Gilbert Perreault still recalls facing off against Rene Robert for the first time while playing for opposing teams in the Quebec Junior League in 1966.
Little did the two realize they would eventually form two-thirds of the Buffalo Sabres’ famed “French Connection Line” some six years later, and establish a friendship that would last a lifetime.
“We had so many good years together,” Perreault told The Associated Press by phone on Wednesday. “I was glad to be his friend for so many years, and very glad to play hockey with him for so many years. But being his friend was special.”
Perreault reminisced a day after the Robert died at the age of 72 in a Florida hospital, less than a week after suffering a major heart attack.
The news came as a shock to Perreault, given the two would talk at least once a month, and last spoke in early June.
“I was praying for him every day,” he said. “You’re losing a good friend, and it’s very sad.”
Perreault was a heralded junior center whom the Sabres selected with the No. 1 pick in the 1970 draft. A year later, the Sabres selected Rick Martin fifth overall in the draft. But it wasn’t until acquiring Robert in a trade with Pittsburgh in March 1972 when the famed line came together, earning the nickname because all three were from Quebec.
“When they made that trade to get Rene, everything did click right away,” Perreault said. “We really did enjoy the game very much together. We knew where we were on the ice and making all kind of plays. Rene had a great shot, and a great vision for the game. Same thing with `Rico.’”
Perreault was the only line member to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, while all three are in Buffalo’s Hall of Fame and their numbers have been retired by the Sabres. Perreault is now the last living member of the line after Martin died in March 2011.
Robert, from Trois-Rivieres, scored a career-high 40 goals twice during his seven-plus seasons in Buffalo. He was traded to the then-Colorado Rockies in 1979 and closed his career with Toronto in 1981-82. In 524 games with Buffalo, Robert had 222 goals and 552 points. Overall, he finished with 284 goals and 702 points in 744 NHL games.
He also was known for his playoff production, collecting 22 goals and 39 points in 47 postseason games with the Sabres. Four of his goals were game-winners, including three in overtime.
For Perreault, Robert’s most memorable overtime goal was his first coming in a 3-2 win at Montreal during a 1973 first-round playoff series. It cut the Canadiens lead to 3-2. Though the Sabres were eliminated the following game, the goal was significant because it came at Montreal’s Forum, which was considered a shrine to those growing up in Quebec.
“That was a special one for him,” Perreault said. “Montreal was always special for us for sure.”