you really have to enjoy it, to play goal for long

Inside Edition: Rogie Vachon went maskless in junior and on through his early years with the Montreal Canadiens. He paid a price in stitches (100 or so) and broken noses (two), but never lost a tooth in those years, or had to be evacuated to hospital. It was 1969 when he opted to change his ways. “It was a shot on the head from Stan Mikita that got me thinking,” he said. “These days I am older, I want more protection.” Ernie Higgins designed the fiberglass mask that would become Vachon’s trademark. Blank at first, it would in Los Angeles take on coats of purple paint and crowns at the temples. The one pictured here from within dates to the late 1970s, and bears the paint and the crowns, along with the marks of many pucks. In 2011, it sold at auction for more than $C22,000. (Image: Classic Auctions)

In Peterborough, Ontario, where I grew up in the 1970s and played a lot of road hockey in so doing, we took turns in the nets. David Bodrug had actual goalie pads, trapper and blocker, and the gearing up was the main attraction when the time came for me to be tending goal. That and the chance for nonchalant posing, Ken-Drydenate, with arms resting atop pillared stick while the tennis ball was down at the other end. As the action drew closer, you’d hunker back down at the top of the crease that wasn’t really there, wait for the shot. If it was the right one, you might kick out a leg while snagging the ball in your outstretched glove as ostentatiously as possible. For full effect, you’d hold the pose, as for a beat or three. Flashing the leather, the play-by-play men sometimes call this on hockey broadcasts, though on Roper Drive we had our own term: pulling a Rogie.

Born on this date in 1945 in Palmarolle, Quebec, Rogatien Vachon turns 73 today. He got his start in the NHL under that same name, distinguishing himself in the playoffs when starter Gump Worsley. By the time we were watching him in the ’70s, he was just Rogie, a King now, in Los Angeles. It was there that he spent the best years of his Hall-of-Fame career, wearing the number 30 that the Kings would later retire, and that tiny grin on his plum-purple mask. According to a 1972 profile by David Cobb in The Canadian Magazine, Vachon ended up in goal because, as a boy on the wintertime rink, he was small among bigger brothers and cousins. “A doctoral thesis might be prepared one day,” Cobb writes, “to assess the effect of childhood puniness on the formation of NHL goalies.” He could have strayed, in time, of course, but he chose to stay on. “You really have to enjoy it,” Vachon said, “to play goal for long.”

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ab mcdonald, 1936—2018

Later on, in 1972, Ab McDonald would captain the original WHA Winnipeg Jets, but he was a distinguished veteran by then, with a 15-year NHL career behind him. He got his start in 1957 in Montreal, winning three straight Stanley Cups with the juggernaut Canadiens before a trade took him to Chicago in 1960.

Born in Winnipeg in 1936, McDonald died there on Tuesday. He was 82.

The Stanley Cup followed him to Chicago in 1961, when the Black Hawks surpassed Montreal in the semi-finals before defeating the Detroit Red Wings for the championship. Rudy Pilous was the Chicago coach that year, as he was in the fall of 1962, which is when he posed here, above, with McDonald ahead of the Black Hawks’ home opener. By then, McDonald was a member of the Scooter Line, skating the left wing alongside centre Stan Mikita and right wing Kenny Wharram. McDonald made subsequent NHL stops in Detroit, Boston, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis before taking his talents back home to Winnipeg. Bobby Hull was the big noise then and there, of course, though a court challenge kept the Gilded Jet out of the Jets’ first game in New York on October 12, 1972. With Hull benched (he was also the Winnipeg coach that year), McDonald took it upon his 36-year-old self to poke Jean-Guy Gratton’s pass by goaltender Gary Kurt to open the scoring in the Jets’ 6-4 win over the hometown Raiders, and register the first goal in franchise history.

make like mikita

Stan-dard: While Stan Mikita played poster boy for the life insurance company The Equitable in the spring of 1970, his Chicago Black Hawks saw themselves swept out of the Stanley Cup’s East Division semi-finals in four straight games by the eventual Cup champions from Boston. If Mikita, who died August 7 at the age of 78, was a key to the series it was because the Bruins understood how closely they had to check him. “We had to stop [Bobby] Hull and we had to stop Mikita,” Boston coach Harry Sinden said in the aftermath. “And we did it.”

see?

Bob Nevin of the Toronto Maple Leafs lost a contact lens on the ice at Chicago Stadium in 1962, as you’ve maybe heard. Maybe not, though: in all the glorious tumult of the NHL’s hundred-year history, it’s not exactly a highlight. If the momentary mishap lives on at all, it’s because there’s this great photograph of the aftermath, when Leafs and Black Hawks and referees joined together and did their very best to spy Nevin’s lost lens.

Turns out it wasn’t the last one to go missing on Chicago ice. Almost three years later, in February of 1965, Boston Bruins’ right winger Tommy Williams lost one of his contacts on Stadium ice, leading to the search depicted above. Williams was a member of the 1960 U.S. team that won Olympic gold at Squaw Valley before he found his way to Boston the following year. He was touted, then, as the first American-born player to play regularly in the league since Frank Brimsek’s retirement in 1950. Williams later played for the Minnesota North Stars, the California Golden Seals, and the New England Whalers of the WHA, before a last stint in the NHL with the Washington Capitals.

In ’65, Chicago’s Eric Nesterenko wass implicated in the second-period collision that separated Williams from his eyewear. Was the subsequent all-hands search successful? No, it was futile. That contact was good and gone. Other features of the game? In the third period, Boston’s Orland Kurtenbach swung his stick at Doug Mohns of Chicago, who swung back. Referee Bill Friday gave the two of them match penalties for attempting injury. Chicago won 7-0, with Stan Mikita scoring a pair of goals.

While we’re on this sight visit, let’s also add that the first NHLer to have donned glasses on the ice seems to have been Russ Blinco, when he was playing centre for the Montreal Maroons through the 1930s. His specs were, by one report, “made of shatterproof glass edged with a light steel netting and cost puh-lenty!”

First to deploy contact lenses regularly? That would seem to have been Montreal Canadiens’ left winger Tony Graboski in the early 1940s. He was an evangelist of sorts, too: when Dutch Hiller was working the Boston wing in 1942, he credited Graboski with convincing him to get fitted with contacts of his own.

 

stan mikita: tough kid who grew up

The Chicago Blackhawks, long since out of the playoffs, wrap up their home schedule tonight hosting the still-in-hunt St. Louis Blues at the United Center. Before the game, the Blackhawks will honour Hall-of-Fame centreman Stan Mikita with a ceremony involving several of his grandsons. Mikita, who’s 77, was diagnosed with Lewy Body dementia in 2015; Chris Kuc’s Chicago Tribune feature from that time deserves your attention, if you haven’t seen it already. Otherwise, a Mikita reading list might include books like Mikita’s own 1969 autobiography, I Play To Win, published the same year as Stan Fischler’s Stan Mikita: The Turbulent Career of a Hockey Superstar, along with Scott Young’s brief 1974 biography for young readers, Tough Kid Who Grew Up. More recently, there’s Bob Verdi’s richly illustrated review of Mikita’s career, Forever A Blackhawk (2011).

Mikita, of course, spent all 22 of his NHL seasons with Chicago, helping them to win the 1961 Stanley Cup. One of his coaches, Billy Reay, called him “hockey’s most complete player,” and Mikita helped make that case by winning two Hart Memorial trophies as NHL MVP in the 1960s along with four Art Ross scoring titles and a pair of Lady Byng trophies. “If you don’t have pride in yourself,” he explained to a reporter in 1968, “you won’t write a good story. It’s the same with hockey. You have got to have pride in yourself to win.”

(Top Image, from July of 1966, by Frank Prazak, Library and Archives Canada)

exit strategy

First Round: Stan Mikita stows his clubs as he readies to teeing off at the Rolling Green Country Club in Arlington Heights, Illinois, in June of 1965. Entered as an amateur, the Chicago Black Hawks centreman was one of 157 hopefuls playing to qualify for the Western Open, and one of 107 who fell short.

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)