By Kevin Glew
It’s been 35 years since their first shift together and 28 years since their last, but the French Connection Line remains connected.
Debuting as a unit in March 1972, the Sabres trio of Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin and Rene Robert – all born in Quebec – had instant chemistry. In their seven-plus seasons together, they dominated opponents, dazzled teammates and evolved into one of the most storied lines in NHL history.
Sometimes such success can breed rivalry and resentment, but these Buffalo legends were friends and maintain a strong bond today.
But they weren’t always on the same side.
Perreault, once a member of the Thetford Mines Canadiens of the Quebec Junior League, remembers battling against Robert, a tenacious Trois-Rivieres Leafs forward, in 1966-67.
Martin would follow Perreault to Thetford Mines a year later, eventually suiting up with his future center on the Montreal Junior Canadiens in 1968-69. At one point, Perreault even boarded at Martin’s house.
“I played on the same (junior) team, but I never played on the same line (with Perreault),” explained the now 56-year-old Martin. “We never played on the same line until I came to Buffalo.”
After they were united in Buffalo, the Quebec-born linemates were consistently near the top of team scoring and struck fear into opposing goalies. In an interview with Time Magazine in March, 1973, Islanders netminder Billy Smith compared the French Connection Line to the Boston Bruins’ vaunted trio of Phil Esposito, Wayne Cashman and Ken Hodge: “They’re better skaters, better shooters and faster than Esposito’s line.”
So popular was this threesome, in fact, that a song (‘Look Out Here Comes the French Connection’) was penned in their honor in 1975.
But all good things must come to an end and for the French Connection, the bell tolled on Oct. 5, 1979, when new Sabres GM Scotty Bowman dealt Robert to the Colorado Rockies. Robert believes if Bowman had not made some of his transactions during his first year in Buffalo that the Sabres might have won “two or three Stanley Cups.”
“We were only a few ingredients away from being a very good hockey club,” said Robert of the trade. “For me to answer what Bowman was thinking, I can’t answer that.”
The famed trio still makes appearances at autograph signings, golf tournaments and charitable events in the Buffalo area. Perreault is the only line member who remains employed by the Sabres. The Hall of Fame forward toiled for 17 seasons with the franchise (1970 to November 1986) and, thanks in large part to his linemates, he’s still the club’s all-time leading scorer.
“There were nights when I saw him (Perreault) beat the same guy three times,” Martin recalled. “I knew if I got in the open, as long as you kept moving, he’d get you the puck eventually.”
After he retired, Perreault coached his hometown Victoriaville Tigres (QMJHL) for two seasons in 1988-89 and 1990-91 and played on the Hockey Legends tour.
Now a proud grandpa residing in Victoriaville, Perreault travels to Buffalo for a few days each month to work as a Sabres corporate/community relations liaison.
“Most of what I’m doing is public relations,” he said.
Though he has Sabres season tickets, Martin, unlike Perreault, has ventured outside of the NHL for his second career. The left winger on the storied unit, Martin tallied 44 goals or more five times during his NHL career.
“He had the quick release,” said Perreault of Martin.“He was a very dangerous guy in the slot. He had that great wrist shot and that good slap shot.”
A knee injury eventually forced Martin to retire after playing just three games in 1981-82. In his post-playing career, he has been involved in a variety of business ventures, including investment advising and a gold mining interest in Africa. He has now settled on a career in the computer consulting business.
Martin and his wife, Martha, head Globalquest Solutions Inc. in Williamsville, N.Y., a company specializing in systems integration and network support for small and large businesses. His title there is vice-president of sales and marketing.
“I look for new business,” he explained.
Like Martin, Robert has also enjoyed a successful business career outside of the NHL. Not drafted out of junior, the hard-working forward parlayed a five-game tryout contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1970-71 season into a 12-year NHL career. He landed in Buffalo in March, 1972 when he was acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins for Eddie Shack. He was initially brought in to play a defensive role on the French Connection Line.
“But Rene, he could do a lot more,” Martin said. “He wasn’t there just for the checking, he was a good playmaker and he could really handle the puck. He was great on the point on the power play.”
Robert showcased his scoring prowess by notching 20 goals in seven consecutive seasons for the Sabres before he was dealt to Colorado.
Opting for retirement after the 1981-82 campaign, Robert has since enjoyed prominent roles with Molson and the NHL Alumni Association. Most recently, he served as a consultant with Canada Post for an NHL stamp program. Today, he lives in Buffalo and considers himself retired.
“It’s been fun,” said Robert of his post-NHL career. “It’s been enjoyable. I’ve had a great life. I’ve stayed healthy. I’ve travelled the world and really enjoyed doing different aspects of businesses.”
Fittingly, the Sabres have retired the numbers of these linemates and their banners hang side-by-side at the HSBC Arena.
Martin says he’s still approached regularly by fans, especially in the Buffalo area. People recognize him more as a member of the French Connection Line than for his individual accomplishments, which is fine by him.
“We had a chemistry that unfortunately you don’t see anymore because of free agency,” Robert said.
It’s a chemistry that has continued off the ice, long after their last shift together and their retirement from professional hockey.