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.