BUFFALO – Nearly 47 years after he first arrived here, Rene Robert hasn’t officially left town. The high-scoring winger and member of the legendary French Connection line still uses “we” when he talks about the Sabres.
Sure, these days, Robert lives much of the year in Punta Gorda, Fla., but he returns every year and spends the summer in Williamsville.
“This is my home,” Robert told the Times Herald on Sunday. “I’ve been here since (1972). People say, ‘Well, you’re from Montreal.’ I left Quebec, I was 18 years old. That was like 52 years ago. …
“This is where I grew up. My memories are here. I enjoy it here.”
Robert, who turned 70 last Monday, was at KeyBank Center with other alumni members, including his center, Hall of Famer Gilbert Perreault, for the Sabres Skills Challenge, an event that showcased the talents of the current group of players.
Naturally, Robert still follows the Sabres closely. The team is close to his heart. The first player in franchise history to record a 100-point season said the 2018-19 edition, which has become one of the NHL’s biggest surprises, reminds him of the teams “we built in the early 70s with younger players through the draft.”
Those Sabres teams, of course, are still iconic in these parts.
Robert said general manager Jason Botterill and coach Phil Housley’s work “with the kids is just phenomenal.”
“I mean, (Botterill) went and got (Jeff) Skinner for basically nothing,” Robert said of the 28-goal winger. “He’s got three first-rounders coming up next year. You can’t say why not in two years from now they’re going to be a Stanley Cup contender? I really believe they will be.”
He added: “There’s still a few spots that need to be filled, but I think that Jason knows exactly what needs to be filled, and I have a lot of confidence in him.”
Robert appreciates Botterill’s communication skills. He said unlike previous GMs, Botterill deals openly with him.
“Say, for example, Gilbert and I are around, we can talk about certain players and we’re going to get an honest answer from him, as opposed to before, it was like, well, everything was a secret,” Robert said.
It’s no secret the Sabres possess some of the league’s best young talent in rookie defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, 18, and center Jack Eichel, 22.
Dahlin, Robert said, is “beyond good.”
“I mean, I’ve seen a lot of talent over the years,” Robert said. “The things that this kid is doing for (a rookie), I saw one guy do it, that was Gilbert Perreault, and Gilbert was not – don’t get me wrong on what I’m going to say – as good in some areas as this kid is, although Gilbert was a phenomenal hockey player.
“This kid has got all the tools to be a superstar, beyond superstar. He’s going to be one of the greatest.”
Meanwhile, Robert said Eichel, a first-year captain, has “grabbed the bull by the horn and responded very well to his new challenges.”
“I don’t think you’ve seen the best of Jack Eichel yet,” Robert said.
A couple of years ago, Robert told Sabres owner Terry Pegula he wants to live long enough to see the team put another banner in the rafters, where his No. 14 also hangs beside Perreault and Rick Martin, the other members of iconic line.
“I want to be here when they raise the Cup,” Robert said.