Growing into adulthood, I like to think I have set myself up to be a role model for my daughters and the young minds with which I would come in contact. I hoped to be an example of what striving for a dream meant to my own life; and demonstrate the value of commitment that had become a lesson well learned. This emotion has its root in my childhood.
We grew up, four brothers with varied temperaments and interests. A span of six years from youngest to oldest, our battles were legendary around the block – a rock ’em, sock ’em tandem fighting for dominance. But that discrepancy would all but vanish in the celebration of frozen ice on a backyard pond. Lackawanna, New York, a suburb of Buffalo, was home. It may as well have been Victoriaville, Quebec. Hockey had quickly become king in Western New York. A short jaunt over a Peace Bridge was a weekly pleasure, a treasure of our puckish youth and this ice time a rag-tag group of hockey wannabes could secure at un-Godly hours at the Fort Erie Arena. In 1970, the old “Pepsi” Logo of the American Hockey League Buffalo Bisons was replaced by the charging bison above crossed swords of the new upstarts of the National Hockey League, Buffalo Sabres.
The Sabres became the glue that bound us. The team leveled our familial playing field; gave us a common ground that rose above our unique personalities. The loyalty bred through that association remains lasting. The proof in this muddled pudding came in the acquisition of three very talented players.
Gilbert Perreault (Pare-o) was THE original Sabre. The most coveted player coming out of Junior hockey that year, he was the equivalent to a Sidney Crosby of today. The majority of his first year was spend as the main attraction for an entertaining, albeit struggling expansion franchise.
Richard Martin, a teammate of his with the Montreal Junior Canadiens, joined Perreault the next year. Where as Perreault was grace and finnesse, Martin was pure power. A natural goal scorer with a knack for finding the opening from all over the ice, their chemistry flourished with the Sabres.
In short time, the Buffalo team had acquired a journeyman forward from the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for Eddie Shack, who at the time was my favorite player. The young winger, Rene Robert (Ro-Bear) stepped on the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium ice and quickly endured himself to the Sabres fans (myself included). In his experimentation, Joe Crozier, who had replaced the legendary Punch Imlach as coach of the fledgling team, combined the three on the same forward line, which would become one of the most prolific combinations in the leauge. They were dubbed the “French Connection” after the player’s French Canadian heritage and the popular movie of the same name.
The three youngest of the Wojtanik boys, brothers Tim and Ken and myself, would attach their aspirations on the rise and fall of their favorite players. Tim was the miniature version of Martin who became his idol. He possessed a hard shot and an acuity for scoring goals. An injury kept him from a tryout with the Binghamton Broome Dusters minor hockey league team and pursuing his dream of playing professionally.
Ken was a graceful skater and a very heady player. He had a touch with the puck as well, but was more of a playmaker. He took his cue from Perreault and followed his career with interest.
I was a big fan of the game, but my skills were less developed than my siblings.
Let’s say I could hold my own. As aforementioned, Robert had found his way into vision.
With those allegiances, we became the French Connection. We were Perreault, Martin and Robert, on a lesser scale. But that bond brought a unity to a family of our fractured fraternity that remains to this day. We are brothers first and foremost, and “teammates” for life.
Why do I rant? Richard Martin died yesterday in a one-vehicle crash, apparently caused by a heart attack he had suffered prior to losing control of his car. The news touched me deeply. I thought back to his playing days in Buffalo, and his unknown influence on a band of hockey playing brothers. It saddens me that a part of our youth, our very fabric, had been taken from us. I think of my brother Tim, who idolized Rick Martin to the extent of wearing his number 7 throughout his playing days. I worry for his health. With a family history for heart maladies and his more rambunctious lifestyle, I’d hate to see him suffer a similar fate.
A man died Sunday. In all, Richard Martin was a husband, father, friend, teammate, and hero to thousands of Buffalo Sabres fans. And in his passing, once more a group of brothers became connected. Rest Peacefully, Fallen Hero.