To get an idea of how the St. Louis Blues and their fans felt about Bob Plager, consider that when he played for the organization, he averaged one goal every 31 games. There was never a time when he was considered even close to the top 10 in the NHL at his position and the fact that he even had a full-time NHL career was owing to the fact that league doubled in size in 1967. Yet his No. 5 is in the rafters of the Enterprise Center alongside the numbers of such all-time greats as Al MacInnis, Brett Hull and Bernie Federko. It will soon be joined by No. 44, which was worn by Chris Pronger.
To get an idea of what kind of a person Bob Plager was, consider that he and his former coach, Scotty Bowman, would tease each other mercilessly. Yes, that Scotty Bowman. The taskmaster who would stand behind the bench with his jaw jut out. The hockey lifer who could tell you that Plager won a Turner Cup championship as a coach in the defunct International League and that his team won 58 games and lost only 19 in 1990-91. Bowman definitely had a soft spot for Plager, who was killed in a car accident near St. Louis Wednesday afternoon at the age of 78. Everyone did, because that’s the kind of person Bob Plager was.
When the Blues defeated the Winnipeg Jets in the first round of the playoffs in 2019, Bowman sent a text to Plager, who was by this time an ambassador for the team and arguably its biggest and most easily identified fan. Bowman joked that soon Plager’s notoriety in St. Louis would drop because this Blues team was going to win the Stanley Cup. The two continued to exchange texts, with Plager telling Bowman how nervous he was. And when Bowman saw a picture of Plager pacing the hallways of the arena instead of watching the game during the Western Conference final, he couldn’t help but take a jab.
“He didn’t want to watch the games,” Bowman told TheHockeyNews.com. “So I texted him and I said, ‘You know, that’s how I felt when you played. I didn’t want to watch.’ ”
Many of Plager’s opponents, however, would have been content to watch rather than having to play against him. You might be surprised to learn that, as tough and punishing a player as he was, he had a relatively modest 802 penalty minutes in 616 games. That was because players were smart enough to steer clear of him. Bowman remembers one night when Bob was playing junior hockey for the Guelph Royals and his brother Barclay was playing for the Peterborough Petes, the team Bowman was coaching at the time. During a game in Peterborough, the two brothers got into a vicious fight and when Bowman went into the arena’s coffee shop after the game, he saw Bob and Barclay sitting together eating hamburgers and chatting.
“When I turned pro, I broke in with the Boston Bruins and I played with a guy by the name of Leo Boivin and Leo Boivin used to hit guys like a Mack truck in the neutral zone,” said former Blues teammate Terry Crisp. “Bobby Plager was the heir apparent to Leo Boivin. I know it’s weird, but I used to tell some of my friends on other teams, ‘Listen, you’re playing us tonight and I’m going to give you one little tip. If you’re coming through the neutral zone, keep your head up. That’s all I’m going to tell you.’ ”
As terrorizing as Plager was on the ice, he was every bit the opposite away from the rink. He had an enormous personality and a bottomless well of affection that he was more than happy to spread with everyone he met. He was larger than life and that is why people loved him so much. His sense of humor was keen and Crisp said he learned early in his career that getting into a prank war with Plager was not an intelligent thing to do. “His mind worked in devious ways,” Crisp said.
Like Plager, Crisp was a Day 1 player with the Blues, a team that came into the league in the 1967 expansion and made it to the Stanley Cup final each of their first three seasons. Crisp remembers inviting Plager over to his house to join him, his wife, Sheila, and his two sons for dinner. When they sat down at the table, Sheila, who was meeting Plager for the first time, put a large bowl of mashed potatoes in front of Plager. And because he was the guest, he was invited to serve himself first.
“Bobby looked at my two boys and he said to my two little guys, ‘Do you guys like potatoes?’ ” Crisp said. “They both nodded to him. He just reached over with his hand and took a big fistful of potatoes and put it on one plate and then put another big fistful of potatoes on the other plate. Sheila looked at me and I said, ‘Welcome to Bobby Plager’s world.’ The kids loved it. They thought it was the greatest thing ever.”
Plager actually started his career with the New York Rangers organization and ended up in St. Louis because decades before the Vegas Golden Knights manipulated the expansion draft, Bowman was doing the same thing in St. Louis. The Rangers had to expose Rod Seiling and were afraid of losing him, so Bowman selected Seiling, then traded him back to New York in exchange for Plager, Tim Ecclestone, Gary Sabourin and a minor-leaguer named Gordon Kannegiesser. About a month into that season, Bowman traded veteran Ron Stewart to the Rangers in exchange for brother Barclay Plager and Red Berenson.
Bowman remembers Bob Plager as a tough, stay-at-home defenseman who could kill penalties and play a fearless style. In the Blues’ early years, Bob Plager played with Noel Picard and Barclay played with Al Arbour, with either Jacques Plante or Glenn Hall behind them in goal. Bowman recalled negotiating a new contract with Bob early his tenure in St. Louis and said Plager did something he had never seen a player do before. After finishing a deal with Barclay, Bowman summoned Bob into his office to talk about a new contract. “ ‘He said, Coach,’ – he used to call me Coach – ‘I trust you. You know what I’m worth.’ And that really shook me up. That was the first time that had ever happened. ‘You know what I’m worth and you let me know.’ And then he said, ‘But I’ll tell you one thing, Coach. I won’t take a nickel less than my brother.’ ”
It’s fair to say Bob Plager was worth the investment. Even though Plager was single in his early years with the Blues, Crisp said he was the ringleader when it came to organizing team gatherings and he insisted that all the players’ wives or girlfriends and children were involved. Crisp said when he saw the Blues win the Cup in 2019, his first thoughts went to his former teammate. “I feel really terrible, really sad,” Crisp said. “But as sad as I am, knowing Bobby and knowing his sense of humor and how he loved life and people and stories, I just want to remember him for the fun times.”
And perhaps the Blues alumni association, one of the strongest in the league and one of which Plager was an enormous part, put it best in a tweet on Wednesday afternoon. “Those we love don’t go away. They are with us every day,” it said. “To have been your teammate, we were blessed.”