bob plager, 1943—2021

So sorry to hear the news that Bob Plager died in a car accident this afternoon in St. Louis. He was 78. Born in Kirkland Lake, Ontario, he was an original Blue, joining brothers Barclay and Bill in St. Louis in 1967 after starting his NHL career with the New York Rangers. He played 10 seasons on the St. Louis blueline, and continued with the Blues beyond his retirement as a scout, executive, and (briefly) head coach.

red alert

Coach Red: Berenson was an assistant in St. Louis before succeeding Barclay Player behind the bench in 1979.

Born in Regina in 1939 on a Friday sharing this date, Red Berenson turns 81 today. Would we agree that it’s long past time he got his invitation into hockey’s Hall of Fame, as a builder if not as a player? He was a left winger in his day, a junior star with his hometown Pats, and played for two Memorial Cups in the late 1950s. As a 19-year-old, he helped the Belleville McFarlands win the 1959 World Championships in Prague, finishing tied atop the tournament’s scoring chart with a Czech and an American. He hit the NHL ice as a Montreal Canadien, then joined the New York Rangers, before making his mark with the expansion St. Louis Blues as the ’60s turned into the ’70s. On memorable night in 1968, Berenson scored six goals in an 8-0 win over the Philadelphia Flyers. He played five seasons with the Detroit Red Wings before finishing his career back in St. Louis. He was a member, too, of Team Canada in 1972.

And as a coach? He was an assistant in St. Louis before succeeding Barclay Plager as principal on this very date in 1979, his 40thbirthday. His Blues tenure lasted three seasons; he won a Jack Adams as the NHL’s top-rated coach in 1981. In 1984, he returned to his alma mater, the University of Michigan, to take over as head coach as the hockey Wolverines. His 33-year stint there yielded a pair of NCAA championships, in 1996 and ’98, before he retired from the bench in 2017.

 

tenacious d

Barc The Spark: Born in Kirkland Lake, Ontario, on a Wednesday of this date in 1941, Barclay Plager was the eldest of the St. Louis Blues Plagers, joining the team with brother Bob for the team’s first season in 1967. (Bill arrived in 1968.) “I have never, ever had a player who was such a fierce competitor,” coach Scotty Bowman said of Barclay, “who wouldn’t accept a defeat no matter what the score was.” He patrolled the Blues line for nine seasons, six of those as captain, and when he retired the team showed its esteem by retiring the number 8 he’d worn on his sweater. He coached the team for a year after his retirement, and later served as an assistant. Barclay Plager died of cancer in 1988 at the age of 46. That’s him here getting down to block a shot during the Blues’ 1971-72 campaign in front of goaltender Jacques Caron. Looking on is Wayne Carleton of the California Golden Seals.

st. louis whos?

Flyboys: In the end, the deal that transplanted the original Ottawa Senators to St. Louis in 1934 didn’t work out for either city: both were out of the NHL by the fall of ’35. An erstwhile legend of the Senators’ defence started off steering the St. Louis Eagles in their only NHL campaign, but Eddie Gerard was gone before Christmas that 1934-35 season, replaced by an old Ottawa teammate, Buck Boucher. The Eagles’ struggles continued and by the end of the season they were mired at the bottom of the NHL standings, five points adrift of the New York Americans, who also avoided the playoffs. Doubts about the future of the St. Louis franchise continued through the summer of 1935. When a new owner couldn’t be found, the NHL took over the operation, scuttling the ship in October, and dispersing the players. Pictured above on a brighter day in the fall of ’34, some of them were (back row, left to right) coach Gerard, Earl Roche, Jeff Kalbfleisch, Gerry Shannon, Max Kaminsky, Irv Frew, Burr Williams, Vern Ayers, Scotty Bowman, Bill Beveride. Front: Abbie Cox, Frank Finnigan, Glenn Brydson, Carl Voss, Bud Cook, Syd Howe, Des Roche, Bill Cowley, Mickey Blake.

snow show

In the vast catalogue of hockey-player portraits, the Show-Your-Snow is as classic as they come. It can’t, perhaps, match the nimble drama of the Leap (a.k.a. the Up-Up-And-Away) or the slightly distressing mystery of the Man Down, but neither of them evokes the rink like this — the shish of the skates, the spray of the snow, the wind of the collision just barely avoided. As Phil Goyette demonstrates above, you don’t have to produce a blizzard — although as fellow Blues centre Camille Henry emphasizes below, why not? Goyette played 13 seasons for Montreal and the New York Rangers before arriving in St. Louis at the age of 36 for the 1969-70 campaign, leading the team in regular-season and helping the Blues gain the Stanley Cup Finals. Henry, who was 37 that year, came to the Blues after 13 distinguished years as a Ranger, though he played just a few final games in ’69-’70 (none in the playoffs) before announcing his retirement.

al et al

The St. Louis Blues aren’t there yet, but they did beat the San Jose Sharks 5-0 Sunday in the fifth game of the NHL’s Western Conference, which means that one more win would put the Blues into the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1970. That could happen tonight: the two teams meet again in St. Louis.

Coached by Scotty Bowman (and by, a little bit, Lynn Patrick), the Blues reached the finals in each of their first three NHL seasons, falling twice in succession to the Montreal Canadiens and then, 49 years this month, to Bobby Orr’s mighty Boston Bruins. The core of the Blues’ line-up in the latter series was steeled by a remarkable collection of veterans that included goaltender Jacques Plante and Glenn Hall (aged 41 and 38 respectively), centre Camille Henry  and defenders Jean-Guy Talbot and Al Arbour (all 37.) That’s Arbour pictured here, alongside another distinguished NHL elder, Doug Harvey, who manned the St. Louis line at the age of 44 in his final season, 1968-69. Arbour captained the team in all three of their early Stanley Cup appearances. Arbour handed the C to Barclay Plager at the 1970-71 season when he took over as coach of the Blues while Bowman turned his attention to GM’ing.

The arrangement didn’t last: by February of 1971, Arbour was back on the St. Louis blueline and Bowman was back to the bench. “I think I can help more in a playing capacity,” Arbour said at the time. As for Bowman, he insisted the arrangement was only temporary. “I had, nor have, no aspiration to return to coach on a permanent basis,” he said. “Coaching is not for me. But I decided to come back because it is good for the good of the team. We’re building for the future and one man can’t spoil it all.”

The future burned brilliantly bright for both men, of course, though not in St. Louis. While Bowman went on to coach the Montreal Canadiens, Arbour ended up behind the bench of the New York Islanders. In the 11 seasons that followed the year Bowman and Arbour shared coaching duties in St. Louis, their (non-Missouri) teams would lay claim to nine Stanley Cups.

want to fight or fool around? then bob plager is your man

1972-73 O-Pee-Chee #161 Bob Plager

He was the first St. Louis Blue ever to sit out a penalty, which seems about right. Called for hooking just a minute into the Blues’ NHL debut in a 2-2 tie with the mint-new Minnesota North Stars in 1967, Bob Plager did get back on the ice in time to assist on the team’s first goal, scored by Larry Keenan.

That’s worth recalling, too, after Plager’s place in Blues’ history was formally recognized in a ceremony on Thursday at the Scottrade Centre by way of retiring his number 5 and raising it forevermore to the rafters.

Plager, who’s 73 now, hails from Kirkland Lake, Ont., and is (of course) one of three defence-playing brothers to have worn St. Louis blue in the team’s early years. Elder brother Barclay died in 1988 while Bill, two years younger than Bob, died last year. Barclay’s number 8 sweater was already hanging in the rink rafter, which means that with Bob’s joining it, the Plagers are just the second pair of NHL brothers to have their numbers retired, after Maurice and Henri Richard.

I’m recommending you consult Dan O’Neill’s appreciation of the former (and all-time) number 5 in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch earlier this week. First, though, maybe spare a moment for these several illuminations of the NHLer Plager was:

1

Someone poaching from and minimally re-arranging Bob Plager’s entry in the 1972 edition of Zander Hollander’s Complete Hockey Handbook to fashion a poem might do it this way:

Want to fight or fool around? Then Bob Plager is your man
Burly Bob loves a brawl, with anybody
Once fought brother Barclay, now a Blues teammate, when both were minor leaguers
A first class practical joker too
Once went on a tie-snipping rampage in the Blues’ dressing room

2

Stan Hochman of The Philadelphia Daily News wrote about Plager’s prankmanship in 1969. “When he isn’t setting fire to newspapers or nailing shoes to the clubhouse floor,” Hochman wrote, “Plager likes to befuddle newspapermen.”

For example: asked by a reporter how he spent his summers, Plager said he was a deliveryman for a brewery. “I told him,” Plager recounted, “that whenever I made a delivery I had to sample the beer to make sure it wasn’t stale. I said I’d have four bottles with each delivery. … The story went all over Canada. They had seven applications with the Liquor Control Board, people who wanted a job just like that.”

3

“I’m altogether different on the ice,” Plager told Stan Hochman. “I’m out to win and I’ll do anything to win. But I’ve never spread a guy and you don’t see me getting penalties for slashing. I hit hard but not dirty. What did I have all year, maybe 40 minutes in penalties.” (43, in fact.)

4

According to Martin O’Malley, chronicler of the talented, tempestuous, ill-fated Leaf Brian Spencer, Plager was respectable among NHL roughians of the early 1970s. From O’Malley’s Globe and Mail profile of Spencer, “A Capacity For Anger,” circa 1971:

Anyone in the NHL is tough or they would not be there, he said, but some players are tougher than others, and not all tough players are good fighters. It takes a special attitude, a capacity for anger. John Ferguson is a good fighter but Spencer does not respect him because at times he suspects fighting is all Ferguson can do well. He respects Ted Green of Boston, Vic Hadfield of New York, Barry Gibbs and Ted Harris of Minnesota, Bob Kelly of Philadelphia, Marc Tardif of Montreal, Bob Plager of St. Louis, and Rosaire Paiement of Vancouver. He respects them, but he will fight them anytime, anywhere.

5

In a contentious game at Philadelphia’s Spectrum in January of 1972, Blues’ coach Al Arbour crossed the ice at the end of the second period to lodge a protest with referee John Ashley who, in turn, assessed Arbour a two-minute penalty whereupon Arbour followed Ashley into the tunnel as he departed the ice and then the St. Louis, led by Bob Plager, were climbing into the stands, swinging their sticks.

The Philadelphia Daily News later got Arbour’s version of events:

Someone poured beer on me and someone else hit me. Everyone was shoving and pushing and I fell on a policeman. Then I got hit on the head by a billy club. I never hit a policeman — I’d never do that.

Arbour and three of his players, none of them named Plager, were charged with disorderly conduct and assault and battery on a policeman.

The charges were eventually dropped, I might add. “I realize at a hockey game the players sometimes lose their tempers,” said Municipal Court Judge Max Ominsky, “and things get out of hand. It is unfortunate. It’s a rough game. I hope this doesn’t happen again.”

6

In a pre-season game in 1973 in Brantford, Ontario, Blues and Pittsburgh Penguins, a bench-clearer of a brawl ensued, after which Plager was suspended by NHL president Clarence Campbell after he (CP) “physically interfered with game officials and threatened physical violence to referee Andy van Hellemond.” The ban lasted for two regular-season games.

While he sat out, he made news in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, under the headline “From Enraged To Engaged:”

Plager, who came to the Blues seven years ago as the club’s most eligible bachelor, announced his engagement to Robyn Sher, a secretary he met at Jewish Hospital two years ago.

He gave her the engagement ring as the Blues skated off the ice before Wednesday night’s game at the Arena. “Originally I planned to give her the ring cut inside a puck as I skated off.”

7

The Toronto Star’s Milt Dunnell, writing in 1976:

Robert Plager is a member of the Punching Plagers — his brothers are Barclay and Billy — who have fought most of the leading pugilists on ice — including each other.

He shared this story, about his pre-Blue debut, when he was with the New York Rangers:

Look, the first time I come up to the NHL, it’s for a game in Madison Square Garden, against Chicago.

We’re losing 6-1 and it’s in the third period. I still haven’t been off the bench. The fans are starting to yell: “Bring on Plager.” There had been some advance publicity on me.

Suddenly, I’m out therefor a faceoff in their end. I’m scared stiff the puck will get past me and they’ll have a breakaway. They’ve goy Stan Mikita doing the face-off.

Just like I feared, the puck hops past me and here comes Mikita. As he goes to pass, I stick out my hand clothesline him. I been on the ice seven seconds and I got a penalty.

On the next shift, I knock Bobby Hull into the boards. I flatten him. Hull and I always had a funning feud after that. Anyway, the point I want to make is that, for the next game, the fans have Bob Plager banners hanging from the balcony.

Let me tell you something. In St. Louis, I’ve been voted most popular player, most colourful player and I did more commercials than the big shooters. You think that was because of the two goals I scored?

8

Back, finally, to 1972. In October of the year, Bob and Barclay were arrested by St. Louis police after an incident in a barroom. UPI had the story. I think it speaks for itself:

Police said that the two Blues defencemen were drinking at a restaurant when somebody apparently spilled soup on Bob Plager. He then got into an argument with bartender Alfredo Castillo.

Police are uncertain as to what happened next. Most of the witnesses fled before police arrived. But there was apparently no exchange of blows.

Bob was cut by glass and treated at St. Louis County Hospital. Castillo was not injured.

The manager of the bar-restaurant said the Plager brothers chased the bartender with pots of coffee and hot water and that Castillo held them off with a small knife. The manager also claimed at least a case of liquor was broken in the melee. No charges have been filed.

The Blues issued a statement saying: “Bob Plager was defending himself, and Barclay came to his assistance.”

“Nothing really happened,” said Barclay. “It’s been blown out of proportion. I’ve seen worse happen on a drive-in restaurant parking lot. There wasn’t a punch thrown.”

philadelphia_daily_news_fri__jan_7__1972_

(Image of 1972-73 O-Pee-Chee card courtesy of HockeyMedia + The Want List)