By Ch2 Sports Director Ed Kilgore
Rick Martin became a close personal friend back in the days when I covered the Sabres on Ch2 as a young single guy in the 70's and 80's, and in retrospect, any "objectivity" I would claim to have when it came to #7 would be a bald-faced lie. Rico and his wife Mikey and I recently had dinner and it seemed like almost no time had passed when he was a member of the French Connection and I went along for the ride as the tv intermission host.
Shocked is too mild a word for what I felt when receiving the bad news, because Martin was totally enthralled with Terry Pegula's acquisition of the Sabres and with the new owner's plans to make the "Connection" an integral part of the Sabres' future. It just doesn't make sense that Martin's life, like his hockey career, would be cut short, but then again, the longer we live, the more we understand the old saying "if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans".
It would be hard to imagine knowing anyone who had more zest for life than Rick Martin. He always had that twinkle in his eye and was quick to share a joke - usually in horribly bad taste but that was part of his charm - and I have a fond memory of mc'g his 50th birthday party 9 years ago at his farm. His wife Mikey, who was as perfect a match for Rick as anyone could ever imagine, brought in Baba Booie for the occasion. For those of you who don't know who Baba is, and I didn't until I met him, he was the producer and a part of the Howard Stern Show, which Rico loved. After Rico was roasted, he took the microphone and the many women present cringed, and then laughed until they cried. Rico started to apologize when he finished, and then, predictably, said oh "bleep" it! That brought a standing ovation!
Rick could skate like the wind and had a hard shot to go with it, but he simply loved to play and it always showed, whether he was on the ice or on the bench needling his teammates. To say he had a marvelous sense of humor is an understatement.
A story I can now tell - sorry Rico - even though it doesn't reflect that well on me either, was that on one of our road trips, we wound up at our hotel in Montreal very late after a game in New York, and as sometimes happened, I was put on the same floor as some of the players. I'm just about ready to hit the sack, and somebody is pounding on my door. Yep, Rico, AFTER curfew, dragging me (ok, willingly) down to Crescent St. for a post-flight cocktail. Somewhere Punch Imlach is yelling at me now for that, but Richard Martin was a KING in Montreal, and it was awesome just to watch him hold court.
My how times have changed. Today, somebody would have snapped our picture with their IPhone and I would have been fired and Rico suspended for sure. Also back then, the line was a bit blurrier between athletes and the media - and we were pretty close in age as well - but our friendship of those days would be quite unlikely in today's world of more intense media scrutiny.
On another trip - Montreal again and again on the same floor - Rico was heading for his room as I was putting the key in my door, and I said "Rico; check it out, there's somebody already IN my room!" The desk had obviously given me a wrong key. Typical Rico though, he knocks on the door until the guy opens it a crack with the chain intact, and Martin yells "get out of there!! That's Ed's room!!!" The poor guy slams the door shut and no doubt gets very little sleep THAT night!
Rico's airport pranks were legendary, of course, and while he always had plenty of willing accomplices to help, he was almost always the instigator. One of his favorites was to put a $20 or even $50 bill on the floor at the airport, but with a thin thread attached to it. As the "victim" would bend over to pick up his or her lucky "find", the "prize" would slowly begin moving away! You kinda had to be there, but even the victims would laugh as loudly as everybody else.
One thing I'm happy to recount is that Rico and Scotty Bowman, who were at great odds when Martin was traded to LA, appeared to me anyway to genuinely patch up their differences, and Rico even told me once he had great respect for Bowman and carried no grudge whatsoever.
But it took awhile. Martin called me for the "scoop" when he decided to sue Bowman and the Sabres for $10 million because Bowman, at least in Martin's view, insisted Martin's knee injury wasn't serious enough to warrent being out of the lineup. It was Martin's contention that playing further aggravated the injury and led to the premature end to his career, and Martin would eventually win a very large settlement in the case.
I interviewed Martin at his condo as he held the legal papers and aired it on the 6pm sports on Ch2. In retrospect, I should have given the Sabres at least a "heads up" this was coming, but it was late and we aired the interview as it was. At approximately 6:31pm, I had a phone call waiting. It was Robert Swados, the Sabres legal counsel, and he was literally screaming at me that HE hadn't even been notified of this lawsuit! Oops. Needless to say, Martin thought that made it even better!
Best of all was the way I first met Rick and the rest of the French Connection. After just arriving in Buffalo at Ch2 from Houston, where the first pro hockey I'd ever seen was when they introduced the Aeros of the World Hockey League, I was sent out to interview Rick, Gil Perreault and Rene Robert after a Sabres practice at Nichols. One of them had just been snubbed in all-star voting and the idea was to get the reaction of all three.
The problem was, I'd never seen them play and had virtually NO idea what ANY of the trio looked like, and it didn't take them all of two seconds to realize it. Understand now that Rico wasn't the only one of the group with a sense of humor, and Rene and Gil were really having fun at my expense. The outakes would probably be priceless, but I eventually begged them to come clean with which was which and we did get it done correctly. For years they used to kid me about that, but it was that spirit and good nature that made them so special both on the ice and off.
But Rico was beyond special in the sense that despite his French Canadian roots, he made his home in Buffalo and considered himself "one of the guys". On the golf course, and although he belonged to Crag Burn he played all over the place, Rick would sometimes just show up and join a group. No biggie. He was always approachable and enjoyed chatting with fans of all ages, and I'm sure there will be many such stories about him confirming that. Rick did a lot of terrific things for charity and didn't want a fuss made.
We'll miss Rick Martin the great hockey player, but we'll miss Rick Martin the person even more.