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Sabres' family toasts Martin; French Connection star remembered for personality

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 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."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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