"You guys are going to be here now until you die."
I just read that Rene Robert said that is something Terry Pegula told the French Connection last month when Robert joined his famous line-mates, Gilbert Perrault and Richard Martin in welcoming the new Sabres owner. It was an emotional scene when the best line in team history skated out in a surprise ceremony prior to the first game of an exciting new era of Sabres hockey. Not even three weeks later, Martin is gone. Dead at 59.
What a thing it was learning about hockey watching that line. When you are 10 years old, you don't really know how great these guys are, you know? They're the guys on your team, and you're pretty sure they're awesome, but let's just say I wasn't reading a lot of blogs in those days. Who was I judging them against? It just was so different.
Turns out they were, of course, really great. And boy could Martin shoot. There wasn't much talk about crashing the net and scoring ugly goals. Martin was all about beating the goalie. Blowing it by the goalie maybe is more like it. He did that 384 times in the NHL, 382 of those were as a Sabre.
I had several opportunities to talk with Martin over the years. Three of those times stand out from the others.
Once, while on the air, I asked Martin what he thought about youth hockey and how the game was being taught. Rick told me that he thought the coaching was fine, but kids need to practice, what else, shooting. He said when he was a boy he would spend entire days just shooting pucks and it didn't matter if there weren't enough kids to play a game, a goalie, or even a net. He would shoot all morning, go home for lunch and then shoot until dinner time. I love that he told me that and have thought of it often while watching my oldest boy learn the game. It's why I have a regulation-sized net in my garage and cleared a space in my tiny backyard a couple of winters ago for my son to shoot. Like many things, we haven't stayed with it but the idea’s genesis was that conversation with Martin.
The other two were not on the air. I was invited to play in a foursome with Rick, who was a fantastic golfer…probably scratch. Whatever the opposite of a scratch golfer is, that's me. So here I am with one of the heroes of my childhood and I'm pretty nervous about the state of my game knowing how good Martin was. If he cared at all, it never showed. He just kept telling jokes and smoking his cigar and draining putts while I tried not to hurt the pretty grass. When I think about that day, as fun as it was to be out there with him all afternoon, it's what happened after we were done with our round that I'll never forget. We're saying our goodbyes, shaking hands and getting into our cars and Martin asks me if I have anything to do. Not really, I mean, geez, you're Rick Martin. You have a plan, I'm all ears. "You want to go have a beer?" We went and had a couple and Martin wanted to know as much about me as I was willing to tell. I don't recall talking much about hockey. We talked plenty about competing, living different places, and calling Buffalo home.
The other story also involved golf. Shortly after Tom Golisano bought the Sabres, I received an invite to take part in the Sabres Alumni Golf Tournament. After dinner there were a number of speakers and former players were telling stories and taking shots at one another. Martin took his turn, told some jokes and then got really serious. He wanted to make sure that Golisano knew how much his rescuing the team from bankruptcy meant to the fans, the alumni, and to him. He was really emotional.
Richard Martin loved that team.
Sabres fans loved him.