In the early days of the Blues, Bob Plager endeared himself to the fan base — and tormented opponents — with his famous hip checks, which could send an opponent flying. To the fans since then who have gotten to know Mr. Plager as a hockey ambassador and raconteur, he endeared himself to them by being himself.
Mr. Plager, an original member of the Blues whose post-career roles with the organization outshined anything he did on ice, died Wednesday (March 24, 2021) in a car crash on Highway 40 (Interstate 64) in St. Louis. He was 78.
Mr. Plager’s number, 5, was retired by the Blues on Feb. 2, 2017, placing it next to his brother Barclay’s, 8, in the Enterprise Center rafters. In an emotional moment, Bob’s jersey was stopped halfway up and then Barclay’s was lowered to meet his. The numbers then rose to the ceiling together.
“Seeing the No. 8 coming down, I looked at my family,” Mr. Plager said that day. “I think we all had tears in our eyes.”
“They use the expression to say someone is ‘true blue,’” former Blues coach Scotty Bowman has said. “Well, no one could be more true Blue than him.”
“He has personally impacted countless Blues fans,” Blues owner Tom Stillman said. “Most can remember the first time they met Bobby, with a story about the early years and an endless supply of jokes. Fans immediately embrace him and he wholeheartedly returned that embrace. He is the ultimate Blue.”
“Truly one of a kind,” said Bernie Federko, another longtime Blues player whose number has been retired. “He’s a big reason the St. Louis Blues are such a special franchise to play for. He’s a true Blue who personifies what the Note really means.”
“I bleed Blue,” Mr. Plager said.
The news of Mr. Plager’s death was met with sadness around the hockey community. The Los Angeles Kings replied to the Blues announcement of Mr. Plager’s death on Twitter with three hearts.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to Bobby Jr., Melissa and the entire Plager family,” Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said Wednesday as he confirmed the news. “As Bobby would fondly say, ‘He’s No. 5 in your program, but No. 1 in your hearts.’ That holds true today and forever as Bobby is, truly, the St. Louis Blues.”
“It is unimaginable to imagine the St. Louis Blues without Bob Plager,” the Blues said in a statement. “He was an original 1967 member of the St. Louis Blues, but also an original in every sense of the word. Bobby’s influence at all levels of the Blues organization was profound and everlasting, and his loss to our city will be deep. Bobby liked to say he was No. 5 in our program, but No. 1 in our hearts. Today, our hearts are broken, but one day they will be warmed again by memories of his character, humor and strong love for his family, our community, the St. Louis Blues and generations of fans who will miss him dearly. The St. Louis Blues send all of our love and support to his family, and we hope everyone will find strength knowing that Bobby got his parade.”
“Few men in the history of our game were more closely connected to a city and a franchise than Bob Plager was to St. Louis and the Blues,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. “Respected by fellow players for his toughness, he was beloved by teammates for his welcoming personality and forged a fierce bond with St. Louis fans that would last his entire life. The National Hockey League family mourns the tragic passing of a true St. Louis original and send our condolences to his daughter, Melissa, his son, Bobby, his two grandchildren and his countless fans in St. Louis and throughout hockey.”
Mr. Plager, known affectionately as “Mr. Blue,” filled just about every role possible with the Blues. He played for them, coached them (and their minor-league affiliate), scouted for them, worked in the front office, broadcast their games and made countless appearances on the team’s behalf, as well as having his name on several area bars.
He had a million stories, or so it seemed, from the wilder, earlier days of hockey — though many wondered whether all those stories were true. And considering his stat line that had the biggest numbers in the penalty minutes column, many of those stories involved him.
The Blues fulfilled a lifelong dream for Mr. Plager in 2019 when they finally won the Stanley Cup.
“I still haven’t come down yet,” Mr. Plager said on the ice that night in Boston. “And what a place to happen. The last time I was (in this situation), we shook hands with the other team, went in and had a beer and went home.
“I lived long enough (to see the Blues win the Cup). I’m going to see a few more. Three times I had a shot” as a player. “You say, ‘I’ll get one before long,’ but you don’t know how long. I told the players if you get the chance, go for it now because you might not get another chance.
“What’s happened this year, I think it was meant to be. For me and the city of St. Louis, these last few weeks in St. Louis, the fans, the people; look what happened downtown. They brought this city together. I’ve always said this was a great hockey town. There was a core of hockey fans who were the greatest. Now we’ve got a lot more.”
From the start
Mr. Plager wasn’t the first player to join the Blues — goalie Glenn Hall was the team’s first selection — but he was there from the first day the team had players.
Mr. Plager had played 28 games with the New York Rangers over two seasons at a time when, with just six NHL teams, there weren’t many jobs to go around. (Though there was no competition from European players at the time.) On the day of the NHL expansion draft in 1967, the Blues chose Rod Seiling from the New York Rangers, then traded him back to New York for a package of four youngsters: Mr. Plager, Tim Ecclestone, Gary Sabourin and Gord Kannegiesser. That began a more than 50-year run with the team for Mr. Plager.
He became a mainstay with the team. He played in 615 games for the Blues, the team record until Garry Unger passed him in 1979. While he doesn’t appear on any of the goal-scoring lists, his 762 penalty minutes was still good enough for 10th most in franchise history 50 years later.
Mr. Plager scored just 20 goals and had just 126 assists in the 644 games of his NHL career. While his goal scoring wasn’t a factor, he became best known for his hip check that would knock opponents to the ice.
“If anybody had their head down,” Bowman said, “they took their chances.”
“It’s a lost art, the way he used to hit guys,” Al Arbour, a teammate on those early squads, once recalled for the team’s website. “He’d throw his hip into someone and they’d go flying.”
Mr. Plager drew the first penalty in Blues’ history (64 seconds into the first game; fresh out of the box, he also assisted on the team’s first goal), the first major and the first double major.
From 1968 to 1972, Bobby was one of three Plagers on the Blues, playing alongside his brothers, Barclay and Billy. Even though all were defensemen, Bowman once played all three on the same line in a game against Montreal. The Blues lost Billy, who died in 2016, in the expansion draft in 1972. Barclay, who captained the team from 1972 to 1976 and coached it from 1978 to 1979 and again in 1982-83, died in 1988.
Mr. Plager set the tone for the team in another way: In those early days, he would insist that the team uniform, the Bluenote, not touch the ground, something he had picked up from the Original Six NHL teams. If other teams were going to respect the Blues, they had to respect themselves.
In an event typical of Mr. Plager in many ways, he was involved in a massive brawl in Philadelphia in 1972. Arbour, then the coach of the Blues, was yelling at the referee after the first period when a fan dumped a beer on him. Arbour tripped over a policeman and said he was then hit by another policeman. Then he was hit by a fan. Mr. Plager led the charge into the stands, and a melee that lasted 25 minutes began among Blues, fans and the police.
Police stood outside the Blues dressing room to record the jersey numbers of players who were involved in the scrap as they came out on the ice for the second period. Mr. Plager, always the last player on the ice, told the team equipment manager to lock him in the room and then come back for him later. Thinking all the players were on the ice, the police took their list and left, waiting to arrest players after the game. Mr. Plager then went on the ice and played the remainder of the game. After the contest, four members of the Blues went to jail. Not Mr. Plager.
After he retired, Mr. Plager filled a variety of jobs with the team. Over the years, he has been the team’s director of scouting, vice president and director of player development, special assistant to the general manager, assistant to the director of hockey operations, special assignment scout, coach of Salt Lake City in the Central Hockey League and color commentator for KMOX (1120 AM).
He also coached the Peoria Rivermen in 1990-91, guiding the team to a 58-19-5 record and to the Turner Cup as champions of the International Hockey League. The Rivermen that season broke more than 40 IHL records and Mr. Plager was voted coach of the year.
Mr. Plager became coach of the Blues after the 1991-92 season and coached the first 11 games of the following season before stepping down to return to his role as director of player development. His 11 games as coach is the third-shortest tenure of any non-interim coach.
“Yeah, this is a relief,” he said the day after stepping down. “My wife won’t have to jump out of bed every night listening to me changing lines. ... It’s tough. You’ll always question yourself. I don’t even know whether this was the right thing to do, but now I feel it’s the right thing to do.”
Robert Bryant Plager was born March 11, 1943, in Kirkland Lake, Ontario. His father, Gus, was the chief official of the Northern Ontario Hockey Association. He played junior hockey in Guelph and broke the Ontario Hockey Association’s record for penalty minutes in a season in 1961-62 with 161 in 50 games.
Bob Plager embodied the Blues spirit, from their early days as the NHL's best expansion days all they way through their historic Stanley Cup.
Long after his playing days were over, Mr. Plager represented a throwback to the simpler days of hockey and it’s tougher, no-holds-bar form.
He had an impact on the team in many ways. It was he who suggested that Barret Jackman, the only defenseman in Blues history to play in more games than Mr. Plager, wear the No. 5. Jackman, though, said that the real No. 5 was Mr. Plager.
“That No. 5 is Bobby Plager,” Jackman said. “It’s not me. It’s all Bobby. Bobby is almost like, I wouldn’t say a father. ... He’s an older brother to me.”
But well after Mr. Plager’s playing days were over, he still could make a contribution by making people laugh. Working with the team’s community relations department, Mr. Plager would show up all over the place and have a story for all occasions.
He also respected the city’s sporting history. He would attend the funerals of Cardinals, such as Stan Musial, always sitting in the fifth row, in the fifth seat.
But more often, he preferred to laugh.
At a dinner honoring the team’s captains in 2016, Mr. Plager commented on forward Garry Unger.
“Garry Unger got up to give his talk and he said, ‘I might not remember everything exactly because I played with no helmet in my day,’” Mr. Plager said. “I looked down there and said, ‘Ungie, I played with you. You didn’t wear a helmet, but you went in that bathroom and you went through two cans of hairspray every game.’ I said, ‘By the time you left the bathroom, you could take the stick and whack you on the head and it wouldn’t hurt you at all.’”
Already part of our hearts, Plager became part of our community, our culture, upon retirement.
While the Blues went to the Stanley Cup Finals in each of their first three seasons, with Mr. Plager on the squad, it wasn’t until 2019 that they won the Cup. Mr. Plager reveled in being on the ice after that decisive game in Boston to join the celebration.
“I watched the Blues win the Stanley Cup,” former Blues defenseman Harold Snepsts said. “Usually when they show the celebrations, I turn off the TV because I don’t want to see celebrations I never was in on. For some reason, I watched, and the biggest thing I got out of it was seeing Bob Plager hoist the Cup. That means a lot to me. He’s a special man. When I was in Peoria (as a minor-league coach), he spent a lot of time with me. His stories, his passion for the game. He’s a character. I just think the world of him. I felt sorry when I was an assistant coach and he resigned after 10 games. That hit me hard. That was out of the blue. I didn’t see it coming.”
After the Blues won the Stanley Cup, Mr. Plager brought the trophy to his brother Barclay’s grave, and raised a toast — with Bud Lights — to his brother and other Blues from those early days.
“Barclay,” Mr. Plager said, “I know you’re up there. And you, too, Noel (Picard), you’re not going to miss a party. Dan Kelly, my buddy Doug Harvey, Jimmy Roberts, Al Arbour, Jacques Plante. We were there for the first one in Boston. We were back there again and this time we come home with the trophy. Here’s to you guys.”