Robert dies at 72, played on French Connection line for Sabres

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Rene Robert, best known as the right wing of the Buffalo Sabres’ “French Connection” line of the 1970s, died Tuesday after he had a heart attack in Florida last week. He was 72.

Skating with center Gilbert Perreault and left wing Richard Martin on Buffalo’s famous line, Robert played 744 games in 12 NHL seasons from 1970-82, scoring 702 points (284 goals, 418 assists) for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Pittsburgh Penguins, Sabres and Colorado Rockies.

A native of Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, Robert’s NHL career began with five games with the Maple Leafs, then continued the next season with the Penguins before he was traded to the Sabres for forward Eddie Shack on March 4, 1972.

In 1974-75, the Sabres’ fifth season in the NHL, Robert helped them reach the Stanley Cup Final, when they lost in six games to the Philadelphia Flyers, who won their second consecutive championship. It was Robert’s best NHL season; he scored a career-high 100 points (40 goals, 60 assists) and was named MVP of the Sabres.

The “French Connection” line of Perreault, from Victoriaville, Quebec; Martin, a native of Montreal-district Verdun; and Robert electrified Sabres fans and terrorized the opposition. It was Robert who dug into the corners and usually came out with the puck, feeding his linemates.

“Well, it makes your life a lot easier when you play with two tremendous hockey players,” Robert told hockey columnist Joe Pelletier in reflection. “Back in the ’70s, our line was very famous throughout the League. A lot of people say, ‘What is it like to play with people like that?’ To be very honest with you, it takes an awful lot of luck.

“I believe everything in life comes to you with a reason and that there’s a meaning to everything that we do, but the fact that I played with [Perreault and Martin], what made us click and what made us so good was pure luck. Chemistry was there, there’s no two ways about it. But when you play with people of that caliber, it’s a lot easier to play hockey.”

Robert was traded to the Rockies by the Sabres for defenseman John Van Boxmeer on Oct. 5, 1979, and was traded to the Maple Leafs by the Rockies for a draft pick Jan. 30, 1981.

Robert scored 40 goals twice in the NHL (1972-73, 1974-75), and scored 35 goals in 1975-76 and 33 in 1976-77.

His most famous goal surely came on home ice May 20, 1975, the Game 3 Stanley Cup Final winner scored at 18:29 of overtime. The Sabres’ 5-4 win capped a surreal game that featured several delays to skate off a fog that shrouded the ice, a bat circling the rink that caused a few additional delays, and a fan who tried to pick a fight with Flyers heavyweight Dave Schultz.

Retiring to work as a brewery sales representative, Robert played a strong role with the NHL Alumni Association, serving as its president.

“Kim and I were saddened to hear the devastating news of Rene Robert’s passing. When we first took over as owners, the members of the French Connection were three of the first people to welcome us to the organization,” Sabres owner Terry Pegula said in a statement. “During our time with the team, Rene has been one of the most active alumni and we’ve grown to know him well over the past 10 years. He was a friend to us and to the entire organization and will be missed dearly. Our thoughts and prayers are with Rene’s family during this difficult time.”

Perreault, 70, is the sole surviving member of the “French Connection” line, Martin having died in 2011 at age 59. The line is celebrated with a statue of each player, the centerpiece of Alumni Plaza at the Sabres’ KeyBank Center.

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