For all of the elite hockey players who played for a beloved franchise, earning honors that included induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, no St. Louis Blue was Bluer than Bob Plager.
No St. Louis Blue was more St. Louis than Bobby Plager. No St. Louis Blue who wore the beautiful sweater with the sacred crest could stitch the fabric of this franchise and this city together better than Bobby.
And for all of their many good and deeds, no St. Louis Blue could match Bobby Plager’s longevity in service to The Note. None could match the generosity in his heart, his decades-long commitment to this special team, or his everlasting devotion to and the fans who love it.
Bob Plager, 78, died suddenly Wednesday in a two-car accident on Highway 40 … the same highway traveled on by a countless number of Blues fans driving to the arena to watch the Blues.
Bobby’s journey ended in this dominion, but there is another realm: his profound influence on this hockey community will last forever. His memory will fortify the fans who adore this team. In a metaphysical way, Bob Plager will continue to show you the way to 14th and Clark.
And he will always live through the Blues emblem. From now on, when you look at that extraordinary hallmark, you will think of Bobby. You will think of Barclay. And Billy too. Three brothers who played for Blues, all at the same time for a while.
You know what the Blues’ emblem is? The insignia is a family Coat of Arms. The Plager Family. The first family of hockey in St. Louis. And if you care about the Blues that makes you part of the family.
And this is why Bob will live on.
He will live through this big, sprawling, rollicking, dancing, singing, cheering, fun-loving, Blues-loving hockey family.
He will live through you.
The Golden One, Brett Hull, said it best in 2017, before the Blues retired Bob Plager’s No. 5: “He epitomizes what it is to wear the Blue Note and is someone that we should always look up to and say, ‘This is how you’re supposed to represent not only the city of St. Louis, but the St. Louis Blues.’ ”
This Original Blue was also an Original personality. Bobby Plager was a jester, leader, prankster, enforcer, mentor, talker, brawler, blood brother, charmer, instigator, story-teller, ambassador.
On the ice, Bob Plager threw punches that made opponents buckle. Off the ice, he delivered punch lines that made us chuckle.
Bobby was a raconteur … and a rascal.
He was a colorful character who had character.
And he may have even inspired a few characters along the way.
Actor Paul Newman may have been a Plager fan. Newman starred in Slap Shot, the classic movie centered on a minor-league team, and aging and cynical star (Newman) and the hilariously rambunctious Hanson brothers.
A long time ago Bob Plager told an interviewer that he believed the Hanson brothers were inspired, at least a little, by the Plager brothers.
“There’s one scene where Paul Newman is coming into his apartment with his girlfriend,” Plager said. “He’s walking down the hall and there’s a picture of me hanging on the wall. I told my brothers, ‘There I am in the movie!’ ”
Old joke about the Plagers’ father, Gus.
Why do so many people refer to Gus as “Squirrel?”
Answer: Because he has three nuts.
Bobby liked the joke.
“If you take the game seriously, you go crazy anyway, so it helps if you’re a bit nuts to start with,” he once said.
There was a firm rule inside the family home, enforced by Gus: no fighting in the house.
“He didn’t say anything about the backyard,” Bobby said.
In the famous 1972 Blues-Flyers brawl in Philadelphia, Bob Plager took umbrage at fans who threw beer (and various objects) at his coach, Al Arbour.
Bobby started his climb into the stands to make these louts pay for their poor hospitality to the visiting team.
Barclay Plager followed Bobby.
Billy Plager followed Barc.
Three brothers were willing to take on an entire arena of hostile fans if need be. They were willing to absorb the billy-club blows from Philadelphia policemen. There were four arrests, but the cops didn’t get to Bobby. He was too quick for that, locked behind the Blues’ locker-room door and instructing a team trainer to inform the police that every Blues player had filed out to start the next period.
Bobby has dispensed versions of this line many times. But goodness, I can never pass it up:
“You watch the film, my older brother Barclay was right behind me, and my younger brother Billy was behind Barclay,” Bob said. “Being in the city of Brothery Love, the three of us thought we’d go up there and show a little love.”
That’s another fantastic thing about Bob Plager: no matter how many times he repeated a favorite story, you enjoyed it every single time.
Here’s another story. It isn’t a story from Plager. It’s a story about Bobby. In a 1973 preseason game at Brantford, Ontario, the Blues and Penguins had a nasty bench-clearing rumble. For his role in the mischief, Plager was suspended for two regular-season games by the stern NHL president Clarence Campbell.
Why? Well, according to Campbell’s report, Bobby “Physically interfered with game officials and threatened physical violence to referee Andy van Hellemond.”
I shouldn’t laugh … glorifying violence and all that … but I’m sorry. It’s hockey and it’s Bobby Plager and I’m laughing.
Bob could be funny. Frequently funny. Funny with his famous quips. But he competed with a fury, and that still burned inside him long after he retired as a player. Plager was triggered, really ticked off, watching games and seeing the Blues playing poorly or not working hard.
Skating with a half-tank of competitiveness was something Bobby and Barclay would never stand for. If you were drawing a salary as a player, representing St. Louis, then you’d best understand this: The Plager Brothers would never accept a dispassionate effort. No way. Not if you wore The Note.
As defensemen Bob and Barclay protected the goal; they also protected the team’s unofficial honor code. It still applies to this day. Don’t ever throw your Blues sweater — and that emblem – on the floor. Hang the sweater at your locker. Respect the tradition. Respect the fans who paid their hard-earned money to support you.
“My brother Barc and myself, we never cheated the fans,” Bob said in a televised interview, leading up to his jersey-retirement night. “When you get out there, you see the fans. The fans were there … I don’t think there’s one shift that we went out there and didn’t (try to) play our best. Sometimes you have bad games, and we’ve had a lot of bad games. But it’s not because we didn’t try to play our best.”
Bobby Plager was the toughest Blue.
Bobby Plager was the softest Blue.
Soft? You’re calling Bob Plager soft? Yes, but not in the hockey sense. Bobby could never refuse a fan’s autograph request, or say no to a photo, or walk away without engaging in a friendly conversation that made someone happy. Absolutely, Plager was a softie.
Other than Stan Musial, and probably Red Schoendienst, has any St. Louis athlete signed more autographs, posed for more photos, or shaken more hands than Bobby Plager?
I doubt it.
From the day he was traded to the Blues by the New York Rangers (June 6, 1967) to the day he passed away, Bob Plager was a Blue for 53 years, 9 months and 19 days.
For an incredible 19,651 days of his life, Plager was True Blue. As he told his friend and longtime hockey writer Jeremy Rutherford of The Athletic:
“I was the vice president, assistant general manager, coach, assistant coach, director of player development, player personnel. I wish I would’ve kept all my cards that they printed up. They kept giving me titles all the time and no raises. But I did the same thing all the time; I never changed. I never had a day off, and I enjoyed it.”
Plager left a few things out. He was also a scout, and terrific at the job. He did broadcast work. And he probably qualified for another title: motivational coach. Generations of Blues players revered him.
The 2019 team couldn’t wait to hand Bobby Plager the Stanley Cup in Boston after Game 7. And Bob cherished taking the Cup to Barclay’s grave for a Plager family gathering that featured a champagne toast, a pouring of beer into the solemn ground, a brook of sentimental tears, sweet memories, and abundant love.
During those 19,651 days of his life, Bobby Plager circulated joy to other lives. If you knew him you loved him and couldn’t get enough of him.
If you were having a bad day, he’d make you smile. If he was having a bad day, no problem. He would still make you smile. Your happiness was more important than his happiness.
Plager wasn’t just a tough guy; he was a really good Blues defenseman for 10 seasons. And in our town, he was a really good man for all seasons.
For all of the incessant, vapid talk we hear these days about “branding” — a product, a person, or a sports franchise — allow me to say this:
Plager never had to market himself.
The market came to him.
He never had to go on Instagram and concoct some phony image to attract followers.
He already had the followers.
Many, many followers. But Plager he didn’t have to “count” them. He could count on them to enhance the shared experience of Blues Hockey. Count them? No, he wanted to include them by being jovial and personal and just like them.
You see, his “followers” were real folks who treasured Bobby for his approachability, his kindness, his human touch. His authentic, down-to-earth Plager way.
Plager didn’t have to sell himself, but he sure did sell a lot of Blues tickets over the 53-plus years. Bobby was a huge part of the Blues’ appeal, just by being himself. Want to know how Plager cultivated an image? His hip check was hip.
More than most, and as much as anyone, Bob Plager helped build the Blues, take care of the Blues, popularize the Blues, and sustain and maintain the Blues for more than a half-century.
This gregarious, bounteous man wasn’t the face of the franchise. He was the spirit of the franchise. The walking, talking, backslapping, yarn-spinning, smiling, self-deprecating, uplifting presence that gave the Blues energy and light for decades.
Bobby Plager’s warmth made the rink less cold. The natural charisma and the waves of his enthusiasm could make the blues go away. But Bobby would never allow the Blues to fade away. During the bleakest of days or seasons, he was always there.
In return for his endless fidelity to the Blues, Plager asked for one thing back: a parade.
A glorious, gleeful jam-packed, celebration of a Stanley Cup championship. Right in the middle of downtown. Straight to The Gateway Arch. And all of the people would come. And everyone would be happy. And the Blues would be on top of the world. Because outside of his family, Plager’s world was St. Louis and the NHL.
Plager wanted that parade and a day everyone would remember for the rest of their lives. A story that would be retold to future generations. A story that — like his stories — would never get old.
Bobby Plager got his wish. His faith was rewarded. He got the parade. Two years earlier, Bobby had his No. 5 raised to the rafters to hang forever, right next to dear Barclay’s No. 8. Blood brothers, shoulder to shoulder. Again. And always.
The emotionally moving ceremony and jubilant parade were truly special. But I don’t think we could ever repay Bob Plager for all that he did for the Blues, the fans, the hockey community.
As you probably know, Plager was known to occupy a gathering spot in Valley Park. A place to stop for something to eat, and a cold beer. Tell some stories. Watch the Blues. Enjoy life. And maybe Bobby would show up too.
Naturally, this place is called Bobby’s Place.
But I know this too: there will always be another place, only much bigger.
St. Louis, Missouri.
St. Louis, Missouri and the surrounding counties.
St. Louis, Missouri — and across the river in Illinois.
All of it. All of us.
That’s Bobby’s Place.
Please check out Bernie’s sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen live online and download the Bernie Show podcast at 590thefan.com … the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.