He was wearing a Glen plaid suit with narrow lapels and cuffs, hardly the uniform of the night for a single swinger prowling around Mother's Bakery after a Buffalo Sabres hockey game. He was a yeast merchant from Elyria, Ohio, or so he said, and he wanted to repeat a Buffalo joke he had heard over in Cleveland. "You know who the original streaker was, don't you?" he giggled. "A guy from Buffalo they tried to get to take a bath." Fun-nee. Very fun-nee. Well, in Cleveland, perhaps, but not in Mother's Bakery, there in beautiful downtown Buffalo—and suddenly the joker was escorted to the alleyway.
The truth is there are no safe Buffalo jokes these days, not when the Bills are battling for an NFL playoff spot, the Braves have the best record in the NBA, and certainly not when the bold young Sabres, the kiddie korps of hockey, lead the NHL in wins (15), points (33), road points (14), goals (102) and power-play goals (30) and, better still, lead those ugly old Boston Bruins by six points in the Adams Division.
As usual, the Aud in Buffalo was packed to its standing-room capacity of more than 16,000 screamers last Wednesday night as the Sabres—a concoction of several agile Frenchmen, numerous large bodybenders, three kamikaze types, two ascetics, a peachfuzz rookie and a couple of goaltenders out of a Blue Cross commercial—routed the new Washington Capitals 7-3 for their 11th victory in 13 games. The Sabres pelted Washington Goaltender Ron Low with 50 shots, almost one a minute, and, to add insult, the anonymous Buffalo "hangman" mocked Low with another of his banners draped from the balcony overhang. The hangman first appeared on opening night, apparently after reading a story in which some Bostonians expressed regret that the Bruin line of Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge and Wayne Cashman lacked a catchy description to match the "French Connection" tag of Buffalo's Gilbert Perreault, Richard Martin and Rene Robert, ESPOSITO, HODGE & CASHMAN—THE STENCH CONNECTION, read the hangman's banner, and even Esposito had to laugh. Low's banner was: EXPANSION GOALIES REACH A NEW LOW—RON. Actually, Low had to perform spectacular acrobatic and juggling feats just to keep the Buffalo total from reaching the double digits the raucous crowd demanded.
Moving on to Atlanta Friday night, the Sabres provided the Omni crowd with a merry moment near the end of the second period when Perreault accidentally put the puck past his own goaltender, a bag of bones named Gary Bromley, to give the Flames a seemingly comfortable 4-1 lead. Perreault and the Sabres had the last laugh, though. Buffalo closed in to 4-3 on goals by Rick Dudley and Robert, and then, with slightly less than two minutes to play in the game, Perreault did his thing.
At 24 Perreault is the sport's most exciting forward. In full flight he has more shifts than O. J. Simpson or Ernie D. His only fault is that he has not mastered the give-and-go passing concept; he tends to skate too long and too far with the puck before passing off to Martin or Robert.
Trying to preserve their lead, the Flames dumped the puck deep into the Buffalo end. Perreault collected it near the right boards and started up ice. As always, his mouth was open, his head was bobbing and his body was a living, shimmering lure; Flames melted away as Perreault faked them out. A couple of hip twitches for Goalie Dan Bouchard, a few head bobs and shoulder movements—and there was the puck in the net. "I want to see that rush on instant replay," said Floyd Smith, the new Buffalo coach. "Not me," moaned Atlanta Coach Boom-Boom Geoffrion. "I saw enough already."
For Perreault and the Sabres, their smart early-season performances resemble an instant replay of 1972-73, when they startled the NHL's Old Guard by making the Stanley Cup playoffs in only their third year of operation. But, says Jim Schoenfeld, the 22-year-old captain and chief bodyguard for the French Connection, "we'd all like to forget last season. We had 20 guys playing 20 different ways for 20 different reasons. We also had a dozen cop-outs to explain why we played so lousy. To be honest, we didn't have any heart."
Schoenfeld missed most of last season because of surgery on his back. Perreault sat out eight weeks with a broken leg, and Right Wing Larry Mickey broke both his legs. Goaltender Roger Crozier commuted between the rink and the hospital, suffering from repeated attacks of pancreatitis. And veteran Defenseman Tim Horton was killed in a mid-season automobile accident. During these tribulations, Joe Crozier, the coach at the time, was openly feuding with General Manager Punch Imlach.
In reconstructing the Sabres, Imlach traded and drafted for defensemen who stood at least six feet tall and weighed no less than 200 pounds. "We're all big enough to play in the NBA," says Schoenfeld, who goes 6'2", 210. Since Schoenfeld is sidelined again, this time with a broken bone in his right foot, the biggest and baddest Buffalo defenseman is 6'3", 220-pound Jerry Korab, who is called Kong, as in King.
The French Connection receives further support from a sort of kamikaze line and the so-called ascetics. The line—Wingers Brian Spencer and Rick Dudley and Center Jim Lorentz—displays neither fear nor mercy in the corners. Spencer, who claims he killed and skinned a bear when he was 12, wears a leather hat that looks as though it came off the jacket of Arlo Guthrie's latest album, while Dudley wears an Indian headband on his search-and-destroy missions.
Important as these tough customers are, the ascetics, men of simple tastes and small publicity, may be more so. Their names are Don Luce and Craig Ramsay, and you will never find them on an All-Star team, though Luce was voted the Sabres' MVP last year. They team with rookie Danny Gare, 20, who doesn't have to shave yet, to form Buffalo's third line, but they also kill penalties and check the opposition's most dangerous line. "Whenever we get in trouble," says Schoenfeld, "they go out on the ice."
Luce's stick is probably the heaviest in hockey, and he wields it much like a club on his opponent's legs. "I'm not a gifted player," he says, "but I know that if I work hard I can get the job done." Luce wears contact lenses and a helmet during his battles with the Bobby Clarkes and Phil Espositos of the world. "I was kayoed when I played for Detroit, and I was kayoed again last year," he says. "They claim the third K.O. is the worst, and there's no way I'm going to be kayoed the third time."
When he arrived in Buffalo in 1971, Luce was considered a stick-in-the-mud because of his straitlaced nature. "We became a good hockey club," he says, "only when the other guys began to accept each man for what he was. I knew what they thought of me, but they never knew what I thought of them. Maybe I thought they were a bunch of bums."
Ramsay played all last season without spending even one second in the penalty box, a marvelous accomplishment for a checker assigned to harass the opposition's biggest gunners every night. He worries that his career may be interrupted any day for an operation; his lower back is so tender he cannot walk more than a quarter of a mile without stopping for rest. "It doesn't bother me that much on the ice," he says. "Strange."
The ascetics and the kamikazes seem to have infused the French Connection with their spirit and aggressiveness. Martin now even back-checks and visits the corners. Robert was ejected from the game in Atlanta after an altercation with rugged Defenseman Pat Quinn. Whatever the reasons, Perreault and Martin rank among the NHL's top five in the scoring race and the French Connection has connected for 42 goals in just 22 games.
Contemplating the wonders of that line, Coach Smith has ordered the Sabres to forgo the team's former close-checking style and concentrate on the attack. "Checking hockey basically is boring hockey," he says. At the same time, Smith no doubt realizes that Buffalo will not win many games strictly on goaltending. Bromley, a rookie who weighs about 160 pounds in full uniform, looks shaky on his best nights. His backup man, Crozier, recently returned from retirement and will work no more than 25 games.
How well Crozier performs may determine just how formidable the Sabres are. "We're no joke," Schoenfeld insists. "Laugh at us and we'll wipe the smile off your face." The Montreal Canadiens were not laughing when Crozier beat them 6-4 Sunday night.