BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Rick Jeanneret, the voice of the Sabres through a 51-year broadcasting career and the Hockey Hall of Fame's 2012 Foster Hewitt Award recipient, died Thursday. He was 81.
The Sabres released a statement from Jeanneret's family saying he died with his family by his side following a two-year battle with multi-organ failure. "He will be loved forever," the family's statement said.
Jeanneret -- or RJ, as he was affectionately known -- was part of Sabres broadcasts on either radio or TV since the 1971-72 season, the franchise's second, until he retired after the 2021-22 season. He had the longest play-by-play announcing career in NHL history.
"Rick was indeed a very special and very loved man, to and by all, who knew him and listened to him, his magic, and his command," Sabres owner Terry Pegula said. "How glad I am to have known him. How lucky were we all to have been around him and to have listened to him."
It was in part through Jeanneret that Pegula became a fan of the Sabres and their famed French Connection line of the 1970s by listening to the team's games on radio while living in Pittsburgh. Pegula and his wife, Kim, bought the franchise in February 2011.
"Growing up in Buffalo, Rick Jeanneret was not just the voice of the Sabres, he was the voice of our city," Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams said. "He helped foster my love of hockey."
"Rick was an incredible man that was loved by all," Adams added. "His wit and humor was unmatched, and we are all lucky to have known him."
In retirement, Jeanneret still attended Sabres games last season, making the trip from his home in nearby Niagara Falls, Ontario.
Jeanneret was known for having various signature calls, including, "Top shelf, where mama hides the cookies," whenever a Sabres player scored by roofing a shot high into the net.
One of his most memorable calls was "May Day! May Day!" after Brad May scored the decisive goal in a 6-5 overtime win to clinch a four-game series sweep of the Boston Bruins in the first round of the 1993 playoffs. It was Buffalo's first playoff series win in 10 years.
His other notable calls included "La-la-la-la-Fontaine!" which followed whenever former Sabres captain Pat LaFontaine scored in the 1990s. And there was his, "Now do you believe?" call in the 2006 playoffs during the Sabres' run to the Eastern Conference finals.
He achieved the NHL's highest broadcasting honor in 2012 with the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award.
The Sabres honored Jeanneret during his final season by raising a banner bearing his name to the arena rafters. He is one of 11 people to have been honored by the team and the third non-player, joining the team's founders, brothers Seymour and Northrup Knox.
Jeanneret did his best to keep his emotions in check during the ceremony, amid a sold-out crowd chanting, "RJ! RJ! RJ!"
"I stood down here 10 years ago upon my induction into the Sabres' Hall of Fame, and I remember saying that night, this is the only job I ever wanted. This is the only place I wanted to be," Jeanneret said during a 15-minute ceremony. "I meant every word on that particular night. And boy, do I mean it now."
He grew up in nearby St. Catharines, Ontario, and spent much of his life in the Niagara region. He called his first Sabres game on the radio Oct. 10, 1971, and joined the team's TV broadcast in 1995.
Jeanneret had several health scares, which led to him reducing his travel schedule
In 2014, he was diagnosed with throat cancer but missed just a few games during the 2014-15 season after receiving treatment. In 2016, he was fitted with a pacemaker due to a slow pulse.
He is survived by his wife, Sandra, his children, Mark, Chris and Shelly, and numerous grandchildren.