On the night of Jan. 6, 1972, Bob Plager managed to do something he’s done throughout most of the last 50 years. He found himself in the middle of something involving the St. Louis Blues.
With the Blues down 2-0 to the Philadelphia Flyers after the second period at the Spectrum, Blues coach Al Arbour was arguing with a referee when both were doused with beer by Flyers fans. Things escalated from there and some Blues players — including Plager and brothers Barclay and Billy Plager — waded into the stands trying to protect their coach.
It was vintage Plager behavior, not surprising in the least that Bob Plager was the first Blue into the stands. Plager spent his career protecting his teammates with a tough, physical style that quickly endeared him to Blues fans dating back to the franchise’s inception 50 years ago in 1967.
Fifty years later, the Blues will honor the legendary defenseman for a lifetime of memories, loyalty and service by retiring his No. 5 jersey Thursday at Scottrade Center prior to a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The 73-year-old Plager was an original Blue, acquired from the New York Rangers in an expansion draft trade along with forwards Gary Sabourin and Tim Ecclestone and defenseman Gord Kannegiesser. Plager became etched in Blues history in his first game, assisting on the franchise’s historic first goal scored by Larry Keenan against the Minnesota North Stars.
Plager’s No. 5 has hung in the Scottrade Center rafters previously, the gold number surrounded by a blue heart signifying his role of being at the very heart of the franchise.
Now that familiar No. 5, later worn by Barret Jackman with Plager’s blessing, will become the seventh retired jersey in Blues history.
The others are No. 2 (Al MacInnis), No. 3 ( Bob Gassoff), No. 8 (Barclay Plager, Bob’s brother), No. 11 (Brian Sutter), No. 16 (Brett Hull) and No. 24 (Bernie Federko).
As a player, Plager helped the Blues to three straight Stanley Cup finals appearances in the franchise’s first three years of existence.
In those days, the dressing rooms were full of future Hall of Famers, and Plager skated, dressed and lived alongside legends Glenn Hall, Jacques Plante, Doug Harvey and Dickie Moore. One of Plager’s first coaches was Scotty Bowman, another Hall of Famer who went on to win a league-record nine Stanley Cup championships.
Arbour, a former Plager teammate who later was his head coach, won four straight Stanley Cups from 1980 to 1983 as coach of the New York Islanders.
Plager patrolled the blue line from 1967 to 1978, appearing in 615 games and scoring 20 goals and 141 points. No stranger to the penalty box or dropping the gloves, Plager accumulated 762 penalty minutes during his carer.
He enjoyed dumping the opposition with his trademark hip checks that would send players tumbling to the ice as Blues fans at the old Arena would roar in approval.
Plager was there when there were no Blues traditions. He listened and learned from those around him and watched as those traditions developed, later passing them down to future generations of players and fans.
Plager is the enduring constant of a franchise that is rich in history, talent and characters. Perhaps no character in Blues history can surpass the story-telling, fun-loving, wise-cracking, one-liner busting Plager.
He has held numerous jobs within the organization through the decades including head coach for 11 games in 1992-93. He resigned with a 4-6-1 record.
Plager also spent time in professional scouting, player development and also turned his one season as a minor-league coach into something truly special. Plager was behind the bench when the 1990-91 Peoria Rivermen finished 58-19-5 and won the Turner Cup and International Hockey League championship.
Plager is the middle brother, sandwiched between older brother Barclay and younger brother Billy. Billy Plager died last January at age 70 while Barclay Plager died of cancer in 1988 at age 46.
If you are a Blues fan, chances are you have at least been in the same room with Plager before. Maybe he signed an autograph for you, posed for a photo or selfie, or just talked about the time he and longtime defense partner Noel Picard had some after-hours fun.
Seeing his jersey retired by the Blues should come as no surprise. Perhaps no one in history has done as much on behalf of the franchise as Plager, a living, breathing reminder of those original Blues who laid the foundation 50 years ago and helped pave the way for the success of professional hockey in St. Louis.