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Original Issue

Enter a terrible swift Sabre

Buffalo fans haven't much to cheer except the scoring of wondrous Rick Martin, who just might become the NHL's first 50-goal rookie

When you touch down at Buffalo these days, likely as not the pilot will chuckle over the speaker: "We have just landed at the Greater Buffalo International Airport. Set your watches back 20 years." Ho, ho! Another weary Buffalo joke. But if you are a National Hockey League player about to face off against Buffalo's gritty young expansion team, the Sabres, then there is little in the quip to giggle about. "That damned Rick Martin," they say, "he reminds me of Rocket Richard—20 years ago."

Granted, the reference to hockey's first 50-goal superstar is a bit hyperbolic. Particularly since it is based on just half a season. But with 33 games left to play, Buffalo rookie Richard Lionel Martin has left some mighty impressive grooves on the NHL ice. He stands 5'11", weighs 170 pounds, plays left wing and shoots left. As the week ended with home and home games against the formidable Montreal Canadiens, he had managed to score 31 goals—only six fewer than Boston's Phil Esposito. An "indiscriminate" scorer, as one Sabre put it—i.e., he gets goals against strong and weak teams with equal ease—Martin attacked the Habs zestfully, and wound up with two goals as the teams split the series.

Saturday's game, played in the hostile Forum, was a near-perfect miniature of the Sabre season: Martin resplendent in a Buffalo defeat. The score was Montreal 6, Martin 2, remaining Sabres 0. Martin got both his goals in the middle period, the first on a flick-of-the-wrists conversion of a pass by Defenseman Larry Hillman from 25 feet out. The second was a neat, opportunistic backhander from 10 feet after a pass from behind the net. Simply by coasting the rest of the way he is a cinch to break the league's rookie record of 38 goals set last year by his talented teammate, Gil Perreault. Indeed, Buffalo's crusty coach, George (Punch) Imlach, often studies the cover of this season's NHL guide, which features the glowing faces of the league's five 50-plus goal scorers—Richard, John Bucyk, Bobby Hull, Bernie Geoffrion, Phil Esposito—and says: "There's one space open on that page. We might just balance it out for them this year."

Balance, of course, is the key word, and Martin demonstrates it on many levels. During his rise to prominence as an amateur in Canada, he was known—far, wide and frostbitten—as Ree-CHAR Mar-TAN. No sooner had he crossed the border as the Sabres' first draft choice—and fifth pick in the league—than he dropped the French connection. Plain old Rick Martin from there on out. For a kid of 20, he shows remarkable aplomb both on the ice and off. "I speak French and English with equal inability," he laughs.

"My main concern right now is my weight," Martin says. "Early last summer I weighed only 160 pounds. Pretty frail for the NHL. Then I went up to a camp in the mountains of Vermont where they guaranteed to put muscle on you with a diet of 7,000 calories a day and plenty of running. We'd eat these monster breakfasts and then take off on a six-mile jog. I love to fish, so we'd run up the mountain to a lake full of brook trout, catch a string of them and run back down. I got my weight up to 172, but I'm still shooting for 180."

Despite his apparent fragility in contrast to a muscleman like Bobby Hull, Martin has plenty of physical strength. Meet him in street clothes and you might take him for an apprentice sales clerk—dun-colored hair, shoebutton eyes, no taller or wider than the run of the stockroom. But his handshake is something else: a knuckle-bender that seems to extrude one's fingernails a quarter inch per squeeze. And though he is drawing down something like $50,000 including bonuses in this, his rookie year, there is none of the mink-coat flash about Martin that other hockey players affect. His only concession to show is a red Triumph GT6 sports car which he tools around the gelid roads of the northland with the style of a nascent Mark Donohue. It is odd to realize that he is one of the richest 20-year-olds in sport on either side of the border.

Martin grew up under a severe handicap: he started skating at the advanced age of 4½. "Many Canadian kids begin at 2," he grumps. Part of that delay may have been due to intercultural adjustments. Rick's grandparents were Swiss-French (on the paternal side) and Swiss-German (maternally). His father, though French-speaking by heritage, was born in London, and removed to Canada at a tender age. "My dad could have made it in professional hockey," says Rick, "but he went to war—you know, World War II—just when he would have been ready for the pros. He had a good time of it, though. He was in the Normandy invasion. I was looking through some of the pictures he sent my mother back then, and along with the wreckage and his buddies there were always a few French chicks. I ask him, 'How's that, Dad?' And he grins and says, 'Well, they were just hanging around, you know?' Yeah, my dad could have made it in the pros."

Though he was born in Montreal, Rick spent his formative years in Hull, Ontario, the French-speaking enclave on the other side of the river from Anglo Ottawa. Whatever the complexes that environment might induce in others, it did not deprive young Richard of an uncanny eye for the goal and mitts to match. "I don't do any special exercises for the wrists," he says, "but I play a lot of golf, which helps. I've been golfing since I was 10, when my dad got us a bag of clubs for $15. I used to caddie at the Royal Ottawa—heck of a nice course—and when I was 14, I was shooting in the low 80s. My handicap is down to about one or two now, but I lost a lot of years when I was concentrating on becoming a hockey player.

"I knew I could make it as a hockey pro when I was 13. I was playing in both the bantam and the midget leagues then, and I was top scorer in both of them, 85 goals in the bantams and 30 in the midgets. Bobby Hull had brought in the slap shot when I was just a baby—around 8—and it really caught on. I can remember breaking five, six sticks a week practicing it. My father really chewed me out for that. It was shooting, shooting, shooting, shooting. And it paid off."

Still does, for that matter. A firm believer in the old adage that practice makes money, Martin usually stays on the ice after the other Sabres have been sheathed, working on both his slap and his wrist shots. Though he prefers the slap—"because it lets me get set up"—his teammates and coaches think his wrist shot is better, if only because it is quicker than most others. "Rick is a natural goal scorer," says veteran Phil Goyette, who helped Martin adjust to the fluid defenses of the pros. "He has the shot and the knack of picking a corner as well as any youngster I've seen come into the league."

Martin himself loves the choice—and the analysis—involved in various shots. "I'm more accurate with the slap shot," he insists, waiting for a challenge, "but I'm faster in getting off the wrist shot." Then he puts the surge to his verbal skates. "Oh, what the heck, shooting is just plain fun. You're carrying the puck, feeling it move from the tip to the heel, and you make your move. You look at the net—you can see the mesh back of the guy's body. Where the goalie's not, that's where you want to shoot. Then you look back down at the puck to just double-check where it is. Then you shoot, and you watch the puck through its trajectory. Just before it reaches the guy, you know if it's in. If the goalie made the first move, you've usually got him. If he stayed tough, it's up to you to make the opening. It's harder to beat the guy who doesn't move. Anyway, you've just gotta keep moving in for the rebound, because you never know if there won't be one."

Buffalo's hockey fans respond to the scoring style of Martin and Perreault with an enthusiasm that belies the Sabres' niche near the bottom of the East Division. During a recent game with the Boston Bruins they greeted the Effete Eastern Tough Guys with signs that read: "Boston Pinkos" and "Who Needs Phil and Orr, We Have Gil and Rick to Score!" When Esposito, the hottest pinko, slammed in the first goal of the game (which was to end 5-2 in you know whose favor), the predominantly Italian rooters chanted: "Kill that spaghetti bender!" Esposito had added to his league-leading total of goals, and that miffed the Buffalonians, who are firmly convinced that their own kid should win the scoring title this year. Even with Punch Imlach out of action with a heart attack, the support of those fans could help Rick Martin keep his balance. And even if the place is 20 years behind the times, as the airline pilots claim, there are plenty of folks, plus at least one hockey player, who think Buffalo is right up to the minute.