NHL99: Gilbert Perreault’s style brought ‘magic’ to the life of young Wayne Gretzky
Welcome to NHL99, The Athletic’s countdown of the best 100 players in modern NHL history. We’re ranking 100 players but calling it 99 because we all know who’s No. 1 — it’s the 99 spots behind No. 99 we have to figure out. Every Monday through Saturday until February we’ll unveil new members of the list.
In 1970, 9-year-old Wayne Gretzky went to an NHL exhibition game with his father. The Pittsburgh Penguins made Brantford, Ontario, their training camp home in those days, and they were hosting the expansion Buffalo Sabres in a preseason game. Gretzky’s father, Walter, had simple instructions for young Wayne.
“You watch that No. 11 play,” Gretzky’s father, told him.
That No. 11 was Gilbert Perreault, who had recently been picked No. 1 as the Sabres’ first-ever draft choice. He was 20 years old and fresh off a 121-point season with the Montreal Junior Canadiens. On Oct. 4, 1970, which may have been forgettable for many in attendance, Perreault captured the imagination of a boy who would go on to become the greatest hockey player who ever lived.
Now 61, Gretzky recalled by phone the vivid memory of watching Perreault fly down the ice in the Sabres’ blue and gold sweater.
“He was better than even my dad told me about,” Gretzky told The Athletic. “He was pretty special. The way he skated, the way he played, the way he handled the puck. There was no question he was the best player on the ice and he was only 20 years old.
“It was like magic. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve never seen anything like it.’”
That day began Gretzky’s infatuation with Perreault. Gordie Howe was Gretzky’s favorite player growing up. He still says Howe is the greatest to ever play the game. But Perreault wasn’t far behind Howe on Gretzky’s list of favorites. He often told his dad if he couldn’t wear Howe’s No. 9, he wanted to wear Perreault’s No. 11.
Living in Brantford, less than two hours from Buffalo, Gretzky could get Sabres games on television and on the radio. He remembers watching Ted Darling call games on Channel 7. When his dad made him go to bed early, he allowed Wayne to continue listening to the game on the radio. He loved it when the Sabres were playing late on the West Coast because he could listen to Rick Jeanneret call the game when he couldn’t fall asleep.
“They were fun to watch,” Gretzky said. “At that time, the Flyers were a tough team. The Sabres were trying to be this finesse team. My dad would always say to me, ‘We need the Sabres to win because we need finesse back in hockey. It will be good for you and your career.’ So I became a huge Sabres fan.
“It goes back to Punch Imlach. He made the Buffalo Sabres. He drafted Gilbert, got Richard Martin, got Rene Robert, Jim Schoenfeld, Roger Crozier, and Tim Horton. I can still remember thinking, ‘Gosh, I wish one day I could wear that Buffalo Sabre jersey.’ It was amazing. When you’re a kid you dream, right? That’s the best thing about being a kid you dream about things that you love.”
Gretzky was more than just a fan. He was already a student, absorbing the tricks of all the game’s greatest stars like a sponge and trying them out in his own game. In Perreault, he saw something he’d rarely ever seen. The way he carried the puck from end to end was unusual in that era. Gretzky had never seen someone pass the blue line with a head of steam and come to a stop to dish the puck to his wingers the way Perreault did. He had a playing style like Gretzky before Gretzky.
“Let me tell you something,” Gretzky said. “He was way better than I was.”
Gretzky remembers the first time he tried stopping just across the blue line the way Perreault did. He was 11 years old, and his youth hockey coach hollered at him, wondering what he was doing. Gretzky’s defense was simple.
“Well, Gilbert Perreault does it,” he said.
This wasn’t just a boyhood fandom for Gretzky, either. He still speaks about Perreault in reverential tones all these years later. When he was in his second year in the NHL, already one of the best players in the league, Gretzky’s dad brought him a pair of Daoust skates and urged Wayne to wear them.
“I can’t wear these skates,” Wayne told him.
“Gilbert Perreault wears these skates and he’s the best skater in hockey,” his dad said. “They’re good enough for him and he might be the best skater I’ve ever seen.”
“OK, Dad, I’ll try them,” Wayne conceded.
He wore the skates for the next three years. Even as he piled up points and put together the greatest career in hockey history, Gretzky’s dad would chide him, “Why can’t you skate like Gilbert Perreault?”
When Gretzky became teammates with Lee Fogolin and Danny Gare in Edmonton, he quizzed the former Sabres about what it was like playing with Perreault.
In 1981, Gretzky got to play for Team Canada in the Canada Cup. He centered a line with Perreault on one wing and Guy LaFleur on the other. He ran to phone his dad with the news right after the first practice.
“You don’t realize what an honor it was,” Gretzky said. “It was one of the greatest days of my life. I was a kid. I’m a hockey fan like other kids. More importantly, as good as they are on the ice, they were both even nicer off the ice. I was 19 years old and they treated me like an equal. It was unreal. I couldn’t even imagine how nice they were.”
One day he was a 9-year-old kid in awe at what Perreault could do on the ice. Just over a decade later, he was centering his line and scared to death.
“I was so nervous the first day,” Gretzky said. “He just looked at me and said, ‘Kid, don’t worry about it.’
“I got to know Gilbert and he’s an unreal man. God bless him. Good for Buffalo, they couldn’t have gotten a better icon. He’s so nice. As a kid growing up when you idolize somebody and they are nicer than you think they are, there’s nothing better right?”
Those in Buffalo got to know that feeling well. Danny Gare is a man of many words, but he needs only one to describe Perreault.
“Franchise,” Gare said.
Added Mike Foligno: “He was a master of this sport.”
The Sabres have had other superstars throughout their history, but as Gare put it, “Gilbert built the franchise.”
Buffalo needed a bit of good fortune to even have a chance to draft him in 1970. When the NHL expanded to 12 teams, it did away with the territorial rights rule that allowed the Montreal Canadiens to get first pick of the French-Canadian-born players. That rule didn’t bear much fruit for Montreal over the years, but Perreault, who had a dazzling career for the Montreal Junior Canadiens, would have been an easy choice.
In his final year with the Montreal Junior Canadiens, Perreault had 159 points in 70 games, including the playoffs. Those Junior Canadians teams regularly drew crowds of 18,000, and Perreault was an attraction. That’s why he was a perfect selection at No. 1 overall for the expansion Sabres in 1970.
“He was a slam dunk, there’s no question,” said Ian Turnbull, Perreault’s teammate on the 1969-70 Junior Canadiens. “What I remember is standing behind the net, setting the puck up for him, and letting him go. He’d come around with a head of steam and go through the whole team and then we’d meet at center ice for the faceoff.”
Perreault’s ability to carry the puck end-to-end became a sight to behold at the Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo, but only because of the lucky spin of a wheel. The Vancouver Canucks were entering the league at the same time, and the teams spun a wheel to determine who would get the first pick. If the wheel landed on a number between one and 10, the Canucks would get the pick. If it was a number between 11 and 20, the pick would go to the Sabres. It teetered on the edge of 10 and 11 before landing on 11, which became Perreault’s jersey number.
“If they hadn’t gotten him, who knows where this team would have ended up?” former Sabres coach Floyd Smith said.
As Gretzky put it, “It was better for hockey he went to Buffalo. In the area of Buffalo and Rochester and Syracuse, he made hockey there. Even if the Sabres were losing, you wanted to watch him play.”
Those No. 11 jerseys are still a popular game-day garment in Buffalo, which quickly became a vibrant hockey market because of what Perreault and his teammates did. Perreault, who didn’t speak much English his first few years in the league, wasn’t one to seek the spotlight. But when he had the puck, the energy in the arena shifted.
“People would stand when he got the puck,” said Paul Wieland, the Sabres’ original public relations chief and practice goalie in the 1970s. “He was probably the most dynamic player the Sabres ever had.”
Perreault comes in at No. 68 on The Athletic’s list of the greatest players of the post-expansion era. In Smith’s estimation, “That’s not being very nice to him.”
He scored 512 goals and had 814 assists for 1,326 points in 1,191 games, all with the Sabres. He was the sixth-leading scorer in NHL history at the time of his retirement. He’s still 24th all-time in points per game and remains the Sabres’ all-time leading scorer. Getting that type of production from the first pick of an expansion franchise was pivotal to building a generation of hockey fans.
“To get a player of his stature coming out of junior was really important to the franchise,” Wieland said. “Before he even played he was a seminal figure with the Sabres.”
It’s hard to imagine a player with Perreault’s numbers being underappreciated, but those who were around him feel that’s the case. Even as he became more comfortable speaking English, Perreault was always quick to deflect attention. He willingly shared his stardom with his linemates, Rick Martin and Rene Robert. The three of them, known as the French Connection, ended up more famous as a collective than any one individual. They stand together as a statue outside the Sabres’ arena. Their jerseys hang together in the rafters.
Perreault is the only one of the three who ended up in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Ask anyone who played with them and they’ll say Perreault made that line go.
“He could have scored a lot more goals if he wanted to be selfish,” Smith said. “He moved the puck and he moved it well. He’s one of the few players in the league who could come down the ice full speed and make those plays.”
Gare remembers a season in which he scored 50 goals, and Perreault pulled him aside.
“‘Danny, stay around 40 because when you get 50, they’ll want 60,’” Gare recalled Perreault saying in jest.
Those quips from Perreault are treasured memories for his old teammates. He wasn’t a boisterous personality in public. He could hardly go anywhere in Buffalo without being recognized, but he wasn’t always comfortable with that dynamic. In the dressing room and at team outings, Perreault’s personality came alive.
“If we were all together, that was heaven for him,” former Sabres defenseman Larry Playfair said. “When he was with his teammates, he was in his glory.”
Perreault’s Elvis impression is the stuff of legend, and he wasn’t shy about letting it out when the team got together.
“We’d go on the road and he would do karaoke because nobody knew who he was and he liked that,” Gare said.
Perreault may not have realized it, but most of his teammates were in awe of him. When Gare arrived in Buffalo before the 1974-75 season, he remembers his father writing him a letter and telling him to ask Perreault for tips to improve his deking abilities. Gare hardly felt worthy of asking Perreault for his advice when he still felt like he wanted his autograph.
“Finally, in January or February, I had made a bit of a mark and had 20 goals as a rookie, so after practice at the Aud one day I went up to him and said, ‘Gilbert, do you think you could help me with my deking and how you move the puck?’” Gare recalled. “In his beautiful French accent, he said, ‘Danny, I don’t know how I do them, I just do them.’”
Playfair got to Buffalo in 1978 and didn’t know a single player on the team. He remembers grabbing breakfast at his first training camp and looking around wondering where to sit. Perreault called him over to his table, where he was sitting with Jim Schoenfeld and Jerry Korab.
“It was as awesome as you would imagine,” Playfair said. “I went upstairs right away and called my parents to tell them.”
Foligno marveled at Perreault’s conditioning and wondered how he stayed as fresh at the end of a game as he was at the start. Foligno would later learn why. The two lived a couple of miles apart. Foligno remembers seeing Perreault jogging late at night with a trash bag underneath his clothes to induce more sweat. He ran in the darkness to avoid getting stopped for autographs.
“Nobody knew that, and unless you saw it for yourself, you couldn’t believe it,” said Foligno, who remains friends with Perreault.
Even his coaches didn’t know exactly what to make of Perreault, who brought intensity and competitiveness to practice. When Smith got to Buffalo, he was helping Punch Imlach as a coach. On the first day of training camp, Smith and Imlach were standing along the boards watching Perreault go through drills when Smith turned to Imlach and wondered: “How do you coach this guy? I’ve never seen anybody like him.”
“You couldn’t give him enough ice time,” Smith said. “He wanted it badly.”
Added Playfair: “I think he must have wondered why the rest of us couldn’t do some of the things he could do because he could do stuff so easily. He always worked hard in practice. He never floated through a practice. He always gave you his best.”
At a time when physicality reigned supreme in the NHL, Perreault played an elegant game based on his stick-handling skill and skating ability. But he was no pushover. He had the size to go with his skill.
“They allowed us to get close to a player and put your stick around a guy and slow him down,” Playfair said. “Some guys looked like they were water-skiing hanging onto a guy like Perreault.”
Smith remembers Perreault as a player willing to go into the corners. He wasn’t looking for fights, but he never shied away from contact.
“The roughness didn’t bother him,” Smith said. “He played through all that stuff and they were afraid to commit themselves to him, a lot of players because he would go right by them.”
Despite that dazzling skill, Perreault never thought of himself as bigger than anyone on the team. That was true even in junior, when he had more than two points per game, won championships, and was a consensus No. 1 pick. And it remained the case during his years in Buffalo.
“I was able to play a sport that I love for many years,” Perreault said in his Hall of Fame acceptance speech. “I played the best I could, but I played in the best city in the world.”
That is his legacy. He was a wonderful teammate who helped make things work for what was one of the great lines in hockey history. He piled up points as one of the most productive players of his era. He helped lift an expansion franchise to a Stanley Cup Final appearance. And he enjoyed plenty of success on the international stage. Through it all, though, Perreault was the same quiet, humble guy he was when he got to Buffalo as a 20-year-old.
He never lost his edge, either. On a February night in 1982, Gretzky came to Buffalo within striking distance of Phil Esposito’s single-season goal record. Along with it, came the cameras and fanfare. Gretzky scored a hat trick to get the record. Not to be outdone, Perreault had a hat trick of his own.
“You talk about a challenge,” Foligno said. “That was probably the most pressure-packed game we had all year. Here you have one incredibly talented star accepting the challenge of another.”
“I don’t think Gil ever thought he was a star,” Smith added. “I really don’t.”
Gretzky knew it, though. And before he captured the hearts and minds of Buffalo hockey fans, Perreault left a mark on the greatest to ever do it on that fateful day in Brantford and for many days after that.
“I don’t think people realize how good he was,” Gretzky said. “He was so good.”
(Top photo: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)
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