Memorabilia Memories, with Rick Ackerman
Robert Bryant Plager was born on 11 March, 1943, (Happy birthday in around two weeks, Bobby) in Kirkland Lake, Ontario. Legendary hockey announcer Foster Hewitt (Hockey Night in Canada) dubbed Kirkland Lake "the town that made the NHL famous" because of the large number of players that came out of this gold-mining town in northeastern Ontario. Notable NHL players who lived in Kirkland Lake include Ted Lindsay, Ralph Backstrom, Dick Duff, goaltender Bill Durnan, Larry Hillman, Mickey Redmond and, of course, Barclay, Bob and Billy Plager.
Plager came from a hockey family. His father was an official with the Northern Ontario Hockey Association and they lived across the street from an outdoor rink. Without television, the family would huddle around the radio, especially on Saturday nights, hockey night in Canada. Plager's first season in juniors was in 1959 when he joined the Guelph Biltmores of the Ontario Hockey Association and played 44 games.
Rod Gilbert and Jean Ratelle were on that team, as well as goaltender Gilles Villemure. All three went on to star for the New York Rangers. Ironically, statistics at Hockey Database.com indicate Plager had the same number of points as penalty minutes: one. I am not sure how you get one penalty minute, yet that's amateur hockey for you.
Plager spent the following three seasons at Guelph, renamed the Royals in 1960, with a short stint with the Kitchner-Waterloo Beavers (three games). During the 1961-62 season, he broke what was then the OHA record for penalty minutes in a season. He then went on to play for the St. Paul Rangers of the old Central Professional Hockey League for the 1963-64 season, scoring 13 goals and 48 points, along with 158 penalty minutes. Many of us veteran St. Louis hockey observers who saw the Braves that season remember Plager well, as he always seemed to be in the center of rough play and fights. Even then we loved to hate that tough guy who always seemed to prevent our Braves from scoring opportunities with his exceptional ability to defend his own net, as well as knock the stuffing out of our guys with body checks or his fists.
Plager signed a professional contract with the New York Rangers in 1964 and was assigned to the farm team in Baltimore. He played 19 games for the Clippers and was then recalled to New York, where he played ten games before he was demoted to the Vancouver Canucks of the old Western Hockey League. Plager started 1965 in New York yet after 18 games was returned to the CPHL farm team, now called the Minnesota Rangers, for the remainder of the season. The majority of the following season was spent back in Baltimore, although he did play one game in New York for the Rangers.
And then the NHL expanded in 1967, doubling in size from six to 12.
Plager, in Baltimore at the time, was not drafted. When asked by local sports writers, he said the Oakland franchise did the best job of drafting players, while the St. Louis franchise did the worst. The following day, June 6, Plager was traded by the Rangers to St. Louis along with Tim Ecclestone, Gary Sabourin and Gordie Kannegiesser for rock-solid defenseman Rod Seiling. He reportedly told the Baltimore scribes that hockey was indeed a strange sport; "with one good trade you can go all the way from last place to first place." And how prophetic that was as the Blues went to the Stanley Cup Finals that first season. Oakland finished last in the new division, out of the playoffs.
Although Plager did play for Blues farm clubs in Kansas City and Salt Lake City (mostly assignments for rehabbing from injuries), he spent the rest of his eleven-season career proudly wearing the Note. He did coach the farm team in Salt Lake City in 1977-78, as well as the farm team in Peoria in 1990-91 when they won the Turner Cup championship. He was also named coach of the year, winning the Commissioner's Trophy. And Plager replaced Brian Sutter as the Blues head coach in 1992, yet resigned after 11 games for personal reasons.
One of my best memories from the Blues Fantasy Camps was being hip-checked down by Plager in front of the net as I awaited a pass. As he skated away smiling, he winked and shouted, "Gotta keep your head up when I'm on the ice, kid." Yes, I actually have something in common with Mickey Redmond of Red Wings fame.
There are so many stories I could tell that Bob related to me personally, yet there is simply no room here to do that justice. However, one of my favorites Bob told me concerns the night Bob, Noel Picard and Jimmy Roberts went back to one of their old, favorite haunts, Sportsman's Park on Clayton Road in Ladue. In their hey-day, the Blues would congregate at Jackie Smith's place, so that threesome returned to salute and toast Bob's brother Barclay, who loved that restaurant/tavern. The threesome left the fourth seat empty, and when a patron asked if he could have the chair since the place was totally packed, Picard, said, "Oh, there's somebody using it, my friend. You might not see him, but there is somebody sitting in it." Bob lost his beloved brother to complications from a brain tumor in 1988. We all lost perhaps the Truest of all Blues that year.
There will never be another Blues player quite like Bob Plager, number 5 in your program, number 1 in your hearts!