I had the honor of attending today’s public memorial for Richard Martin at HSBC arena. From the moment I read about it I was determined to attend. I was a kid when Rico tore up the NHL as a Sabre. He was one of my hockey heroes and my oldest sister’s “first official crush”, although I wouldn’t advise accusing her of being a puck bunny, she packs a mean left hook. For reasons of pure nostalgia I decided to talk the old “Aud” walk I took so many times as a kid and teenager. A parking lot used to exist where the PBS building downtown now stands. My father used to park in this lot every time he took us to a game in the Aud. From the lot we’d walk down Terrace under the 190 right to the front of the Aud. The streets today were clogged with yesterday’s snow, I was the only person on the street but it was a walk worth taking. And to be fair to my rusty hometown, it actually was a rather nice sunny day, albeit a bit on the cold side. The Aud site looked oddly peaceful this morning. The big hole that housed the solid mass of the Aud for decades was filled with snow and lined neatly with retaining walls. Alongside it the metro rolled by as I snapped a few photos. I can still see the front facade in my mind, hear the peanut man hawking his wares. Perhaps no place other than my grandparents’ home was the location of more memories for me growing up. The closer I got to HSBC Arena the more people I saw. By the time I walked into the front doors by the Sabres store I was in a small crowd of twenty or so fellow Sabres fans. Some were decked out in jerseys, most were dressed in their work clothes.
We entered the arena where you would normally go in for a game. Ushers did the usual checks for whatever. I had my camera in my hand and no one seemed to care. There was a line of employees handing out remembrance cards to everyone who entered, the card is much like an over sized trading card. The front is a photo of Rico in his French Connection prime back in the days of thin pads and no helmets. The back lists Rico’s physical stats, birthplace and a brief history of his glorious career. Sections 102-108 of the lower bowl were open for the service. The center two sections were reserved seating for the players, alumni, team officials and most importantly the Martin family. The 200 level had some people in it although the ushers told us it was also restricted; there were a number of media types up there. I ended up sitting in section 108. The center glass had been taken down on both sides of the ice, a large stage had been set up. The backdrop for the stage was a collage of photos that depicted Rico at various stages of his career. Martin’s number 7 banner had been removed from the rafters and hung in front of the backdrop from the scoreboard which was brought down fairly low center ice. A couple podiums were set up, there were some flowers. The ribbon boards were blue with “Martin” and “7″ on them. It was all fairly reserved but very appropriate. I’ve heard on the news that the Sabres estimated at least 2,000 fans attended the memorial.
The memorial itself was a testament to the family that exists around the Sabres, both immediate and extended. The speakers were all Rico’s family and friends, including his brother and son. I have to commend Ed Kilgour, he did an excellent job as master of ceremonies for lack of a better term. He was clearly emotional but moved the memorial along well and set it up with a brief statement that we were all there to celebrate and remember Rico. It was okay to cry. I was okay to laugh. It was a simple statement but well delivered and received. It broke the ice a bit as clearly people weren’t quite sure how to react or respond initially, myself included.
It was interesting to see the players at the memorial. I think today, more than anything, hammered home the fact that this game they play and profit so greatly from has tangible meaning to the fans and the city they play in. It was a move of great class and foresight for Terry Pegula and the Sabres to host the memorial. It was a great way to help the organization, players, alumni and fans come together and share a real, genuine moment together.
RJ received a partial standing ovation when he was introduced; to say the man is beloved is an understatement. In addition to his great ability to call a hockey game, RJ has in the past, as he was today, been called upon to speak. I still tear up when I remember his tearful farewell to the legendary Ted Darling, his good friend. Today, RJ delivered again. While he is the voice of the Sabres, in times of grief or joy, RJ is more accurately the voice of the fans. “Look at the person next to you, left or right, front or back and smile…. consider this… maybe just maybe this earth is a better place for having been inhabited by Richard Lionel Martin”. Did the fans look? Of course we did and we did laugh, giggle and smile. Maybe out of embarrassment, maybe out of appreciation, who knows? But we did look.
Bert and Rene drew a great deal of interest when they were introduced. Even at a memorial service the French Connection holds a power over the fans, has an ability to bring us closer to the edge of our seats. Both he and Rene delivered comments about Rico that ranged from funny to poignant. As always, they seemed at ease in front of the fans. Rene especially drew a great reaction when he pulled out a Bud and a cigar for Rico. Bert joked that he was bigger so he was going first. But Bert goes first because Bert is first. He is and always will be the cornerstone of the franchise. Anyone who doubts that should see the hold number eleven has over us fans.
Rico’s friends and brother gave us a glimpse of the man off the ice and in retirement. The portrait was a person who loved his family, loved Western New York, loved the Sabres, loved the fans, loved golf and had a great love of beer and cigars. The fact that Rico called his brother Baba Boey was something that greatly amused my friend and I, as both of us have been Howard Stern fans in the past.
Beyond doubt the most special moment of the memorial was the time Corey Martin took to address us about his dad. I am certain it could not have been easy for him to so publicly share the grief he and his family felt. But Corey set a standard for grace and class today that the Sabres will be hard pressed to match again. I simply cannot give voice to the profound respect I feel for him at the moment. Despite the profundity of his loss, Corey reached out to the fans today. He was gracious, sincere and supportive of the communal grief over his dad’s death. Corey said “I was aware from an early age that I shared my father with everybody, he was every body’s family. It’s for that very reason we hold this celebration here today”. Corey told us some of what happened the morning his father died, and how it was to be Rico’s son. It was moving and deeply personal. Corey recounted how he and his dad sat at the table drinking coffee the morning before Rico died, as they had countless other Sunday mornings. We learned how much Rico was energized and optimistic about the Sabres’ future after Terry Pegula took ownership of the franchise. Corey assured us that his father died doing what he loved most and he “got his job down when he was here. He’s up there watching us… he’s got the best seat in the house”. Through Corey, it felt as if the Martin family reached out and embraced the fans, the community and the team. If you consider the magnitude of their loss, it’s simply amazing to me that people can find a way to be so generous and gracious. Ed Kilgour was right – his father must have been very proud of his son today. As fans all we could do was stand and give him an ovation of support and gratitude. Both out of respect for what his father meant to us and what he himself had just given to the community.
I’ve been a fan of the Sabres for four decades now. I’ve seen thousands of games in the Aud, in HSBC and on the road. I have a closet full of jerseys and a mind full of memories. When I go through that internal catalog I think Corey Martin at today’s memorial for his father is the single greatest one I’ve experienced. I wrote when Pegula took over the team that he had given the franchise back its soul. Today at HSBC you could feel it. You could feel that sense of extended family, shared memories and shared emotion that cut across the generations. As the Sabres say; it’s a million little things. On days like today it’s very apparent that winning and losing don’t mean all that much. Those aren’t the things we remember, aren’t the things we truly carry around in our lives. It’s that communal sense of family and being created through a lifetime of coming together to watch a team we all love so much play a game we love equally.
Richard Martin gave us more than a few of those memories. In death he gave us one final one, perhaps the most profound and meaningful one. Rest in peace, Rico.