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Rico used Sabres fame to spread joy

If Rick Martin had lived another 15 years, another 20 years, the weight and distance of time might have obscured the gist of his life. The extent of his charity may have gone unappreciated by too many. Precious few may have known of his selfless, compassionate acts.

Could it be that sometimes people die young, or "before their time," as is often said, to mandate tributes such as the one that took place Thursday morning in HSBC Arena? To remind us through the example of another that we're all capable of making the world a happier place?

Because it came through loud and clear that hockey was but a small segment of Martin's life, merely the fame-providing vehicle that enabled him to spread sunshine to others.

Martin's hockey-earned celebrity made him a fixture at charity golf events. A warm, charismatic personality ensured he'd be welcomed back time and again.

The autograph signed for the father of a cancer patient proved him a decent man. The subsequent secret hospital visit to meet with the child spoke to the depth of his generosity.

For more than two decades I've been clinging to misconceptions. I thought it was Clint Malarchuk who came up with the hysterical act of tucking toilet paper in the back of his pants and strolling through airports to see what people would say.

And I believed the idea was all Mike Foligno's when he tied a $20 bill to a piece of thread, placed it on the floor and kept tugging it from the reach of airport travelers.

I remember both pulling those stunts back in the day when I covered the Sabres and they traveled commercial.

Thursday, as the remembrances rolled from the mouths of teammates, family and friends, it came to light that years earlier Martin had done those very same things. He owned an arsenal of spoken and practical jokes and delighted at making new acquaintances so he could spring them time and again.

He wasn't the life of the party. He made life a party and invited everybody.

Rick Jeanneret scoffed at the idea that Martin should have been a comedian, that he missed his true calling. There's no doubt, Jeanneret said, that Rico was born to score goals. But could it be that Martin was born with a surgeon's hands and a sniper's eyesight to maximize the reach of his personality in later years? After all, Gilbert Perreault said that if Martin's life were made into a movie it would have to be titled, "Rico: The Great Entertainer." Rene Robert noted that Martin's philosophy was "if you can't have a laugh, life ain't worth living."

It was his zest for the day as much as his profound hockey achievements that endeared Martin to the masses. He touched people in great numbers, so much so that an estimated 2,500 attended his memorial service and heard insights that alternately made you shed a tear and let loose a laugh.

"I became aware when I was young that I share my father with everybody," said one of Martin's sons, Corey. "It wasn't until his death that we really saw the scale."

The beauty of Martin's memorial service was its simple elegance. No video snippets were shown on the scoreboard. The stage backdrop was a mural featuring four pictures: a goal celebration, a pensive look from the bench, a pose with the puck from a milestone goal, and the sniper prowling the wing. Perfect.

Somewhere there's a hockey rink where Martin has joined the game. Tim Horton's there. Along with "Spinner" Spencer. Ted Darling's providing the play-by-play. Jim Kelley's writing the columns. Goaltenders are quivering.

Meanwhile, we're left with a keener insight into what the best left wing in Sabres history was really all about.

As Robert said, "As long as there are memories, no one ever dies."

e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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