The Plager brothers were tough guys from a hard-rock mining town where they learned hockey was no sport for pacifists.
“They didn’t call a penalty on anybody,” Bob Plager liked to joke, “unless there was an autopsy.”
Mr. Plager, who has died at 78, was the last survivor of three brothers from Northern Ontario who embodied the blue-collar spirit of the St. Louis Blues.
He was an original member of the expansion team when it joined the National Hockey League for the 1967-68 season. It only took him 64 seconds to be called for the first penalty in franchise history, a hook. He also assisted on the club’s first goal.
At 5-foot-11, 195-pounds, Mr. Plager presented a daunting obstacle on the blue-line and in front of the St. Louis net. He delivered body checks with the subtlety of a bowling ball. He was most feared for bent-at-the-waist hip-checks which sent unwary rivals cartwheeling to the ice.
Mr. Plager liked to say a magazine had written that he “punched like Sonny Liston and skated like him, too.”
One of the more notorious incidents involving the brothers came during a 1972 game in Philadelphia when a fan drenched St. Louis coach Al Arbour with beer. The coach rushed into the seats after the fan, followed closely behind by stick-wielding players.
“I go up in the stands after the fan and the next thing I know Barclay is behind me and Billy is behind him,” Mr. Plager once told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We go up there and start pushing and shoving. The police pull me down and people are swinging at me. It went on for quite a while.”
The coach suffered a cut on the head requiring stitches after being struck by a policeman. One policeman and four fans were injured in the 25-minute-long donnybrook. The coach and three Blues players (none of them a Plager) were arrested.
A few months later, Mr. Plager knocked out Minnesota North Stars goalie Lorne (Gump) Worsley during a playoff game after colliding into the unmasked netminder, who struck the back of his head against a goal post.
Later that same year, two of the brothers took part in a fracas in a St. Louis lounge during which police were called. After soup was spilled on Bob, he and Barclay climbed over a bar to confront a bartender, who grabbed a small knife to defend himself before hiding in a storeroom. Bob suffered a small cut to his right hand from broken glass. No charges were laid.
In 1973, the league suspended the player indefinitely for having threatened referee Andy Van Hellemond with physical violence. Hours later, the player announced his betrothal to a secretary he had met in hospital while being treated for an injury. A newspaper headlined the story: “From enraged to engaged.”
Beloved in St. Louis, the brothers were also box-office attractions in rival cities, where crowds hoped to witness their comeuppance. The common collective noun for the brothers was “a plague of Plagers.”
Mr. Plager eventually grew a full handlebar mustache to match his biker image as a villainous ruffian with a hair-trigger temper.
The defenceman also had a reputation as a prankster and a playboy.
He snipped the ties of teammates and surreptitiously set alight the bottoms of newspapers being read in hotel lobbies. Once, as the arena hushed in response to several minutes of listless play by the Blues, the silence was interrupted by a booming voice: “We want Bob Pla-ger! We want Bob Pla-ger!” The fans joined in, as the St. Louis bench bent over in laughter. The chant was being led by Mr. Plager himself, who was in the stands in civilian clothes as he recovered from a knee injury.
After yet another injury, Mr. Plager left hospital in a wheelchair escorted by a bevy of Playboy Bunnies. A sports columnist called him “the sideburned Rhett Butler of the far North.”
A bachelor known for partying as hard as he played, Mr. Plager was frequently late for team events. General manager Lynn Patrick once demanded an explanation for missing a flight.
“Lynn, if I told ya, ya’d never believe me,” Mr. Plager said, as recounted by Paul Rimstead in a 1968 Canadian Magazine article.
“Try me,” the general manager replied.
“Well,” the defenceman said, “I woke up in the hotel, looked at the clock and it was 11:30. The plane had left at 11. I looked up at the ceiling, closed my eyes and said, ‘Why me? Why does it always have to be me?’
“Lynn, I told you you’d never believe it. The ceiling opened up and a large hand came through, a finger pointing down at me. And then this loud voice said, ‘Because I don’t like you.’”
To Missourians unfamiliar with hockey and its brutal ethos, he was a savage from an untamed land. When asked where he came from, he described it as a place with “eight months’ snow and four months’ poor sledding.”
Robert Bryant Plager was born on March 11, 1943, at Kirkland Lake, Ont. He was the middle of three sons, following Barclay Graham in 1941 and preceding William Ronald in 1945. Their parents were the former Edith Lewis and Gus Plager, a gold miner. After moving to Kapuskasing, the senior Plager worked as a bartender at the Chateau Kap, where a long career as a hockey referee served him well in breaking up drunken brawls between miners and loggers.
The Plager boys were taught to settle disputes by brawn, not brain. Their father had them wear makeshift boxing gloves – washcloths stuffed inside socks worn over tiny fists.
“When we were young,” Bob Plager once said, “Barclay used to beat me up, so I’d beat up Bill, who’d go across the street to beat up our little cousin.”
While Bob did well at school, the classroom was mostly resented as an interruption from playing hockey on an outdoor rink lacking boards.
At 16, his Junior-A coach offered him $5 for every five pounds of weight he gained. He went down the mines in the summer of 1959 weighing 135 pounds, emerging at training camp at 200.
It was a taste of a hard life he wished to avoid.
“We had two choices growing up,” he said. “Go into professional hockey or go into the mines.”
The defenceman led his junior league with 156 penalty minutes in just 49 games in 1960-61. Barclay had led the league the previous season. Bob was playing for the Guelph Royals and Barclay with the Peterborough Petes when the brothers engaged in a brawl that seemed never to end. They exchanged punches on the ice, then in the penalty box, and later continued under the stands.
Mr. Plager spent most of four seasons in the minor leagues, leading the American Hockey League in penalty minutes one season. He made his NHL debut with the New York Rangers, seeing limited service in 29 games over three seasons.
The doubling of the NHL to 12 teams created a job for him in St. Louis. He was acquired from the Rangers with Gary Sabourin, Tim Ecclestone and Gord Kannegiesser in a trade for Rod Seiling, a defenceman the Blues had taken from the Rangers in the 1967 expansion draft. Barclay came to the Blues in a November trade, making his NHL debut with the team.
When Billy Plager joined the Blues the following season, they became the first trio of brothers on the same NHL club since Reg Bentley played briefly alongside famous brothers Max and Doug with the Chicago Black Hawks in the wartime 1942-43 season.
The Blues reached the Stanley Cup Final for three consecutive seasons, losing twice to Montreal and once to Boston.
Mr. Plager skated for the Blues for 11 seasons before retiring as a player after the 1977-78 season. He scored 20 goals with 126 assists in 645 NHL games, during which he was assessed 800 penalty minutes. In 74 playoff games, he had two goals, 17 assists, and another 195 minutes in penalties. He had spent the equivalent of more than 16 games in the penalty box.
As a coach, he led the minor-league Peoria (Ill.) Rivermen to the International Hockey League championship in 1990-91. He was then named Blues head coach, only to quit after just 11 games with a record of four wins, six losses, and a tie. He returned to his previous job as vice-president in charge of player development. He would work for the Blues for more than a half-century, most recently as a team ambassador and as an analyst on KMOX broadcasts.
He was inducted into the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame in 2014, the same year in which all three of the battling brothers were enshrined in the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame.
The team retired his No. 5 sweater in a ceremony in 2017. A banner with his number was raised to the rafters next to one honouring Barclay’s No. 8, which had been retired 36 years earlier.
On March 24, Mr. Plager was driving his Cadillac SRX when he crashed into another vehicle. He died in hospital. The medical examiner later said preliminary tests indicated he had suffered a cardiac event.
He leaves a son, Bob Plager Jr., and a daughter, Melissa Briggs, as well as two grandchildren. A marriage to Robyn Sher, for which he converted to Judaism, ended in divorce. He was predeceased by Barclay, who died of brain cancer in 1988 at 46, and Billy, who died in 2016 at 70.
After Bob’s death, the Blues announced they would wear a memorial patch on the front of their sweaters featuring his sweater number inside a blue heart. Mr. Plager had liked to quip to fans that he was “No. 5 in your program, No. 1 in your heart.”
In 2019, the Blues won the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. Mr. Plager joined the players for the on-ice celebration. They handed him the trophy, which he hoisted aloft before bringing it down slowly for a kiss.
“My boys,” he said of the players, “got me a Stanley Cup and they got me a parade.”
A few weeks later, Mr. Plager took the storied trophy to the Bellerive Gardens Cemetery in St. Louis. Champagne was poured into the bowl as family members gathered around a grave marker including the red-and-white Canadian flag and the hockey team’s logo of a winged musical note in blue. The Stanley Cup was then gently tipped, the champagne pouring out to anoint the grass growing over Barclay Plager’s final resting place.