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Rene Robert, Sabres 'French Connection' right winger, dies at 72
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Rene Robert, Sabres 'French Connection' right winger, dies at 72

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McCoy Sports Sabres

Rene Robert (14) joins fellow French Connection linemates Rick Martin (7) and Gilbert Perreault in greeting Terry Pegula prior to the new owner's first game on Feb. 23, 2011 in then-First Niagara Center. Martin died three weeks later. 

Dec. 31, 1948 – June 22, 2021 

Rene Robert, the right winger on the Buffalo Sabres' famed "French Connection" line of the 1970s, died Tuesday after suffering a heart attack in Florida on June 15. He was 72.

Robert had been hospitalized in Port Charlotte, Fla., and underwent multiple procedures since he was stricken. 

Robert was an unknown 23-year-old when the Sabres acquired him from Pittsburgh on March 4, 1972, for the ultra-popular Eddie Shack, who was 35. Robert was eventually placed on a line with center Gilbert Perreault and left wing Rick Martin and they became the focal point of Buffalo's unlikely 1973 playoff team and the 1975 Stanley Cup finalists.

The French Connection, a name bestowed on the line that was a takeoff of the 1971 Gene Hackman thriller of the same title, became the NHL's dominant trio throughout the '70s as the Sabres made the playoffs six times during the decade.

Remembering Rene Robert

Sabres legend Rene Robert talks about his memories at the Aud as Mayor Byron Brown looks on during an announcement by the mayor of the details of the transfer of the Memorial Auditorium to the Erie Canal Harbor Development in 2007. 

Perreault, who turned 70 in November, is now the lone survivor of the line. Martin died in 2011 in a car accident after having a cardiac episode while driving in Clarence. He was just 59.

"It is with heavy hearts that we announce the passing of adored Sabres alumnus Rene Robert," the team tweeted Tuesday night. "The entire Sabres organization and Western New York community are praying for the Robert family and cherishing the memories he created in Buffalo."

In a statement on Robert's death, the team said, "Rene was a tremendous player, teammate and person and truly loved this organization." His accomplishments on the ice as a member of the French Connection speak for themselves, but his impact on the community continued long past his playing days."

Robert was a native of Trois-Rivieres, Quebec. He lived in Western New York at least part-time since 1972, and had split most of his time in recent years between Williamsville and Punta Gorda, Fla.

Robert had joined his famous linemates in greeting Terry Pegula with a surprise appearance on the ice prior to the new owner's first game in charge of the team in 2011, less than three weeks before Martin's death.

"Kim and I were saddened to hear the devastating news of Rene Robert’s passing," Pegula said in a statement Tuesday on behalf of the team and his wife, the club president. "When we first took over as owners, the members of The French Connection were three of the first people to welcome us to the organization. During our time with the team, Rene has been one of the most active alumni and we’ve grown to know him well over the past 10 years. He was a friend to us and to the entire organization and will be missed dearly. Our thoughts and prayers are with Rene’s family during this difficult time.”

The club changed the avatar on its official feed to Robert's No. 14 Tuesday night in honor of his passing.

Robert played eight of his 12 NHL seasons in Buffalo, collecting 222 goals, 330 assists and 552 points. He currently is ninth in franchise history in goals, fifth in assists and sixth in points. His best offensive season was the '74-'75 campaign, when he collected career highs in goals (40), assists (60) and points (100). It was the first 100-point season in franchise history and is one of just six in the club's 51 seasons. 

Retired  Buffalo Sabres jerseys

Rene Robert vs. New York Rangers in 1976.

Elected to the Sabres Hall of Fame in 1989 and the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in 1994, Robert was listed No. 11 in a list of the Sabres' "Golden" team, the top 50 players in franchise history chosen by The News. It was released in 2019 in advance of the club's 50th anniversary season. 

Perreault's iconic No. 11 was retired by the Sabres in 1990, while Robert's No. 14 and Martin's No. 7 were retired in a joint ceremony in 1995. A French Connection banner that flew in the Aud keeping the three of them together was moved to then-Marine Midland Arena when it opened in 1996. The line was also honored with the unveiling of a bronze statue on the arena's Alumni Plaza in 2012.

"The thing about Rene is he always had a swagger in a positive way," teammate and longtime friend Danny Gare said Tuesday night. "He was a guy in the room that didn't say a lot, but when he did, he went out and did it. I think he pushed Gilbert, I know he pushed 'Rico' (Martin). I think the puzzle, the final piece of the French Connection, was getting him because he had that personality, that conviction, that strength and the will to win by scoring big goals at big times."

Robert was a clutch player for Buffalo in the playoffs, scoring 22 goals with 17 assists in 47 postseason games. Robert's Sabres career is most remembered for his three playoff overtime goals and the most well-known in the hockey world was his game-winner in the famous "Fog Game," Game 3 of the 1975 Stanley Cup Final in the overheated Memorial Auditorium against the Philadelphia Flyers.

With fog shrouding the ice, Perreault sent a dump-in off the corner boards at the Terrace Street end of the Aud to the left of Flyers goalie Bernie Parent. Robert streaked into the zone to retrieve the puck and quickly fired a low shot through Parent at 18:29 of OT to give the Sabres a 5-4 victory and cut their series deficit to 2-1.

"People say it was one of the greatest goals ever, but that was probably one of the luckiest goals ever, too," Robert said in an 2019 oral history in The News, commemorating the game as the most memorable in franchise history heading into the 50th anniversary season. "You could try that a thousand times over and it wouldn't go in. I didn't have a lot of room. All I tried to do was hit the net and it happened to go in. We even shot from the far blue line because the fog was so thick. Anything you kept low and put on net, you had a chance. That's what I tried to do. I kept it low and I was rewarded."

"I just saw Rene going over the blue line and then you kind of lost the puck," Gare remembered in the same story. "You knew if it came out to him that he was going to shoot it from the circle. Bernie just stood there. Went right through him. I'm sure he couldn't see it. A great shot. Kept it low, which is what you needed to do there. It was glorious after that. It got us back in the series."

Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame member Milt Northrop has seen a lot in his 52-year career at The Buffalo News and even before that. Occasionally he will share some of the events that have left a lasting impression on him. Today, it’s a memorable time in April 1973 when the Sabres were in their first Stanley Cup playoff

Robert's other's iconic goal came in Game 5 of the first round in 1973 at the Montreal Forum as he streaked through the faceoff circle and beat Canadiens goaltender Ken Dryden at 9:18 of OT to give the Sabres a 3-2 win. The victory in the first overtime game in franchise history put Buffalo on the national hockey map and got the Sabres within 3-2 in the series. It brought things back to the Aud, where Montreal wrapped up the series in Game 6 in the "Thank You, Sabres" game as the crowd saluted the team with a spontaneous chant as the clock ticked away.

The Montreal goal and the Fog Game winner were chosen by The News as Nos. 6 and 7, respectively, in 2019 on a list of the franchise's top 50 goals heading into the golden anniversary.

Robert's other playoff overtime winner came in Game 5 of the 1975 semifinals against Montreal in the Aud, a shot directly off a faceoff win from Perreault that gave the Sabres a 5-4 victory and a 3-2 lead in the series. Buffalo won Game 6 in the Forum two nights later to clinch its first trip to the Cup final.

Robert scored at least 21 goals in all seven of his full seasons with Buffalo and cracked the 30 mark four times. But his career with the team ended on Oct. 5, 1979, when new coach/GM Scotty Bowman quickly made his mark on the club by dealing Robert to the Colorado Rockies for defenseman John van Boxmeer, who helped the Sabres reach the Stanley Cup semifinals in 1980.

Playing for former Boston coach and major Buffalo rival Don Cherry, Robert scored 28 goals for the Rockies in the 1979-80 season before getting traded to Toronto the next year. He finished his career in 1981-82, scoring 13 goals for the Leafs. The 87-year-old Cherry, who spent nearly 40 years as icon on Canadian television, tweeted a picture of Robert in his Rockies sweater on Saturday, wishing "my good buddy Rene" all the best.

FRENCH CONNECTION

Rick Martin, Gil Perreault, and Rene Robert combined for 131 goals in the 1974-75 season. 

In his retirement, Robert served a stint as president of the NHL Alumni Association and never shied away from speaking his mind about his former team. In recent years, he has been critical of the Sabres' struggles, but also expressed hope that young players like Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin could help reverse the franchise's fortunes.

"It bothers me because I spent most of career there, in good times and bad, and I feel for the fans," Robert told The News at a Sabres Road Crew event in Las Vegas in February 2020. "I remember how good they were and I know how good they are. No better fans anywhere in sports than in Buffalo. I keep saying, 'Be patient, be patient' but I think this time I see the light around the corner. I really do.

"I sincerely believe that the Pegulas have the right personnel in place now like they do with the Bills. Let's watch the kids grow and you can see how a year can make a difference."

Robert fanfest

Rene Robert speaks to reporters at the Sabres Fan Fest event at KeyBank Center in August 2019.

Of course, Robert's hopes didn't pan out. The Sabres didn't make the playoffs in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and GM Jason Botterill was fired last June. And then in a cost-cutting move, the Pegulas didn't renew the team ambassador contracts of "Rafters Club" members Robert, Perreault, Gare and Dominik Hasek.

That decision infuriated Robert. Most alumni were not around the team during the pandemic season due to Covid-19 protocols, but Robert had been telling friends he did not intend to return to the arena for games during the 2021-22 season.

Even more than 40 years after his trade out of Buffalo, Robert remained a popular figure in Western New York. Fans gravitated to him when he appeared at Sabres Road Crew events or memorabilia shows and he was regularly seen on the airwaves as a commercial spokesman for local medical offices that specialized in dental implants or orthopedics to alleviate back pain.

Robert becomes the fifth deceased former player in the Sabres Hall. Others are Martin, Tim Horton, Roger Crozier and Dale Hawerchuk, who died of cancer last year.

When the Sabres held a memorial service on the floor of the arena a few days after Martin's death 10 years ago, Robert was one of the more memorable speakers as he reminisced about his linemate's omnipresent cigar on the golf course.

"This is for you, my friend," Robert said, lifting a Budweiser can and pulling an unlit cigar from his jacket pocket.

"I'm heartbroken over it. I'm a mess to be honest with you," Gare said Tuesday. "I haven't cried since my dad died, that's how special of a guy Rene was. I feel for his family so much."

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