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Rick Martin became part of Buffalo lore because of his athletic talents. He was one-third of the most fabled line in Sabres history, and his scoring ability created fans and admirers.

It was away from the rink, however, where Martin really made an impression on Western New Yorkers. The fun-loving Quebec native took time to talk with fans when he played in the 1970s, and the long chats continued after his retirement, when he chose to stay in the area. He was quick with a joke, often told in the relaxed setting of a tavern, golf course or autograph session.

If there was a party, Martin was usually the life of it.

That was the Martin that Mike Robitaille chose to remember Sunday while mourning the death of his former teammate. Martin died Sunday afternoon at age 59 while driving in Clarence, a sudden death that brought tears to eyes throughout HSBC Arena and the area.

"What are we doing being so emotional when what he stands for is to have fun and laugh?" Robitaille said prior to the Sabres' home game against Ottawa. "Man, we should have the biggest party in the world for Richard. If he was in this situation, he'd have it for himself."

Martin will indeed be remembered as an all-around fun guy and talented player, but his absence will be sadly observed at future gatherings featuring the Sabres.

When new owner Terry Pegula took over the team Feb. 23, he made it clear the past was just as important as the future. Martin and fellow "French Connection" linemates Gilbert Perreault and Rene Robert greeted Pegula at center ice for the owner's first game, and Pegula promised they'd be together for years.

That reunion turned out to be Martin's final appearance.

"We had a lot of plans in the future for these guys," Pegula said. "Now we've got an empty chair, but it will be there."

Martin died in a one-car accident that was reported at 12:14 p.m., State Police Capt. Steven A. Nigrelli said at a news conference in the State Police barracks in Clarence. Martin, an Akron resident, was driving west on Main Street when he apparently suffered a medical emergency, Nigrelli said.

Martin's 2001 Buick LaCrosse sedan drifted into the eastbound lane and off the road before smashing into a utility pole and a stanchion in a town-owned parking lot across the street from Clarence Bowling Academy, just west of Salt Road, according to police and fire officials.

Martin didn't strike any other vehicles, and the only other occupant in his sedan was his dog, a German shepherd, which survived the accident. Witnesses told investigators that Martin was slumped over the wheel and his eyes appeared closed as he drifted off the road.

Martin was wearing his seat belt, and his airbags deployed, Nigrelli said.

Two passers-by stopped to assist Martin, who was unresponsive, and began performing CPR on him through the front driver's side window, which shattered during the accident.

Trooper Ronald Nero, the first emergency responder on the scene, and the passers-by pulled Martin out of the vehicle and continued to try to save his life. Paramedics from the Clarence Fire Department and Twin City Ambulance soon responded and transported Martin in a Fire Department ambulance to Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital in Amherst, said Clarence Fire Chief Marshall Helms.

Martin was declared dead at the hospital at 12:48 p.m.

The cause of the accident remains under investigation. A full autopsy, including toxicology screening, will be performed. Nigrelli was asked whether Martin had a heart attack.

"Not being a medical professional I couldn't, representing the State Police, say that officially," he said. "All indications are that it could possibly be a pre-accident medical emergency that caused this."

The shock reverberated through Sabreland.

"This is going to be tough for everybody in Buffalo," said Robert, the French Connection's right winger. "I don't know where they're having the funeral, but a lot of people are going to show up."

Said Perreault, whose name and number hangs on a banner alongside those of Martin and Robert in the HSBC Arena rafters: "At least we were together one more time. We didn't see each other much the past 20 years, but you don't forget all the years that we were together.

"Rick was the guy with all the jokes. He was funny around people. I'm sure the people really enjoyed his presence."

That was evident in the case of Kenmore's Paula Pierce. The 49-year-old, clad in a white No. 7 Martin jersey, fought back tears in the HSBC Arena atrium upon being informed of Martin's death.

"I've loved that man since I was 9 years old," Pierce said. "I remember one time at the Sabres Carnival I got to sit on his lap and have my picture taken with him. I remember my knees were shaking.

"The other two, they signed their names, eh, whatever. He always just talked. He always had something to say. He just seemed more personable."

Larry Playfair, another former teammate and president of the Sabres alumni association, said Martin was one of the most requested players for charity appearances. Martin nearly always delivered.

"Whatever he could do for the community, he did," Playfair said. "Most of you folks know that. You've seen him somewhere along the way."

Seymour Knox IV, son of the late former Sabres owner, expressed shock over Martin's death, saying he had followed the star winger since he came to training camp as a rookie in 1971.

"He always had a great sense of humor. He was a strong member of the Sabres alumni after his retirement. And, another side of him is that he was a successful businessman after hockey," Knox said.

Like others who knew Martin, Knox also noted how good a golfer he was -- both right- and left-handed.

"He was really great at it. You would always see him with a cigar in his mouth. He had great jokes, too," he said.

"It was way before his time, and he will be missed," Knox said.

Troopers are among those taking Martin's death hard, Nigrelli said.

"He supports law enforcement. We've known Rick. Most of us golf with him," Nigrelli said, recalling Martin's habit of leaving behind his cigar ashes on golf course greens. "He's a great guy. He's a great guy for Clarence, great guy for Western New York. And as a kid growing up, he's an icon."

One of Martin's favorite haunts, the Clarence Grille, is located about one mile west of the accident scene. Martin was a regular at the bar and restaurant, formerly known as Finlock's, and employees and patrons were struggling to absorb the news.

"This was his hangout," owner Shari Martell said. "This is where he came, and he was just a regular guy here."

Martin was hardly regular on the ice, where he scored 382 goals in 681 games with the Sabres from 1971 to 1981. He scored 52 goals in 1974-75 to help lead the Sabres to the Stanley Cup finals, where they lost to Philadelphia. Martin was inducted into the Sabres' Hall of Fame in 1989.

"He had this desire in his gut to score," said Robitaille, the Sabres' television analyst. "Scoring was everything to him -- everything."

Martin is survived by his wife, Mikey, and their two sons, Corey and Josh.

"We lost a heck of a guy," said Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, who played with Martin and hired him as an assistant for one season. "He was a great person. I think anybody that crossed his path would say the same. It's a tough one to take."

e-mails: jvogl@buffnews.com and swatson@buffnews.com