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100 Greatest Players

Gilbert Perreault: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Elusive skater centered Sabres' famed 'French Connection' line

by Stu Hackel / Special to NHL.com

The answer was an easy one: Gilbert Perrault.

The question was posed by Brendan Shanahan, who was playing golf with Bobby Orr.

 

Video: Gilbert Perreault centered "French Connection" line

 

"I didn't want to be a total geek and ask him a million questions," Shanahan said on the Buffalo Sabres 40th anniversary DVD, "but eventually I had to ask him one, and I asked who the toughest guy was for him to play against, or the best player that he ever played against."

What made Perreault, who scored 512 goals and 1,326 points in 1,191 NHL games, such an easy answer and daunting foe for Boston's fabled No. 4?

It started with his great skating legs and an inexhaustible array of moves, NBC Sports analyst Pierre McGuire said on the TV series "Greatest Hockey Legends." "He had that bowlegged stride [and] the way he accelerated when he had the puck on his stick," McGuire said. "Most guys slow down, he sped up."

 

GILBERT PERREAULT CAREER TOTALS | View Full Stats
Games: 1,191 | Goals: 512 | Assists: 814 | Points: 1,326

 

Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson had a slightly fevered perspective of what it was like trying to stop Perreault in his prime.

"I saw this guy coming down the ice and his feet were 15 feet apart and he's pulling all these moves, between the legs of guys and, just probably, one of the most beautiful skaters you'll ever see," he said.

Sabres teammate Lindy Ruff saw how Perreault could kill a penalty by just holding onto the puck.

"They came to take it from him, he'd beat one guy, they came to take it from him again, he beat another guy, and he went on for 30 seconds just stick-handling and keeping the puck away," Ruff said. "And then when he was done he dumped it in and changed. There's nobody else who could do that."

Dale Hawerchuk watched Perreault toy with his Winnipeg Jets teammates.

"He had this jitterbug, sidestep move where a lot of defensemen were caught swimming across the ice trying to get to him, because he'd just drag it forever," Hawerchuk said. "They think they have him, but they can't get to him."

Hockey writer Scott Morrison had a great view from the press box as he watched Perreault's signature rink-length dashes.

"He'd be coming through up center ice across the blue line and you think, 'Jeez, this guy's at top speed,' and all of a sudden he's shifted gears," Morrison said. "He could turn so very quickly and precisely on his skates that, bang, he was gone."

Former Toronto Maple Leafs forward and television analyst Howie Meeker marveled at Perreault's elusiveness.

"He had a move where he'd come up to you and he'd shift 10-12 feet to get around [you]," Meeker said. "Most guys have a two-foot shift, three-foot shift."

Perreault had a simple explanation for what seemed impossible.

"In my day, offensive players did a lot more skating and stick-handling, changing speed, deking two guys and making plays in the offensive zone," Perreault explained to writer Chris McDonell. "I loved the thrill of beating everyone on the ice, deking through the opposition. When I got the puck, I'd dare them to try to get it away from me. It's rare to see that today."

Perhaps Ross Brewitt, who wrote "A Spin of the Wheel" about the Sabres early years, came closest to distilling the essence of the whole Perreault package when he described what Perreault was like when the Sabres selected him with the No. 1 pick in the 1970 NHL Draft.

"He had the build of a truck driver, and the deft, quick moves of a man half his size," Brewitt said. "He had skating power and the knowledge of when to spurt forward, plus the confidence that belied the few seasons of play behind him. His stick-handling was a sight to behold, and few of the defensemen he faced would be fortunate to see more than a fleeting glimpse as Perreault snaked by them with a dizzying series of moves. He had the ability to turn games around, to grab a team and lift it out of a losing situation."

Perreault was born on Nov. 13, 1950 in Victoriaville, Quebec, and, like other kids, he'd play for hours on the local outdoor rinks.

Playing pee wee from the time he was eight, Perreault became one of Quebec's top youngsters, along with a pair of budding superstars who were a year younger, Guy Lafleur of Thurso and Marcel Dionne of Drummondville, and they often competed against each other in youth tournaments.

In 1967, Perreault joined the Montreal Junior Canadiens of the Ontario Hockey Association at a time when their popularity in town rivaled the NHL's Canadiens. In his second season, Perreault blossomed into an OHA First Team All-Star and the talented Baby Habs, which included future NHL players Rejean Houle, Andre "Moose" Dupont and future Sabres teammates Richard Martin and Jocelyn Guevremont, won the Memorial Cup. In 1969-70, they defended their title as Perreault became the club's centerpiece. With 51 goals and 70 assists, he finished second to Dionne in league scoring but was named league MVP.

As the most talented amateur available in 1970, Perreault faced only one question: Which new NHL franchise -- Buffalo or the Vancouver Canucks -- would win his rights? NHL president Clarence Campbell spun a giant roulette wheel and the Sabres won the No. 1 pick.

Although the expansion Sabres won two of their first 14 games, they stabilized as the season progressed and the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium was filled for each game. Before the season ended, season tickets nearly doubled. Why? As Stan Fischler wrote, "More than anything, it was the rise of Gilbert Perreault. After the fans had taken a good look at Perreault's act, they knew the Sabres were here to stay."

Perreault was the perfect player for a first-year club. He was not only productive -- he set rookie records with 38 goals and 72 points in 78 games and won the Calder Trophy -- but he was dynamic and entertaining.

Perreault got some help in Year Two when GM Punch Imlach drafted Martin, who scored 44 goals as a rookie, and traded for Rene Robert late in the season. Coach Joe Crozier fit the trio together and they soon became one of the highest-scoring lines in the NHL. Their speedy, breathtaking play, throwing the puck around as if they owned it, and their shared heritage earned the label the "French Connection" line.

"When they came down on you, you just didn't know what was going to happen because they had equal strength in scoring," Minnesota North Stars goalie Cesare Maniago said. "Especially if Gil had the puck, because you didn't know if he was going to shoot on you or he was going to pass it off. So it really had you, as a goalie, thinking, 'What's he going to do?' "

As Perreault told McDonell, "I was there to make the plays, Rick was there to score the goals and Rene did a little of both. All three of us were good skaters. Our style was comparable to the European style, frequently crisscrossing with a lot of speed."

Buffalo improved by a whopping 37 points in its third season, and the "French Connection" finished 1-2-3 in team scoring. That postseason, the Sabres cemented their love affair with their fans by taking the defending Stanley Cup champion Canadiens to six games in the first round before losing. Perreault's 10 points, many coming in key moments, led the team. His linemates weren't far behind. At the final buzzer, fans in the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium serenaded the team by chanting "Thank you, Sabres."

The "French Connection" also pushed the club to be perennial contenders. The high point came in 1975, when Buffalo advanced to the Stanley Cup Final against the Philadelphia Flyers. It was one of the oddest series ever played as a bed of fog settled over the ice at the steamy Aud in Game 3, and the officials regularly interrupted the action so the players could skate in circles and break it up, although the fog inevitably returned.

The game went to overtime when, as Sabres former public relations man Paul Wieland recalled in his book "Then Perreault Said to Rico…": "Out of the fog came the French Connection. They hit the blue line in full flight, with Perreault sliding a hard pass to Robert on his right. The crack of the puck could be heard, but (Flyers goalie Bernie) Parent couldn't see the puck leave because of the fog, and Robert's shot beat him on the short side to end the game."

Buffalo lost the series in six games, and Perreault said decades later, "I can't forget that in 17 years, I only went to the Final once. We had a lot of good years in Buffalo, but every hockey player wants to win the Stanley Cup."

Perreault did what he could to get there. He had 10 seasons of 30-plus goals (three times scoring 40 or more), two 100-plus point seasons and led or tied for the team lead in scoring 12 times. In an eight-season span starting in 1972-73, he finished among the League's top five in assists three times and scoring three times.

The Sabres made the playoffs in each of the six full seasons the "French Connection" played together except 1973-74, when Perreault broke his leg and missed 23 games. But the Cup wasn't in the cards, not even in 1980, when his team-best 10 goals and 11 assists in 14 playoff games helped the Sabres get past the Vancouver Canucks and the Chicago Black Hawks, but wasn't enough against the eventual champion New York Islanders in the semifinals.

In the '80s, the soft-spoken Perreault became something of a mentor to the next generation of Sabres.

"We were like little puppy dogs following him around, and to us it was awesome," Dave Andreychuk said. "He'd write on the board in the locker room where he was going to lunch every day. We'd be right behind him, just learning things from him. He talked about the 'French Connection' a lot, how they trained, how they handled games."

Perreault's game changed somewhat in his later years, as did the Sabres, when the Scotty Bowman era ushered in a new emphasis on defense in Buffalo. Perreault would still average above a point a game, but he began to also take pride in learning the two-way game after excelling at racehorse hockey.

Perreault retired after the 1985-86 season, then reconsidered and joined the Sabres for the next season. He started well, but then slumped and retired for good after 20 games.

"I had a good career," he said on "Greatest Hockey Legends." "I didn't get hurt very badly, I'm still healthy. I play in a lot of old-timer games, and it's still a big thrill to step on the ice. My love of the game has never changed. It's inside me."

 

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