The two surviving members of the French Connection were on hand Tuesday afternoon to speak as the Buffalo Sabres got set to start work on a statue in their honor at the First Niagara Center.
An iconic image of the trio featuring them rushing down the ice together will be the inspiration for the statue, which will be about 7 feet high and sit in the plaza between the arena and its parking ramp. Owner Terry Pegula began planning a tribute almost as soon as he bought the team in February 2011.
"When you start your career, you don't expect to have a statue of you in front of the building," Gilbert Perreault said. "It's a great honor."
Bricks were also put up around the poles holding up the walkway between the arena and the parking lot. Each pillar will pay tribute to a different decade of Sabres history, with player plaques going up on each of them.
John Livsey, the Sabres' head of sales and business development, was put in charge of the project upon his first meeting with new team President Ted Black in February 2011. He worked on a similar tribute for the Buffalo Bills in the early 1990s to honor the Electric Company, and he quickly came up with the concept of capturing the iconic trio in a pose that actually happened, surrounded by a tribute to the team's alumni.
"I always thought of this as a plaza that could be developed, should be developed," he said.
Rene Robert said such a move commemorating the team's entire history is fitting:
"It's nice that there's going to be a plaza now to remember all of us, whether you played one game or a thousand. Maybe we got more attention than some of our teammates … but it would not have been possible without all of them."
The team commissioned Jerry McKenna, the sculptor who created the statues outside Notre Dame's football stadium, to do the statue.
The third part of the French Connection, Rick Martin, passed away two years ago due to heart issues. Perreault wishes he could witness the honor in person but knows his linemate will be there in some form:
"It's sad Rick's not there, but spiritually he's there. He's in our hearts."
Members of the public can buy plaques to be hung alongside those of former players. On hand Tuesday was Michael Casullo, a Buffalo-area resident who bought the first plaque one minute after they first became available for purchase. Thousands of plaques have already been sold, said Mike Gilbert, the Sabres' head of public relations, and they're still available on the Sabres' website.
Work on the plaza will begin later this week, Gilbert said. The finished project will be unveiled at a ceremony Friday, Oct. 12. Robert is optimistic the statue will lose its importance in the near future:
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"It won't be long before you forget about this statue and see a Stanley Cup, because it's coming (to Buffalo)."