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.