Long hair, side burns, and mustaches, professional athletes in the 70’s had a look about them that fit well with the times. As I have mentioned before, the 1970’s were not a pretty decade for Western New York. The Attica prison riot of 1971 was a harbinger of the decade to come. The economic recession that began in the 70’s, has never quite gone away. Industries were suffering, and the jobs that were lost would not be replaced. Our news seemed dominated by doom and gloom. The blizzard made us the butt of jokes on late night TV, and locally the biggest stories to gain national attentions were nothing to be proud of. A decade that began with a prison riot, ended with the Love Canal disaster. The perfect bookends to a time most of us would sooner forget.
It was during the 70’s that the local interest in professional sports seemed to really take root. Maybe because we needed sports more than ever to escape the reality of life at the time. The Bills had been around since the start of the AFL in 1959, and they had won some championships, but Buffalo wasn’t really considered major league until the merger, and the arrival of both the Sabres and Buffalo Braves in 1970. While the Braves never quite caught on, and would ultimately follow our industrial jobs, and leave for warmer climates, the Sabres captured the hearts of local fans. In many ways, they were a bigger draw than the already established Bills.
In Buffalo, the Bills suffered through some horrible years, despite having O.J. Simpson in his prime. But for 7 glorious years Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin, and Rene Robert gave Buffalonians something to be excited about. They were the top line of the Buffalo Sabres, known as the “French Connection” after the Gene Hackman movie of the same name. During the Sabres run to the Stanley Cup finals in 75, they were so popular they even had their own song.
Lookout! Here comes the French Connection
It wasn’t the prettiest of times in the NHL. The rival WHA had diluted the talent pool, and the thuggery of the Philadelphia Flyers and the Broad Street Bullies was in vogue. But in Buffalo, things were different. These three Quebecois played with a fluid artistry that even 30 years later is still amazing to behold. While the Flyers would grind out two Cups by employing caveman tactics, and mastering the dump & chase style that made them successful, in Buffalo the Sabres were playing a classic, freewheeling, attacking style of hockey that was fun to watch.
Gilbert Perreault was the first player picked during the 1970 amateur draft. He was fresh from Junior hockey, and he would become the cornerstone of the great Sabres teams of this decade. If he had played for the Canadiens, or a large market team, he would have become a household name. Stuck in Buffalo like the rest of us, he would always be in the shadows of guys like Lafleur. For that reason, we identified with him all the more.
Perreault had the softest hands I have ever seen with the puck. When he weaved down the ice in one of his patented end to end rushes, he seemed as if he was stick handling an egg. While he showed his brilliance during his first 2 years in the league, it wasn’t until he was teamed with Martin and Robert that the team would take off. By their 5th season in existence they reached the Stanley Cup finals. Not too bad for an expansion team in any league.
When I think of the quintessential hockey player, I think of Gilbert Perreault. In searching around on the internet this week, I came across a wonderful montage of his highlights. My favorite one comes at about the 3 minute mark, as he makes a Canadiens defenseman look foolish, and leaves Ken Dryden waving his arms in vain. Man could that guy skate. At times he seemed to be almost horizontal to the ice as he turned and wheeled his way into the zone. As the defense lunged, and converged on him, he usually followed with a soft, deft pass onto the stick of either Martin or Robert, and just like that the puck would be in the net. Don’t take my word for it, watch the film for yourself here.
Big name stars come and go. In this day of free agency it is rare for one player to play his entire career for one team. Even Gretzky left the Oilers after 9 years. Perreault played all 17 of his years in a Sabres Uniform. He was the first, the original Sabre, and he will not soon be forgotten. So on behalf of Western New York, thanks for the memories Gil.