BUFFALO, N.Y. – Pulling out a cigar from one breast pocket and a can of beer from the other, Rene Robert looked up to the arena ceiling to deliver his French Connection linemate, Rick Martin, one last message.
“This is for you my friend,” Robert said Thursday, paying tribute to the former Buffalo Sabres star forward. “Rico used to say all the time, that if you can’t have a laugh, this life ain’t worth living.
“So, he lived it to the fullest.”
Martin’s life was celebrated during an hour-long memorial service held at the Sabres’ home, HSBC Arena. The ceremony was held 11 days after the 59-year-old Martin died of complications due to heart disease while driving his car in suburban Buffalo.
“As long as there’s memories,” Robert said, “no one ever dies.”
Martin’s passing summoned plenty of colourful recollections. He was remembered by former teammates, friends and family members as much for the 384 career NHL goals he scored, as for the 5,000 jokes he told—by one friend’s count—and countless pranks he pulled.
“If we ever make a movie about him, the name of the movie should be, ‘Rico The Great Entertainer’,” said Gilbert Perreault, who centred the famed French Connection line alongside Martin and Robert.
“Rico was a flamboyant hockey player. He was a great entertainer on the ice, in the dressing room, on the golf course and in life in general. I’m going to remember all the great times I had with him. And who knows, maybe in the next life we just might be reconnected again.”
The trio had just been reunited in Buffalo last month, when they took to the ice to welcome the Sabres’ new owner, Pennsylvania billionaire, Terry Pegula, prior to a game against Atlanta.
On Thursday, an estimated crowd of 3,000—with many wearing No. 7 Martin jerseys—packed six sections of the arena’s lower bowl to attend the ceremony. It was held on a black-carpeted area at centre ice, below the video scoreboard which showed pictures of the player, many of which featured him with both a cigar and beer in hand.
Martin is so highly regarded in Buffalo that the ceremony was broadcast live on TV and radio.
Current members of the Sabres team sat in the visitor’s bench, while the home bench was left empty and draped in black.
A two-time 50-goal-scorer, Martin was remembered for his hard shot, and goal-scoring drive.
“Rico was a dynamic shooter, and always, always had the passion to score,” former Sabres forward Danny Gare said. “And that certainly rubbed off on me. And that was Rico’s way.”
Some of Martin’s jokes were retold, and his pranks recalled.
There were the times he’d walk out of an airport restroom with toilet paper trailing out of his pants. There were the times Martin would put a string through a US$20 bill, and tug it along the floor as he and his teammates burst out in laughter watching some unsuspecting passer-by attempting to pick it up.
A native of Verdun, Que., Martin was selected fifth overall by the Sabres in the 1971 draft, and immediately made an impact on the team the following season when he scored what was then an NHL rookie record 44 goals. He played 10-plus seasons in Buffalo before his career was cut short by a severe knee injury during a game against Washington in November 1980.
He was traded to Los Angeles during the 1980-81 season, and only played four games for the Kings through the following season. A five-time 40-goal-scorer, Martin finished with 701 points in 685 career NHL games.
In retirement, Martin settled outside of Buffalo and was remembered for his charitable work in the community and for a boisterous enthusiasm in which he could make anyone feel welcome.
“I became aware when I was younger that I shared my father with everybody,” Corey Martin said of his dad. “This is just not my loss or my family’s loss.
“It’s a loss for everybody. And it’s very apparent how many people he’s touched.”
The 25-year-old Martin happily recalled the two hours he spent with his father on the morning of the day he died. And he recalled how upbeat Martin was as he left the house as he did most every Sunday, with his dog at his side, on the way to the local flea market.
“To pass in such a peaceful way with his little dog next to him, that’s more than any son could ask,” Martin said, his voice quivering with emotion. “It’s comforting to know that he’s up there with the best seat. I love you, dad.”