It’s odd what one recalls years after — the expression of a face, a sound, words spoken which at the time seemed of no special importance. I remember the smell of the glossy hockey programs sold in the 1970s and 1980s at the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium. For some years my uncle Mark held seasons tickets, and together we watched a number of games. But of course everyone with a connection to the French Connection will recall above everything else the 1975 Stanley Cup final, the Buffalo Sabres versus the Philadelphia Flyers. I watched those games in the bedroom of my grandparents’ Fort Erie house where my father had grown up, and I can recall with great clarity the bats and fog which constitute a good part of Sabres legend.
Around that time I lived across the street from Rick Martin. I worked up the nerve to knock on his door and ask for an autograph, which he gracefully provided. At a game I did the same to Punch Imlach, the Sabres’ first coach, and later their General Manager. (The news of Martin’s death in a car accident immediately made me think of Tim Horton, who died similarly in an accident with his 1973 Pantera, given to him as a signing incentive by Imlach.) This was an era of bright prospect for the Buffalo sport franchise, and looking back one now apprehends the disheartening arc of decline which is not only the Sabres’ fate but the city’s as well. It’s hard to believe that in 1900 Buffalo was ranked with New York and Chicago, anticipated to be a premier American city. This was at the height of the shipping industry’s economic prestige, but soon Buffalo would put its financial eggs into the steel industry basket — and we all know what followed. Once the hub of the transportation industry, it is now the hub of the debt collection industry. The Bills and Sabres are as good a metaphor as anything for the apparent inevitability of Western New York’s ignominious decline, triumph being well within its grasp and yet somehow unattainable.
Well, for a while it was an exciting ride. Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin, and Rene Robert put Buffalo at the centre of the sporting universe and provided not only Buffalo but the world with some lasting hockey memories. The French Connection was disbanded in 1979, just as the deindustrialization rust and rot were setting in. The Western New York steel jobs were moved mostly to China, and it is perhaps telling that the Sabres now play in the HSBC, or Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, arena. Within a generation, Buffalo’s population fell by nearly a half, setting the demographics back to their 1900 levels while sucking the life quite out of the city. It may never again be as interesting to be in Buffalo as it was during the Perrault-Martin-Robert run. Rick Martin was a bright light in what was once known as the City of Lights.