There will be something more poignant than fighting for a playoff spot on the minds of the Buffalo Sabres and their fans Thursday. The HSBC Arena will host a memorial service for one of the greatest Sabres and NHL players of all time, Rick Martin, today.
Martin, the left winger on Buffalo’s famed French Connection line, passed away Sun., March 13 when the car he was driving struck a pole in suburban Buffalo. An autopsy conducted by Dr. Diane Vertes at Buffalo’s Erie County Medical Centre concluded that the cause of death was Hypertensive Arteriosclerotic Cardiovascular Disease, which is related to high blood pressure and clogged arteries. According to New York State Police Captain Steven Nigrelli, the car Martin was driving crossed the center line of the road and struck a utility pole before coming to rest against a tree. He said witnesses saw Martin with his head slumped and eyes closed at the wheel, and that he appeared to have an “undetermined medical emergency” before the accident occurred.
"Rick was not only one of the greatest players in franchise history, he was a great friend to the Sabres organization and entire community," said a statement from the Sabres. "The thoughts and prayers of the entire Sabres organization go out to his wife, Mikey, and their two sons, Corey and Josh."
A native of LaSalle, Quebec, Martin played his junior hockey with the Montreal Jr. Canadiens, where he was a teammate of Sabres legend Gilbert Perreault. After notching 71 goals and 51 assists for 122 points in just 60 games in 1970-71 as a junior, Martin was selected fifth overall in the 1971 NHL Draft. Guy Lafleur of the Quebec Remparts was first by Montreal, and Marcel Dionne of the St. Catharines Black Hawks was picked second overall by Detroit. Martin’s teammate, Jocelyn Guevremont, was picked third by Vancouver, and St. Louis selected Gene Carr of the Flin Flon Bombers.
Martin joined the Sabres for the 1971-72 season and scored what was then an NHL rookie record 44 goals.
“He was a great player and tough to defend and he had a great shot,” said former New York Islander star Denis Potvin, who played against Martin as a junior with the Ottawa 67s and then again in the NHL as a member of the New York Islanders. “It’s hard to imagine that he scored 44 goals in his first year in the NHL and he wasn’t even the Calder Trophy winner. That was because the Montreal Canadiens had a pretty good rookie goalie named Ken Dryden.”
Martin had back-to-back 52 goals seasons in 1973-74 and 1974-75, then had a 49-goal season the following year. He had 384 goals – 382 coming with the Sabres. He suffered a serious knee injury during the 1980-81 season after a collision with goalie Mike Palmateer and was later traded to Los Angeles. He would play only four games with the Kings before retiring.
Martin, Perreault and Rene Robert formed the famed French Connection line in Buffalo and remain the cornerstone of hockey history in Buffalo. The three players made a public appearance – Martin’s last – last month when they were introduced at centre ice at the HSBC Arena with new Sabres owner Terry Pegula.
The loss was particularly tough on Robert. His brother passed away in Montreal the same day that Martin passed away. Robert was in Florida at the time, and the Sabres sent a plane down for him to come to Buffalo.
"When you play with someone for 9 years you become family," Robert said in an interview with WGRZ. "The three of us have remained friends over the years. There's never a dull moment or a day we can say that we hated each other or fought against each other. We played in juniors and in Buffalo and we've been friends to this day. I don't have a bad word to say about Rico. He was a great man, a great teammate, and he's going to be missed."
Longtime Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff was also a teammate of Martin in the 1970s.
"We lost a heck of a guy today,” said Ruff before the March 13 game against Ottawa. “He was a teammate. He was someone I worked with, as part of the coaching staff. Someone I played golf with. He was a great person."
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