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February 01, 2013

The French Connection's Double Agent

He is remembered as Gilbert Perreault's triggerman on Buffalo's famed French Connection line back in the 1970s. However this February 20, 1987 The Hockey News article tells an odd story that I guarantee you did not know about.

Mystery Behind Martins By Herman Pedergnana - February 20, 1987 The Hockey News

Remember Richard Rugel, the two-time National Hockey League all star left winger on the Buffalo Sabres' French Connection Line?

Well, that's how Rick Martin would show up in the league record books had his grandfather not been a mysterious spy.

The Martin family history was unraveled several years ago when Montréal based agent Danny McCann set out to prove the Martins were of Swiss ancestry.

The reason? He wanted to find hockey employment for Rick's brothers, Bob and Michel, in Switzerland.

Checking files and dusty documents, McCann found that the brothers' grandfather was a Swiss man named Wilhelm Rugel, who changed his named to Martin after some spying capers in World War I.

It took some diligent legwork to convince the suspicious Swiss authorities that Bob and Michel were descendants of Wilhelm Rugel and, therefore, eligible for a Swiss passport.

Gerlikon, the family's tiny village of origin, is just a stone's throw from the former home of Alfred Fauenknecht, who is the most famed Swiss spy ever. He once sold 20 wooden cases of Mirage fighter plane plans to the Israelis.

Just as important as a Swiss passport was a hockey license for the Martins, enabling them to play as locals and not imports.

Bob (a former center at Michigan State) and Michel (a winger who played Tier II near Montréal) set their sites on Ambri.

The team, located in a town of about 200 houses and a dozen restaurants, draws as many as 7500 spectators a game - some from as far as Italy.

Ambri's officials, ever suspicious of competitors who might try to lure the Martins away, kept them in hiding until all papers were in order.

Playing along side Dale McCourt, a one time No. 1 draft choice, they helped Ambri move up from the second division into the first. Then, they drifted away.

"I was curious and wanted to play for other teams in another part of the country," explained Michel, who played for the Zurich club last season but has since rejoined brother Bob at Berne, where they play on the second line. The first is centered by one time Chicago Blackhawk Kirk Bowman, while ex-Ranger - soon to be Edmonton Oilers, assuming contract details are worked out - quarterbacks the team as an offensive defensemen.

The team averages some 13,000 spectators a game, a European attendance record.

Both Martins are in their 4th year in the Swiss League.

When hockey feats of the Martin brothers are long forgotten, the public will finally find out what Rugel accomplished.

"The British War Office will not declassify the records until 2018," Rick Martin said.

"All we know is that grandpa must have done some outstanding intelligence work because, after the war, the War Office paid his trip to Canada, provided him with a sizable sum of money, and asked the High Commissioner to recommend the Canadian government to provide him with a suitable job."

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