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Book Excerpt: If you mess with Al Arbour, you’re going to have to deal with the Plagers

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The Blues inspired another franchise to get meaner... and to eventually win the Stanley Cup.

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Philadelphia Flyers v St. Louis Blues Photo by Melchior DiGiacomo/Getty Images

We all need something to do right now, now that many of us have collectively lost our sense of time due to extensive self-isolation. It took me ten minutes on Wednesday to realize that it was, in fact Wednesday.

We all miss the Blues and the sense of normalcy that watching them brings, and that may be even worse now because we should be focused on the Stanley Cup Playoffs and taking out whoever in the world they’re playing (the poll’s fixed to include the Preds - thanks, glitch). Chances were high that it was going to be Nashville, which could be less than ideal - but with the log jam for the Wild Card spots it could just as easily be the Jets or even the Minnesota Wild.

Instead of gearing up for the playoffs, we now have to find something to do. In today’s book excerpt, from 100 Things Blues Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die, Jeremy Rutherford discusses the night that the Blues unintentionally inspired the Broad Street Bullies... and probably Slap Shot.

Mayhem in Philadelphia

Former Blues defenseman Bob Plager had a reason for being the last player on his team to leave the ice after each period.

“[I did that] in case something happened in the stands, I wouldn’t be sitting in the dressing room, missing something,” Plager said. “There was a time in the minors where I did leave and I was in the dressing room when a fight started outside. So I said, ‘I’ll make sure everybody is in the dressing room safe before I ever come in.’”

But even Plager might not have envisioned what transpired between two NHL expansion rivals—the Blues and the Philadelphia Flyers—on January 6, 1972, at the Spectrum. After the second period, with the Blues trailing 2–0, head coach Al Arbour confronted referee John Ashley about a few questionable calls.

“The first period, the referee was very bad,” Plager said. “The first goal shouldn’t have been a goal. The second goal, same thing. Al is going crazy. When the period ended, Al opened the door and our players went up to the dressing room. Al steps on the ice, and he’s going after the referees. In those days, you were allowed to do that. So I’m skating behind Al [because] I want to make sure nothing happens.”

As Arbour followed Ashley up a ramp toward the officials’ dressing room, still exchanging words, a fan doused Arbour with a beer.

The reaction was one that would put any on-ice hockey brawl to shame. It was a chaotic scene that lasted 25 minutes, required the response of 200 police officers, and ended with four people from the Blues organization spending the night in jail.

“Someone dumped a beer on me, and then I tripped over a policeman,” Arbour said. “As I started to get up, another policeman hit me over the head with a club. When I started to get up again, a fan conked me.”

Several Blues players climbed into the seats at the Spectrum, including all three Plager brothers, leading to a melee with the fans. “I go up in the stands after the fan, and the next thing I know Barclay is behind me and Billy is behind him,” Bob Plager said. “We go up there and start pushing and shoving. The police pull me down and people are swinging at me. That’s when our players came in and our guys started swinging sticks. Then the police came in. Al is pushing one of the policeman, who whacks him over the head with the billy [club]. Now I grab the policemen with the billy and I’m fighting the policeman—not punching him but pulling him. It went on for quite a while.”

More authorities rushed to the area, and according to a report,

Detective Lt. Matthew Veasey told the Blues to return to the ice level or they would be arrested. The battle between the players and police continued, but the team eventually made its way back to the dressing room.

John Arbour, who was recalled by the Blues the morning of the game, was struck on the back on the head, and the cut required 30 stitches. Al Arbour (no relation) also required roughly a dozen stitches. A 14-year-old boy, a middle-aged woman, and two cops suffered minor injuries.

“It’s the worst case of police brutality I’ve ever seen,” Blues owner Sid Salomon said. “We’ll get the tape from TV.”

There was talk about canceling the game, but it was decided that they would play the final period. Arbour was left to wear only a T-shirt under his blazer because his dress shirt was bloodied.

Meanwhile, authorities stood outside the Blues’ locker room as the players returned to the ice and wrote down the jersey numbers of those involved, indicating that action would be taken after the game.

“We got the big policeman with the white shirt, and he’s got the big yellow pad and pen,” Plager said. “So we open the door and I’m watching the guys going out. Here goes Garry Unger, and they’re pointing at him. Phil Roberto, Floyd Thomson...they’re taking the numbers down.

“Well, I knew they were going to get me. But like I said, I’m the last one off the ice and I’m the last one on the ice, too. So I told Tommy Woodcock, our trainer, ‘Lock the door when you go out and come back and get me when the cops are gone.’ I hid in the dressing room. Tommy locked the door and the police said, ‘That’s everybody?’ And Tommy said, ‘That’s everybody.’

That wasn’t everybody.

Minutes later, Woodcock returned to get Plager, who went to the bench unnoticed. It was a busy day for Woodcock, who also had to sharpen as many skates as he could between periods because they were dulled by the players climbing into the concrete stands. But it was worth it as the Blues rallied for a 3–2 victory.

“I was one of the stars of the game,” Plager said.

After the game, Plager was hoping the Blues’ lineup was the only lineup he’d be in that day. Looking at their yellow pad of numbers, the police started nabbing players.

“They let our players shower and get dressed, and then they handcuffed them behind the back,” Plager said. “Here I’m walking with my head down, just waiting, and they go, ‘No. 5, nope.’ They brought the paddy wagon right in the back, loaded up all the guys, and took them to jail.”

Al Arbour and John Arbour, along with Thomson and Roberto, were hauled off and charged with disorderly conduct and assault and battery on policemen. In jail, Al Arbour, who smoked at the time, pulled out a cigarette and pandemonium ensued among inmates seeking a puff. Later that night, each of the Blues was released on $500 bail.

Plager, who admitted that he was the first one in the stands and “started the whole thing,” was not taken into custody—at least not until decades later.

“I went back a few years ago, and they arrested me,” he said. “I was talking about it on TV and in comes the cop. He said, ‘We didn’t get you then, but we got you now.’”

This excerpt from 100 Things Blues Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die: Stanley Cup Edition by Jeremy Rutherford is printed with the permission of Triumph Books. For more information and to order a copy, please visit Barnes & Noble, Amazon, or www.triumphbooks.com/100Blues.