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Nov. 15, 1995: Sabres retire the French Connection's numbers

Twenty-one years ago today, the numbers of the Buffalo Sabres' famed French Connection rose to the rafters.

The team retired the numbers of Rick Martin and Rene Robert, who joined Gilbert Perreault atop the Memorial Auditorium. (Perreault's number was retired in 1990.)

The night honored the members of the Connection, who formed one of the most prolific scoring lines ever.

The trio averaged more than a point per game each over their seven years together. Perreault led the group with 617 points, while Robert and Martin posted 543 and 521 points, respectively. The line broke up in 1979, when Robert was traded to the Colorado Rockies for defenseman John Van Boxmeer just six days before the season opener.

Here's former News columnist Jim Kelley's story from the night.

All's forgiven on  night for remembering

By Jim Kelley

Tears were out of the question. Time had seen to that.

Rick Martin, Gilbert Perreault and Rene Robert, prodigal heroes of a hockey lifetime ago, finally came home Wednesday night. That the Buffalo Sabres have not been able to manufacture (or keep) any other stars only strengthened the hold they’ve always had on us. That they did it partly to tap into what may well be a lucrative marketing opportunity did not take away from the moment.

A gap of 16 seasons is a long time, but they made it a night worth waiting for.

Perreault looked good Wednesday. Not quite what he was in his playing days, but happy, vibrant and very much a superstar content with the memories of his hockey life. To see him skate one last lap escorted by teammates and cheered by fans was a moment never to be forgotten.

Martin embraced Seymour and shook the hands of others. He spoke eloquently about how long he had waited for this night. He said he longed to tell these fans that they were the best fans in the world and he meant it.

Watching the trio reconnect with themselves, the owners and the fans made me realize it wasn’t just the numbers that made them great. They had speed, style and a certain panache. They were men then, and they didn’t just play the game. They lived it.

Rick Martin, Gilbert Perreault and Rene Robert, the Sabres' French Connection, from Jan. 20, 1974. (News file photo).

Rick Martin, Gilbert Perreault and Rene Robert, the Sabres' French Connection, from Jan. 20, 1974. (News file photo).

We did it, too. With the Connection leading the best Sabres teams ever, the hockey world opened to us all. Buffalo wasn’t a backwater off the NHL mainstream backstream back then. It rivaled Boston, Chicago, Toronto New York and even hallowed Montreal as a first-rate hockey town. We would go to Toronto and watch the Leafs quiver as the Connection piled up points. We owned Chicago and New York. Who among us didn’t travel at least one time to Montreal to delight in the fact that some of the great Montreal teams of all time were forced to get up and out of our way.

The Connection was our connection to our greatest hockey moments. They epitomized a time when it was all fresh and new and the whole town crackled with excitement. Money didn’t matter as much back then. Contracts were not an issue. No strikes, lockouts, or play-me-or-trade-me ultimatums. No one said build it or I won’t stay.

We were a part pf them and they were a huge part of us – in our hearts as well as our minds.

Maybe that’s why the breakup was so bitter. Robert, the first to go, felt used and betrayed. He was traded largely because of the outsized ego of Scott Bowman and his relentless desire to prove he was a better GM than he was a coach. The Bowman failed extracted a terrible price.

Martin suffered a similar fate, but he was also forced to endure real pain. There are physical scars on his knee and emotional ones in his heart. A Hall of Fame career cut short by an injury that brought forth charges of shoddy medical treatment against a club, a doctor and a general manager that didn’t seem to care. Those wounds took a long time to heal.

Perreault suffered a different fate. The prized attraction in what was at the end of a tawdry little circus, be was called on to perform long after Martin and Robert were gone and well into the years when they were never replaced. It was a time when the franchise couldn’t wouldn’t or didn’t even try to compete. For his time he was paid well, but always with a team that could never win. It wasn’t nearly enough.

When he stepped aside it was because the end was at hand and only he could see it. That cost him. The door to the front office quickly closed and we were all left to ponder what might have been.

Seeing Perreault on Memorial Auditorium ice once again, I am overwhelmed by memories of his play, but I can never let go of another moment far removed from this one. It was in St. Louis, word oh his impending retirement was starting to leak out and he invited me to join him for breakfast. We were in a hotel coffee shop he was in a position where he was forced to deny statements that had been attributed to him.

Statues of the famous French Connection are prominently displayed outside KeyBank Center. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Statues of the famous French Connection are prominently displayed outside KeyBank Center. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

He said all of the right things. The things management wanted him to say. The rumor had made them their sponsors and their advertisers nervous and the rumor needed to be stopped. Perreault obliged, but on that dreary morning he told me something else.

“I’m not retiring now, but my time is soon,” he said. “I can’t be what they want me to be anymore. I can’t be Gilbert Perreault.”

Hero for a city, flagship for a franchise, a standard for a style of play that would never be forgotten. Perreault and his linemates were all that and more back then. What happened to Martin and Robert was unfortunate, but for Perreault it was a different sort of pain. He didn’t just have to remember the glory of another era, he had to live up to it.

Maybe that’s why it took 16 years to make this moment happen. Wounds have healed. Memories – mostly good ones – were rekindled and three men who are no longer young were honored for deeds that were wonderful for us all. It certainly was worth the wait.

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