Today, upon his passing, Rick Martin will be greatly missed by generations of Sabres fans. But he will also be greatly remembered.
Though playing for the Stanley Cup twice in team history, perhaps the greatest game ever played by the Blue and Gold was an exhibition game, played on January 4th, 1976.
It was in the days long before Alexander Mogilny’s defection to the United States opened the door for Russian players to play in the NHL, when the USSR’s top two teams, the “Red Army” and “Soviet Wings,” crossed the Atlantic ocean to descend upon North America and lay waste to their NHL opponents.
The foe was intimidating, and shrouded in mystery. At a time deep within the Cold War, there was barely any public awareness of just how incredibly good the Soviet teams were. Rick Martin was taken a bit aback when he saw them skate at their morning practice. From a 2003 interview with Hockey Digest:
“We stared in amazement as they were just throwing the puck to spots. They were buzzing around, but they were throwing it blind. It was obvious that this was why some of these plays often looked so good.”
In the Soviet Wings’ previous contest versus Pittsburgh, they employed their style of breakaway speed and skill to take an early 5-0 lead, before the Penguins eventually could find their footing to finish the game 7-4. Martin and the Sabres took a lesson from that game, however: it was the switch to an aggressive forecheck and physical defense that gave Pittsburgh its slim chance.
Martin and the other Sabres knew they could skate with any team – and that they had one thing that the Soviet team did not have: size.
“The guy who really set the tone for the physical part of the game was Jerry Korab. He was a tough defenseman. They called him “Kong” because he was so big and strong. He was hitting everything in sight. He hit Alexander Yakushev, the Russians’ main weapon, about six or seven times. I mean he hit him with some thundering checks. Clean, but hard.”
In fact, Bill Hajt, Jim Schoenfeld, Jerry Korab and Jocelyn Guevremont all stood at least 6’2” tall and weighed over 200 pounds. Guevremont scored the 1st tally of the game, and then as the defense continued to batter the Wings’ offense, Martin was free to work the forecheck and assault the net.
On a goal by Gilbert Perreault and 2 by Martin, the Sabres skated off the ice leading 4-2 after the first period. In turn, the battered Wings limped into their locker room to rally and find a way to match Martin and the Sabres’ ferocious play. They never did.
The Sabres would finish the Wings off, by the incredible margin of 12-6. It was the only loss either the Red Army or Soviet Wings would suffer in the series.
Rick Martin’s 2 goals and 3 assists earned him 1st star honors. “I had never been so fired up for a game,” said Martin. “I had played in a lot of big games, but that truly was the game I’ll never forget.”
Punch Imlach called the game the highlight of 1975-76 campaign – and the highlight of his career. In Budd Bailey’s “The History of the Buffalo Sabres,” Imlach also said that the game “was the all-time high point for the Sabres.”
Lest we forget.