BUFFALO, N.Y. – Two weeks after being reunited on the ice in Buffalo, the Sabres’ famed French Connection lost a member when Rick Martin died Sunday.
The 59-year-old was pronounced dead at a suburban Buffalo hospital at around 1 p.m., about a half hour after the car he was driving crossed the centre line on the road, rolled along the shoulder and struck a utility pole before coming to rest against a tree, New York State Police Capt. Steven Nigrelli said.
Nigrelli said witnesses spotted Martin driving with his head slumped and eyes closed before the crash, which occurred in the Buffalo suburb of Clarence. Nigrelli said it appeared Martin had “an undetermined medical emergency” before the accident.
Two passers-by and eventually a state trooper performed CPR on Martin, who remained unresponsive when removed from the vehicle. Martin’s German shepherd dog was also in the vehicle and stood by, Nigrelli said.
An autopsy will be conducted to determine the cause of death.
Martin’s death came as a shock to the Sabres, who were preparing for an afternoon game against the Ottawa Senators.
“We lost a heck of a guy today,” Sabres coach and Martin’s former teammate Lindy Ruff said. “It’s tough when you lose anybody, and we lost a real good person today. It’s a tough one to take.”
Prior to the game, the Sabres honoured Martin with a tribute on the centre ice video scoreboard.
“It was great sadness and a heavy heart that we lost a member of the Sabre family today,” longtime team broadcaster Rick Jeanneret said, as pictures of Martin were shown. “Rick Martin was a person of joy. You’ll be missed ‘Rico,’ but you will be remembered.”
Fans gave Martin a standing ovation before the arena fell into a hush during a moment of silence.
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. From LaSalle, Que., Richard (Rick) Lionel Martin played left wing on a line with centre Gilbert Perreault and Rene Robert. They were eventually dubbed The French Connection.
The trio is still revered in Buffalo, and at HSBC Arena, where their three banners hang together in a row from the facility’s ceiling.
Following the 6-4 victory, Sabres players gathered at centre and raised their sticks, pointing to Martin’s banner. They also wore a helmet sticker featuring Martin’s name, his uniform No. 7, and a fleur-de-lis.
Martin’s death comes a little over two weeks after the trio took the ice together for what turned out to be the last time, prior to the Sabres’ home game against Atlanta. They were taking part in a welcoming ceremony, greeting Pennsylvania billionaire Terry Pegula, a day after he purchased the franchise.
Rip Simonick, who’s been the Sabres equipment manager since the team’s inception in 1970, had difficulty holding back tears following the game.
“Rico was a Buffalo Sabre from Day 1. He played hard for the team, and it’s a little emotional for me,” Simonick said. He then recalled how fitting it was to see the French Connection together one last time.
“Maybe that was just what it should’ve been,” Simonick said. “They brought a lot of pride to Buffalo, New York. They brought a lot of pride to this hockey team. And it was nice to see them back together.”
Pegula fondly remembered that welcome and how they interacted before taking the ice.
“I was told when they were together in the players’ lounge, it was like three kindergarten kids in there. I guess they had a good time,” said Pegula, who first began following the team during the French Connection days.
“We had a lot of plans in the future for these guys, I guess we’ll just have an empty chair around, but it’ll be there,” he said.
Martin, who eventually settled his family in western New York, spent 10-plus seasons with 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.
Martin finished with 384 goals and 317 assists for 701 points in 685 career NHL games. He added 24 goals and 29 assists for 53 points in 63 career playoff games.
He was a five-time 40-goal-scorer, and twice surpassed the 50-goal plateau, when he had 52 in each of the 1973-74 and 1974-75 seasons. Martin’s most productive campaign was in 1974-75, when he had a career-high 95 points (52 goals, 43 assists) in 68 games.
Martin has more career goals than any Sabres left wing and ranks overall second in team history. He ranks second with 47 game-winning goals, while his 695 points rank third. Martin also holds the Sabres record with 21 three-goal games.
Martin was remembered for his fun-loving personality off the ice, and for his intensity on it.
“He certainly made a lot of us laugh, didn’t he?” former defenceman Mike Robitaille. “I don’t know what we’re doing being so emotional when what he stands for is to have fun and laugh. Man, we should have the biggest party in the world for Richard. … A lot of good memories.”
Robitaille played three years with Martin in Buffalo, and didn’t realize how good of an offensive player Martin was until Robitaille played against him.
“I found out how much fire he had in him,” Robitaille said. “This thing about scoring goals would just overcome him. From the blue line in, he was almost unstoppable.”
Martin is survived by his wife Mikey and their two sons, Corey and Josh.
Funeral arrangements have not been announced.