice. In his first official press conference as the Sabres owner, Pegula was brought to tears when he started talking about his long-term love affair with the Sabres. “Gil Perreault, you are my hero,” he said. “Have you ever seen him skate? That’s my hockey genesis right there!”
The French Connection reunited to give him a warm welcome on the ice prior to a game against Atlanta Thrashers and were greeted by a thunderous ovation from adoring fans. It was Martin’s last public appearance before he tragically died of complications due to heart disease while driving his car in suburban Buffalo.
Related – Remembering an Old Friend: Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium
Pleasure and Perfection
Perreault, Martin and Robert loved playing the game of hockey. They loved one another’s company. And they were committed to putting in the work to be successful. The French Connection is easily the most prolific line in the franchise’s history. “I had a lot of fun. Hockey has to be fun to be good. If the sport isn’t enjoyable then you can’t be successful,” said Perreault.
Their achievements bring to mind another famous Aristotle saying that applies to The French Connection: “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.”
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