Lighting the Lamp With Rick Ackerman
All eyes will be on two players tonight, one a retired defenseman who played for the St. Louis Blues and the other a highly regarded rookie forward with the Toronto Maple Leafs. It will indeed be a night to remember for Bob Plager, who will see his No. 5 jersey raised to the TradeStocks Center ceiling. Blues Nation is hoping that it will not be a night to remember for the 2016 number-one overall draft choice of the Maple Leafs, center Auston Matthews.
The 19-year old American phenom from Scottsdale, Arizona, leads the Leafs in scoring with 23 goals and 39 points in his first 47 games in the NHL, including five game-winning goals. For comparison, Matthews has one more goal than the Blues leading scorer, Vlad Tarasenko. Matthews is only one of several outstanding Toronto rookies, and those watching the game tonight should also take note of Mitch Marner (39 points in 47 games), William Nylander (31 points in 46 games), winger Connor Brown and defenseman Nikita Zaitsev.
We will read and hear enough about Matthews in the years to come, so let us turn our attention tonight to the man who was No. 5 in your program for 11 seasons, but is still number one in your heart.
Bobby Plager came to St. Louis on June 6, 1967, along with Tim Ecclestone, Gary Sabourin and Gordie Kannegiesser as part of a multi-player deal with the New York Rangers who received solid veteran defenseman Rod Seiling in return. Actually, St. Louis general manager Lynn Patrick had engineered the trade with New York GM Emile Francis (who would later become the Blues’ GM in April 1976) on the day of the Expansion Draft that offseaon. According to plan, the Rangers would leave Seiling unprotected, and the Blues would draft him and then trade him back to New York for up to four players.
St. Louis hockey fans who were around to see the St. Louis Braves (a farm club for the Chicago Blackhawks) play from 1963 to 1966 were already familiar with the bruising, burly defenseman from Kirkland Lake, Ontario. Plager had manned the blue line for the St. Paul Rangers (1963-64) and Minnesota Rangers (1965-66) of the old Central Professional Hockey League and was well known to Braves’ fans as a formidable foe and tough opponent. We loved to hate that tough guy who always prevented our Braves from scoring opportunities with his exceptional ability to defend his own net, in addition to knocking the stuffing out of our guys with body checks or fists.
These St. Louis veteran (read: old) observers also remember another Plager who starred in the CPHL for the Omaha Knights, Bob’s brother Barclay. Bob and Barc had previously engaged in battles on the ice in the old amateur Ontario Hockey Association in the late 1950s. It was in the Ontario city of Peterborough that Bob had a memorable fight with older brother Barclay, a veteran defenseman with the TPT Petes (Toronto-Peterborough Transport, the sponsor of the team), coached by Scotty Bowman of the Montreal Canadiens’ organization. The brouhaha that started on the ice continued into the penalty box, then back on the ice and finally to the hallway back to the dressing rooms. Both brothers were battered and bloodied, especially Bob, who started it all after being accidentally high sticked in the face for stitches by Barclay. The war continued whenever the Rangers met the Knights in CPHL action and both defensemen were on the ice at the same time. The sibling rivalry on the ice ended when the New York Rangers traded Barclay and Red Berenson to the Blues on November 29, 1967, in exchange for forwards Ron Attwell and Ron Stewart.
Although Bobby did play for Blues’ farm clubs in Kansas City and Salt Lake City (mostly assignments for rehabbing from injuries), he spent the bulk of his eleven-season career proudly wearing the Note. He coached the farm team in Salt Lake City in 1977-78, as well as the farm team in Peoria in 1990-91 when it won the Turner Cup championship. He was also named coach of the year that season, winning the Commissioner's Trophy. Plager replaced Brian Sutter as the Blues’ head coach in 1992, though he resigned after 11 games for personal reasons. He totaled 20 goals and 146 points over 644 games in the NHL, including 615 games with the Blues and 29 with New York. All his points were scored with the Blues, with the exception of five assists with the Rangers.
My best personal memory of Bob Plager came during one of the Blues Fantasy Camp games in which I participated. As I camped in front of the net anticipating a pass for a quick goal, all of a sudden I was hip-checked down by Plager and knocked out of the play. As he skated away, he smiled and shouted, "Gotta keep your head up when I'm on the ice, kid."
Plager’s No. 5 will be officially retired tonight, placed alongside the retired jerseys of Al MacInnis, Bob Gassoff, brother Barclay, Brian Sutter, Brett Hull and Bernie Federko. I recently spoke with Bob at a Blues’ function and asked him if he was excited about the upcoming ceremony. His response was short and sweet as he said that he would finally be up there alongside Barc.
It would be a shame if the Blues play tonight like they did against Winnipeg in a 5-3 loss Tuesday. Five shots in the first period and only seven in the third just doesn’t cut it. One can only hope there is no further embarrassment on this special night.