ralph backstrom, 1937—2021

Sad news tonight that Ralph Backstrom has died at the age of 83. A son of Kirkland Lake, Ontario, he played parts of 13 seasons at centre for the Montreal Canadiens starting in the late 1950s and on through the ’60s, winning six Stanley Cups and a Calder Trophy along the way. He skated for the Los Angeles Kings, too, and the Blackhawks in Chicago. In the WHA, he played for Chicago’s Cougars as well as the Denver Spurs/Ottawa Civics, and the New England Whalers. He later coached at the University of Denver and with the IHL Phoenix Roadrunners. He was a founder, too, of the Avalanche’s AHL affiliate, the Colorado Eagles.

Dave Stubbs has a good look at Backstrom’s memorable career at NHL.com, here.

(Top Image: Louis Jaques, Library and Archives Canada)

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.

don’t know anybody when a hockey game starts

Northern Rock: Gus Mortson spent his first six seasons as a stalwart of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ defence before a 1952 trade took him to Chicago for a further six seasons, three of which he served as captain. His friend Ted Lindsay ended up as a teammate in Chicago during Mortson’s final season there. He played a single season — his last — in Detroit, 1958-59.

Ted Lindsay and Gus Mortson were old pals from up north in Ontario, played together as juniors at St. Michael’s College in Toronto, spent summers together prospecting for gold. Didn’t matter, once they skated out on NHL ice as opponents. “I don’t know anybody when a hockey game starts,” was Lindsay’s view of it, voiced in 1947.

Born on this day in 1925 in New Liskeard, Ontario, Mortson was 90 when he died in 2015. He joined the Toronto Maple Leafs as a defenceman in October of 1946, by which time Lindsay had already been a Detroit Red Wing for two seasons. When they met in Mortson’s debut, Lindsay welcomed his friend to the NHL with a cross-check that cut his nose. A frisky 21 at the start of that inaugural year, Mortson was, by the end of the regular season, the league’s leader in amassing penalty minutes. Nugget seems to be the nickname the newspapers preferred for him at the time, short for The Gold Nugget Kid; later, he’d also answer to Old Hardrock.

Mortson and Lindsay would clash (and exchange punches) more than once in their subsequent NHL careers, including on an infamous occasion when the Leafs and the Red Wings met in the first round of the ’47 playoffs.

Here, from The Windsor Star, is Doug Vaughan’s account of the proceedings that roiled the fourth game of the semi-final:

Rough-going Ted Lindsay put the match to the fuse when he cut down Gus (Nugget) Mortson, Leaf defenceman, and got away with it. Mortson came up fighting mad and not caring whom he hit — as long as the individual was wearing a red sweater. The innocent victim happened to be Bill Quackenbush. Mortson gave him a terrific cross check and the Wing rearguard had to be assisted from the ice with a wrenched left knee.

Mortson was given a two minute penalty. He was just sitting down in the box when Gordie Howe of the Wings skated over to the boards. Howe took a punch at Mortson. The Leaf player punched back. Policeman William Kamian grabbed Mortson by the throat. Players from both teams swarmed across the ice to see what was going on. Two Toronto scribes joined in the fray. Mortson punched the policeman. The policeman fought back. Somebody hurled a chair from the box seats back of the penalty box. It bounced off Mortson’s back and hit Roy Conacher of the Wings, who was standing out on the ice, on the nose. Additional policemen swarmed into the run-way to help restore order.

When peace and calm reigned once again the insane individual who had hurled the chair had been lugged off to the hoosegow by the police and Howe and Mortson were each given ten minutes [sic] misconduct penalties. Fortunately nobody was serious injured.

Globe and Mail columnist Jim Coleman wasn’t on hand in Detroit that night, but that didn’t keep him from filing his own vivid dispatch. If nothing else, it’s a master-class in period jocularity, a true classic from the catalogue of reporting NHL chaos as if it were all part of a big vaudeville act. The prose is entertaining, still, 72 years later. Without steering off into finger-wagging, may I also submit that the guffawing acceptance of the league’s long business-as-usual acceptance of violence manages (still) to astonish me?

Mortson, in Coleman’s telling, was penalized for “mopery and gawk.” In the penalty box,

he indulged in some ineffectual fisticuffs with Gordon Howe. At this juncture, Mortson was gozzled by a Detroit newspaperman and a Detroit constable.

In the turmoil a customer hurled a chair which splattered on the penalty-box rail and hit Referee George Hayes and Roy Conacher. It is alleged, then, that our two confreres, W. Thomas Munns and James Vipond, swarmed to the fray.

Munns was the Globe’s sports editor, Vipond a reporter. Coleman took down their testimony, including this from Vipond:

“Mortson took a swing at Howe and then Mortson was gozzled by a Detroit newspaperman. A Detoit policeman gozzled Mortson, too, and was lugging him around by the neck and massaging his noggin with the other hand. Now, I realized that Mortson is a wild and vicious character, and would most certainly break the copper into small pieces, so I went to the copper’s assistance. I put both arms around his neck and tugged him away gently, just so that he would be out of harm’s way. There is a rumour to the effect that I hit him, but this is false and unjust — a fly was perched on the constable’s cheek, and I was attempting only to dislodge it before the fly stamped on his eyeball.”

It took Toronto one more (relatively peaceable) game to eliminate Detroit and move on to meet (and beat) Montreal for the Stanley Cup that year. Before they left the ice at the end of the semi-final series, fans and writers and at least one photographer noted the renewal of Mortson’s and Lindsay’s friendship:

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)