Oh, the stories Buffalo Sabres fans can tell about the French Connection. They were larger-than-life figures in this town in the 1970s, swashbucklers of the ice for a franchise that started from scratch and nearly won a Stanley Cup in its fifth season.
And the stories can grow even more. The three members of the most famous line in the team's history – Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin and Rene Robert – now skate larger than life in bronze for all to see outside First Niagara Center.
A 7-foot statue of the French Connection was unveiled Friday night as part of the Sabres' newly christened Alumni Plaza to honor the team's past.
"Who would have thought all this while growing up in the small town of Trois Rivieres, Quebec, years ago using catalogues as shin pads, pieces of wood nailed together [as goals] and fantasizing one day of playing in the NHL," said Robert, 63. "Never mind standing here one day 50 some-odd years later looking at this."
The Sabres hosted a dinner for friends, alumni and sponsors to celebrate the unveiling, and several hundred blue-and-gold-clad fans were also on hand on Perry Street for the ceremony. Broadcaster Rick Jeanneret hosted the event, and owner Terry Pegula greeted Perreault and Robert on a stage set up on the arena's plaza.
"This is a statue of three people who played hockey in this town who inspired me," Pegula told the crowd. "Not only through the way they played but by what they accomplished on the ice, the unselfishness and just the sheer thrill they brought to every fan, which I was one at the time."
"It was magic. We had some great years together," said Perreault, 61. "This is a great honor. There's a lot of people from Victoriaville, Quebec (his hometown), that are here, that I didn't expect to be here. A lot of tourists from Quebec will come and look at this because of the French Connection. Three French guys who were very popular in Canada and very popular here. There will be tourists who will stop and take a picture of it."
Martin, who died in 2011 less than a month after Pegula purchased the team, was represented on stage by his 26-year-old son, Cory, who was born five years after his father's NHL career ended prematurely in 1981 due to knee injuries.
"I got older, and my dad was my own height, and now I'm looking up at him again," Cory Martin said, referring to the 7-foot-high likenesses. "It's like being a little kid again. It's incredible."
The statue was completed by Jerry McKenna of Boerne, Texas, who is most known for doing 17 busts at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, and a sculpture of legendary Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne at the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Ind.
The statue was based on a photo taken by Courier-Express photographer Ron Moscati during a 1975 playoff game against Montreal. Moscati, who turned 80 in August and had a long career at The Buffalo News after the Courier closed in 1982, has always treasured the picture, because it was a rare one that had all three players in the shot.
"The people in this city loved the French Connection and made that team an instant success for a new team," Moscati said. "All these years I knew I had that picture, and I wanted them to somehow make it big so people could enjoy it. Terry Pegula did it one step further. I never thought of that in a million years. He went well beyond it. Tonight has been so special for me."
The statue's unveiling was part of the Sabres' new Alumni Plaza. The names of all 401 players in franchise history have been placed on bricks on the pillars leading from the arena parking ramp. Fans have also purchased bricks with their names on them.
The ongoing NHL lockout did, however, cast a pall over the ceremony. Scheduled several months ago, the ceremony was set to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the line's formation in October 1972 – and with the season opener that was supposed to be tonight in First Niagara Center against the Pittsburgh Penguins. That game, of course, will not take place, as the NHL has canceled all games through Oct. 25 and will likely cancel more next week. "It is sad," Robert said. "They have their differences they have to work out. Hopefully, it will be resolved soon so fans who enjoy the game of hockey can see what's coming for the Sabres."
"I don't really know anything about the lockout. It's something between two men," Perreault said, referring to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and players association Executive Director Donald Fehr. "Let's wait and see. Let's hope they come back to the table and get some hockey going."