Rick Martin, left, and longtime teammate Gilbert Perreault were among the former Sabres on hand at a Feb. 23, 2011, game to welcome new team ownership. ((David Duprey/Associated Press))

Rick Martin, the first 50-goal scorer for the Buffalo Sabres and a member of their famed French Connection line, died Sunday.

New York State Police Capt. Steven Nigrelli said Martin was pronounced dead at a suburban Buffalo hospital at 1 p.m., about a half hour after the car he was driving crossed the centre line on the road, rolled along the shoulder and struck a utility pole before coming to rest against a tree.

Nigrelli said witnesses spotted the 59-year-old Martin driving with his head slumped and eyes closed before the crash, which occurred in the Buffalo suburb of Clarence. Nigrelli said it appeared Martin had "an undetermined medical emergency" before the accident.

The accident preceded by a heart attack, according to numerous local media reports. No one else was hurt.

Two passers-by and eventually a state trooper performed CPR on Martin, who remained unresponsive when removed from the vehicle. Martin's German shepherd dog was also in the vehicle and stood by, Nigrelli said.

An autopsy will be conducted to determine the cause of death.

Martin was an NHL star in the 1970s with 384 goals and 317 assists for 701 points in 685 games, all but a handful with the Sabres.

Current Sabres coach Lindy Ruff was among the former teammates who spoke Sunday afternoon before Buffalo hosted Ottawa.

"We lost a real good person today, and it's a tough one to take," said Ruff.

Top line

During his time in Buffalo, Martin combined with fellow French Canadians Gilbert Perreault and René Robert to give Buffalo the top line in the league for a time, and they helped lead the Sabres to the 1975 Stanley Cup final in just the franchise's fifth year of existence.

"Rick was not only one of the greatest players in franchise history, he was a great friend to the Sabres organization and the entire community," the team said in a statement.

Born in Verdun, Que., Martin starred with the Montreal Junior Canadiens and was selected fifth overall by Buffalo general manager Punch Imlach in the 1971 NHL amateur draft. The Sabres claimed longtime contributors Craig Ramsay and Bill Hajt in the later rounds of that draft. 

Martin was such a precocious talent that after a 44-goal rookie season with Buffalo — then an NHL record for a rookie — he was part of the Canadian contingent selected for the Summit Series against the Soviet Union. Although he never played in the famous 1972 series, he did score three times for his country in its triumphant Canada Cup win four years later.

Martin scored 52 goals in consecutive seasons for Buffalo, including in 1974-75, when he contributed seven goals and eight assists in 17 playoff games as the Sabres eventually lost in six games to Philadelphia in the Stanley Cup final.

"He hit the blue-lline and he was going to find a way to put it in the net one way or another," said former teammate and current Sabres broadcaster Mike Robitaille.

"He had this fire," Robitaille added. "Scoring was everything to him, he just lived and died [for] sticking the puck in the net.

"His eyes lit up when he had those opportunities."

Following Sunday's 6-4 victory over visiting Ottawa, Sabres players gathered at centre and raised their sticks, pointing to Martin's banner. They also wore a helmet sticker featuring Martin's name, his uniform No. 7, and a fleur-de-lis.

Rip Simonick, who's been the Sabres equipment manager since the team's inception in 1970, had difficulty holding back tears following the game.


"Rico was a Buffalo Sabre from Day 1. He played hard for the team, and it's a little emotional for me," Simonick said.

Perreault and Martin. former teammates in junior hockey with the Junior Canadiens, clashed on occasion, and in 1975-76, coach Floyd Smith even broke up the top trio for a while.

At the 1977 NHL all-star game in Vancouver, Martin scored twice in the third period to win it for his conference and take most valuable player honours.

The French Connection was done for good after 1978-79, however, when Robert moved on before the next season began to the Colorado Rockies.

Ruff joined the Sabres in 1979-80, Martin's last full season in the league.

"I was awestruck, I'll be honest," Ruff said of his first training camp with Martin and Perreault. "For a young kid that came out of Western Canada and a small town and watched Hockey Night in Canada, knew who the French Connection was … I felt like, the best description would be a peewee going to a midget team."

Martin was mostly healthy through his first nine NHL seasons, but ankle and back injuries were a prelude to a collision that led to a serious knee injury. He was traded to Los Angeles but played just four games with the Kings and was finished in the NHL before his 31st birthday.

There was acrimony for a number of years with the Sabres, as Martin, the team and insurance companies were entangled in several lawsuits. Martin claimed he was given an improper diagnosis for the knee injury by the team doctor, and that he was pressured by coach Scotty Bowman and others to return to the lineup too soon after the injury, leading to a premature end to his career.

Martin won an undisclosed award in 1994 against the estate of the late team doctor.

He settled in the Buffalo area and had business interests in the community. In recent weeks, Martin joined Perreault, Robert and other former Sabres to help welcome new owner Terry Pegula.

"To see the smile on all three of their faces was incredible," Ruff said of the recent reunion.

Martin is survived by a wife and three children — Erick, Josh and Cory.

With files from The Associated Press