||On and Off the Ice, Pros
Rick Jeanneret, Rick Martin
and Mike Robitaille Prove
That Ice Guys Finish First.
by Doug Carpenter
It’s a lot like a marriage. Western New York and the Buffalo Sabres have been together for almost 36 years. And if the way we act when we’re around them is any indication, we’re still as much in love with the team as we were when they first skated into our lives back in 1970.
Of course, it does help that over the years some things have happened to, shall we say, spice things up? The most recent, as you know, was a brief but sobering period of separation, during which we were afforded the rare opportunity to see what our lives would actually be like without hockey. Happily, that crisis has passed.
But it does give us pause to stop and count our blessings… hockeywise, that is. And out of the multitude of Sabres hockey MVPs (Most Visible Personalities) who have made the team such a joy to have around, let’s start by awarding After 50’s first three stars.
The sound is unmistakable. There simply isn’t another one like it. And the amazing part is that the man behind the voice makes it look so easy. There is, of course, a very simple explanation for that.
Rick Jeanneret, the voice of the Buffalo Sabres, is the Ringo Starr of hockey broadcasting. To dispense his inimitable brand of play-by-play coverage, when he sits down at the microphone, all he has to do is act naturally. And he’s been acting that way for 43 years.
For the record, he’s been calling Sabres hockey since the team opened its second season against the Pittsburgh Penguins on October 10, 1971. And considering that those 34 years with the Sabres make him the longest-tenured broadcaster in the National Hockey League, it really is a record. But that’s not what he started out to do.
In 1942, the view south from Terrace Bay, Ontario – population little more than 1,800 – was majestic Lake Superior. And for young Rick Jeanneret, life looked pretty good, too. Good family. Good friends. Good time to be a kid, growing up in a small Canadian town where, like his Dad, John, and his Mom, Kay, most folks worked for the Kimberly-Clark paper pulp mill.
And most boys dreamed of growing up to play professional hockey. Like his peers, Jeanneret says, “I got on skates as quick as I could. I was going to do it all,” he remembers fondly of his youthful days playing Forward. “I was going to go to the pros and win the Stanley Cup.”
But even though those early aspirations for hockey stardom shifted to a desire for a career in broadcasting, his love for the game remained as much a part of him as an intrinsic part of the country he grew up in. That devotion would come in handy later when fate would make an unexpected substitution in the game of life.
In broadcasting as in hockey, you have to pay your dues playing in the minor leagues before you get picked up by a major market team and become a starter. At age 20, Jeanneret, fresh out of a 13-week “cram course” at Chicago’s Midwestern Broadcasting School, was preparing to begin a career in radio that would consume the next 44 years of his life.
Although the school’s placement program had lined him up with a job offer at a station in Des Moines, Iowa, the newly-minted air personality decided to take his show on the road leading back home to Ontario. It would turn out be a “right place at the right time” decision that would ultimately change his life.
And so the “dues paying” began, through a career that had “local boy makes good” written all over it. Working his way up in a industry where the term “6-to-midnight air shift” was a lot more common than a “9-to-5 job” Jeanneret logged thousands of hours of air time seasoning the sound that would become his trademark.
This, Jeanneret points out, was back in the pre-computerized era of studio turntables and newsroom teletype machines. Although he’s proud to say that he was “the king of ‘rip and read’ news,” where the deejay delivers breaking stories hot off the wire, he proudly notes that he always managed to avoid the messy task of changing the machine’s ribbon, leaving the job to the traditionally-described “ink-stained wretches” of the reporting staff.
For radio personalities, you have to get up pretty early in the morning to make it big. And that’s not just a figure of speech, either, since one of the primo gigs in that industry is the job of “morning man.” For Rick Jeanneret, the big time was CJRN-AM in Niagara Falls, Ontario. The station became the radio home for hometown boy Jeanneret, who as a fixture in local broadcasting became one of the most familiar and recognizable voices for radio listeners throughout Southern Ontario as well as across the border in neighboring Western New York
Jeanneret has met his share of famous faces, as well. In addition to the cavalcade of hockey greats you’d expect him to have rubbed elbow pads with over the years, he recalls other celebrities who’ve passed through the always well-traveled Niagara region. He had the pleasure of accompanying actress and TV game show panelist Peggy Cass of To Tell the Truth fame on the Maid of the Mist. “She said that the picture of the Falls that appeared on the Shreddies cereal box didn’t do it justice.”
But even as Jeanneret was beginning to make his mark as a radio personality – a job he says he loved… which is a good thing considering he did it for three decades – fate still had a few cards it hadn’t shown involving the other passion from Jeanneret’s youth, hockey. That hand would be dealt in 1963.
While attending a Niagara Falls Flyers game in Ontario’s Junior A Division, Jeanneret was asked to step in and call play-by-play for the event when the scheduled announcer fell ill. He obviously rose to the occasion because his performance led to an invitation to become the team’s color analyst the following season. A year later he signed on as their full-time radio play-by-play commentator. The rest, as they say, is sports history.
When professional hockey finally came to Buffalo in the ’70s, Jeanneret was ready. After demonstrating his abilities calling for the then Sabres minor league affiliate Cincinnati Swords in 1971, he was called up to call the new NHL franchise’s radio games. Always the trooper, he would also continue doing his popular CJRN morning show until 1992, when he retired to give his Sabres radio duties his full attention.
It’s probably a good thing he freed up his schedule, because after continuing as the Sabres’ radio voice until 1995, he succeeded his longtime friend and colleague Ted Darling to become play-by-play announcer for the team’s television broadcasts. Darling had held the position from 1970 until his long struggle with Pick's Disease ended his highly-respected career.
Still, as attractive as the TV job offer was, Jeanneret recalls that he “thought long and hard” before accepting it. He knew and loved covering hockey for what had become a large and loyal radio following, but was realistic about the adjustments crossing over to the television side could entail.
He notes, however, that his concerns were quickly put to rest when the Sabres organization assured him that while they very much wanted him to make the move, “They didn’t want me to change one bit” the way he called the game. “That clinched it for me,” he says, giving him the freedom to be “exactly the same today as when I started with the NHL.”
As dean of the elite corps of broadcasters who give professional hockey’s 30 teams their distinctive voices and media personalities, Jeanneret clearly has a unique perspective on the trials and subsequent transformation the sport has recently been through and where it’s likely to go in the years ahead. And speaking as both a participant and a fan, he is simultaneously upbeat and candid in his assessment of the game.
First of all, he’s quite emphatic when he says that he’s enjoying hockey today more than ever, noting that the rule changes that took effect when league play resumed after last year’s lockout “have all been for the better. They’ve made the game a lot more exciting, a lot more fun to broadcast, and certainly a lot more fun to watch.”
And if anyone should know, he should, considering that, in addition to being Spectator #1 for every Sabres game, he estimates that he watches at least one game a night at home in Niagara Falls, Ontario, where he and his wife Sandra raised two sons, Mark and Chris. And thanks to the kind of TV sports package you can’t imagine a hockey fan of Jeanneret’s caliber ever being without, he admits that it’s “sometimes even three or four games at a time.”
Of course, befitting the true original that he is,
Jeanneret clearly appreciates that he and the team and town he has served with such pride and professionalism have formed a classic mutual admiration society. For his part, his regard for the fans and the community runs deep. “I absolutely love Buffalo’s fans,” he declares. “They’re ready to go each and every game and are very passionate about their sport. They live and die with their teams.”
Understandably, the connection he feels with them is stronger than ever. It’s had a long time to grow. And whether you’re talking a marriage or a job, these days, 34 years is a pretty good run… not that he has any desire to hang up his headphones yet. “I’ve been doing this for so long,” he says, “I can’t think of anything else I’d want to do.”
And who can blame him? After all, he does have the best seat in the house.
Of course, you can’t use the word “connection” in a Buffalo hockey story without combining it with its inseparable companion, “French.” Just like you can’t talk about the Buffalo Sabres without triggering a flood of reminiscences of one of the greatest legacies the team has given hockey fans not only here but anywhere that they know and love the game.
Their names remain as tightly interwoven as their playing styles were at the peak of their power and popularity. Paired with teammates Gilbert Perreault and Rene Robert, longtime Sabres fans will gladly go on at great length about the magic that #7, Rick Martin, made on the ice.
His stats were unquestionably impressive. In the course of his 685-game NHL career, he racked up 384 goals with 317 assists for a hefty total of 701 points. In the ’74-‘75 season, he scored 52 goals and 95 points in just 68 games. Martin scored at least 44 goals five times in his NHL career.
Martin, however, would be the first to say “But who’s counting?” Ask him what his favorite memories are from his hockey-playing days and you’re much more likely to hear about the friends he made and the satisfaction he experienced getting to play a game that he loved for a living.
Still, the adulation continues to follow him, even though it’s been more than 25 years since he hung up his skates and made the transition to life after hockey. “It’s amazing to me,” he says modestly, “that people still come walking up to me to ask for an autograph and say thank you for the years they watched me play. It’s a pretty neat feeling to be remembered like that.”
Now 54, Martin has a lot of memories of his own, dating back to the simpler time of his youth growing up in his native Quebec. He remembers when playing hockey involved friends and frozen ponds rather than teams with matching jerseys and lighted arenas. Those times, he recalls, didn’t last nearly long enough, thanks to the system by which Canada cultivates so much outstanding hockey talent.
He played on his first organized team – for Saint Benoit Abbee parish – at the ripe old age of 12. They won the championship that year… of course… and the career that followed was pretty much what you’d expect from someone with the level of skill that made Martin so successful here in Buffalo.
By the time that 12 year-old turned 13, he had been recruited to play on the equivalent of a Canadian youth hockey All-Star team. With teammates like future NHL stars Marcel Dionne and Guy Lafleur, that team won, too. It was no surprise, then, that the Montreal Canadiens organization would sign Martin at age 14, anxious to see what kind of future star he could be molded into.
With no intention of glossing over the years and seasoning that followed, but perhaps one of the most interesting details of that part of Martin’s story is the fact that, while playing for the Montreal Junior Canadiens, another promising, young talent who played with him on that team – a fellow by the name of Gil Perreault – roomed with Martin’s family. Stars of a feather apparently do flock together.
It gets even more interesting when you add to the tale that, years later, after Martin was picked up by the Sabres in the 1971 NHL player draft, he would not only be reunited with boyhood teammate Perreault, they would actually end up sharing a bachelor condo in Williamsville. (Insert the “small world” axiom of your choice here.)
Flash forward yet again to 1981, when an injury sustained in a game against the Washington Capitals brought Martin to the inevitable point in every professional athlete’s career when the big question must be answered. “What now? For Martin, it was time to get creative.
While some players look to remain involved in the game through things like coaching or scouting, Martin looked for a different kind of challenge. Having put down roots here in 1980, when he purchased a vintage farmhouse in Newstead, complete with 100 acres of land, he saw Western New York as the place he wanted to build his new future and raise a family.
It was a decision that would shape the lives of not only Martin, but also his wife Martha, and his three sons Josh, Erick, and Cory. It’s a choice he says he’s never regretted. Following a progressively ambitious series of business ventures, ranging from investment advising and African gold mining interests to recruiting new talent for the technical professions, Martin started his own team, where he can be a brand new kind of MVP.
It’s a high-tech consulting firm called GlobalQuest Solutions, Inc., headquartered in Williamsville. With a staff of now more than 100, it specializes in the kind of systems integration and network support in demand by businesses around the world. As Vice-President for Sales and Marketing, the goal he’s shooting for is to put the best resources available into his client’s virtual net. And he still gets to be the playmaker.
Not a bad way for a French-Swiss-German kid from Canada to make a name for himself, eh? Of course, had his family’s history gone just a little bit differently, he might not have had the same name that he’s made famous up til now.
The son of a French-Canadian Mother and a Swiss-German, Martin’s paternal Grandfather’s story is perhaps the family’s most colorful. A spy for British Intelligence during World War II, he was spirited out of Europe at the end of that conflict to protect him from feared enemy reprisals. Relocated to a new home in Canada, he was also given a new identity.
His real name –Rüegel – was changed to Martin, and accordingly passed down to his descendants, including one very popular and admired hockey player who went on to earn well-deserved fame as a member of the Buffalo Sabres’ “French Connection…” a name he’s the first one to admit probably just wouldn’t have sounded quite as good as the “French-Swiss-German Connection.”
Some people keep score. Other don’t, even when they have particularly good reasons to do so. Given what he’s been through, Mike Robitaille could easily have become one of those kind of people. The fact that he didn’t tells you a great deal about him. Let me tell you a little more.
The hockey history that speaks of Robitaille tells of a young player that was considered to have enormous potential. Indeed, like his onetime Buffalo Sabres teammate Rick Martin, he was also singled out by a professional hockey club, the New York Rangers, to be signed at the same tender age of 14 to be groomed for future greatness.
The youngest of 11 children – nine boys and two girls, Robitaille grew up in Midland, Ontario, 90 miles due north of Toronto on the tip of beautiful Georgian Bay. In addition to the fascination with hockey that traditionally appears to overcome most young Canadians of his age and gender, he also entertained thoughts that he might one day manage a produce department manager or cut hair.
To no one’s great surprise, considering his obvious gifts for the sport, hockey won out, and off he went into the star-making machine that had cultivated so many other talented players before him. The road to realizing that much-anticipated greatness, however, would not be a smooth one.
After about seven years playing for the Rangers at the junior and pro levels, he was traded to the Detroit Red Wings. It would only be with Detroit for a few months, but they would be rewarding ones, affording him the privilege of playing with the great Gordie Howe. A quick trade then sent him to Buffalo. It was 1971, a year it seems we’ve already heard a few times before in this story.
There are a lot of ways to make a name for yourself, and Robitaille wasn’t afraid to make his in one of the hardest ways you can in hockey. He earned a reputation for being one of the hardest-hitting defensemen in the league, but it came at a price.
Over the course of his 10 seasons in the NHL, he would, among other injuries, break his wrist, his finger and his ankle, tear rib cartilage and knee ligaments, and sustain not one, not two, but three shoulder separations. Being allergic to painkillers didn’t help matters, either.
But while playing hurt is one thing, there’s another kind of hurt you just never see coming. It was that kind of hurt that hit Robitaille… hard. While playing for the Vancouver Canucks in 1975, he would be blindsided in a game against Pittsburgh and suffer an extremely severe bruise to his cervical brain stem, right at the point where his neck attached to his skull.
Not only would the injury end the 28 year-old’s career, it would mark the start of what would begin with more than a year of intensive physical rehabilitation to overcome the impairment to his motor skills, followed by a lifetime of living with the accident’s lasting, life-altering effects.
But with remarkable hope and optimism, Robitaille, accompanied by his wife Isabel and young daughter Anique, chose to return to Western New York to start a new life. What awaited them here turned out to be the kind of story you see on television. In fact, you have.
Robitaille started with the dream of playing in the NHL. “And I’ve been so fortunate,” he says, “because I accomplished that goal.” Then, recognizing the unpredictable irony of life, he adds, “The first thing I said in an interview when I turned pro was that someday, when I’m done playing, I’d love to be a sports broadcaster.” You may be able to guess where his story leads now.
As a former Sabre back in town, Robitaille had occasion to do a TV interview segment with Ted Darling. His presence and knowledge of the game apparently left an impression on what at the time was the team’s media operation, the Empire Sports Network.
An invitation first to do some part-time commentary for the network led the following year to a full-time job hosting Hockey Hotline along with comparable duties with Empire’s radio operation. By the end of that 12-year run, Robitaille was a seasoned broadcast veteran.
Those skills continued to serve him well when he later made the transition to doing a variety of on-air work – ranging from color commentary and analysis to intermission interviews – as part of the Sabres’ current broadcast team. And beginning this year, he now works shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow Sabre alumnus Rob Ray and host Kevin Sylvester on a new pre- and post-game show called The Shootout, aptly named for the tie-breaking component the NHL recently added as part of the league’s updated rules.
Asked his opinion of the “new” version of hockey now being played in the NHL, Robitaille responds with the characteristic candor that has won him so much viewer respect. At first, he says, he didn’t like the rule modifications one bit. But now that he’s seen how smoothly the players have adapted to them and how much more the fans seem to be enjoying – and buying tickets to – NHL games, he says he’s thrilled with the changes.
Just about as thrilled as he is to be working so closely with the two guys he credits with being his mentors when he first came to broadcasting – Darling and Jeanneret. “One is already in the NHL Hall of Fame,” he says with obvious admiration, “and the other one is going to be someday soon.” It’s just one of many reasons he says he considers himself a very lucky guy.
“In essence, every job I’ve ever had hasn’t really been a job,” he explains. “They’ve all been labors of love.” For many years, he says, he raised thoroughbred horses, and later had the opportunity to serve as General Manager for Ft. Erie Racetrack, a position he held from 1994 to 1999.
“I’m 57 years old,” he says proudly, “and I’m thrilled to get up every day and go to work.” An attitude like that must make him a pleasure to see at the office for his wife Isabel, with whom Robitaille partners in Robitaille Relocation and Real Estate in Williamsville, the same community they’ve called home since they purchased a home there shortly after he joined the Sabres in the mid-1970s.
Having now built numerous successful careers and raised a family, now-grown Anique and her younger sister Sarah, there is one thing Robitaille does count. His blessings. “It just can’t get any better than it is right now,” he marvels. “It’s just amazing.”
“I’m just finding this to be the best time of my life by a country mile. I have a marriage that just keeps getting better. My kids are healthy. And I’m doing things that I absolutely love. I haven’t got time to complain. I’m just going to have the good sense to enjoy what I have while I have it.”
Sure sounds like a man who knows the score
© 2006 Doug Carpenter
Ice Guys: Rick Martin, Rick Jeanneret, and Mike Robitaille
Rick Jeanneret, the voice
TOTAL TEAM COVERAGE. Broadcast coverage of Sabres games was in good hand with (left to right) Mike Robitaille, Jim Lorentz, Rick Jeanneret and Ted Darling on the job.
ALL THE RIGHT MOVES. Looking for just the right angle to unleash one of his legendary slapshots against longtime Sabres rival the Toronto Maple Leafs in March of 1977.
STRIKING RESEMBLANCE, EH? While the French Connection was collecting wins, fans were collecting souvenirs celebrating them, including this bobblehead of boyish #7, Rick Martin.
|POINT MAN: This massive
play action photo of Martin and his "French Connection"teammates
is almost as big as their place in Sabres history.
THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME.
At age 9, Mike Robitaille had already been playing hockey for 6 years...
GAME NIGHT INSIGHT: Robitaille, Rob Ray (center) and Kevin Sylvester (left) prepping for live broadcast.
|The On-Line Edition of After 50
Newspaper for Western New York's Young @ Heart