The St. Louis Blues hockey community is mourning today the loss of one of the greatest Blues of all time. Team legend and hockey ambassador Bobby Plager died in a car accident as he headed to the Enterprise Center for a scheduled press event.
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Plager, 78, was killed in a two-vehicle wreck at about 1:30 p.m. on the highway, shocking longtime fans and admirers of the man who played 11 years and 615 games with the team, and became a face of the Blues franchise through decades of continued work with the organization. (‘Blues’ Hockey Legend Plager Killed in Crash on Highway 40 in St. Louis,’ St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 3/24/2021).
Blues’ general manager Doug Armstrong confirmed the death in a video statement Wednesday.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to Bobby Jr., Melissa and the entire Plager family,” Armstrong said. “As Bobby would fondly say, ‘He’s No. 5 in your program, but No. 1 in your hearts.’ That holds true today and forever as Bobby is, truly, the St. Louis Blues.”
The team said in a statement that Plager was a true original: “Today, our hearts are broken, but one day they will be warmed again by memories of his character, humor and strong love for his family, our community, the St. Louis Blues and generations of fans who will miss him dearly.”
Fans in Shock Over Loss of Favorite Blue
Fans were left in shock when the news broke right after the lunch hour.
At OB Clark in Brentwood, hockey fans shared their fond memories of the once bruising defenseman, according to Fox 2 in St. Louis. “They believe Bobby probably rejoiced the loudest when the Blues finally won a Stanley Cup.”
“He took that it was almost like he won it too, and I love that, that kind of energy,” fan Andrew Foley told Fox 2.
He’s a man who will live on in the hearts of so many people, other fans intimated.
“He was a gentleman. He was an everyman’s guy,” Chris Desloge said. “You could meet him and have a conversation with him no matter who you were, he was just one of those fabulous folks.”
As news spread about the tragedy, tributes from across the organization and the NHL started pouring in. The news broke when 101 ESPN announced the retired player’s passing. Other news stations were quickly on the story, and by 5 p.m., the entire St. Louis region was alerted to this accident.
An unidentified woman in the other car involved in the accident on Interstate 64 was being treated in a hospital for minor injuries, police told CBS affiliate KMOV.
Details surrounding the crash were scarce, the New York Post reported. (from ‘Bob Plager, former NHL bruiser, dead in car crash,’ New York Post, 03/24/2021) Plager had played for the Rangers before joining the Blues.
“It is unimaginable to imagine the St. Louis Blues without Bobby Plager,” the Blues said in a statement.
Hip Checks and Beer Showers
Known for his trademark hip check and pranks off the ice, which once included mailing a teammate’s false teeth home during a long road trip, the one they called “Mr. Blue” grew up in Ontario, Canada and got his career started with the Rangers in 1964.
In June 1967, the Rangers traded him to St. Louis along with Gary Sabourin, Tim Ecclestone and Gord Kannegiesser for Rod Seiling. He played four of his 11 seasons in St. Louis with his brothers Bill and Barclay. The New York Post reported on an incident in 1972, when the three brothers jumped into the stands in Philadelphia after Flyers’ fans doused their head coach, the legendary Al Arbour, with beer.
Fans loved Plager because he was accessible and always present at Blues community events. He made himself available to fans, and he quickly became a fan favorite first as a player, then as an ambassador. During the team’s 2019 Stanley Cup run, he was highly visible during the team’s celebrations. As beloved as he was, the Blues let him take the Stanley Cup for a day after they won it. He took it to the graveside of his brother Barclay, where he poured a symbolic beer over his brother’s gravesite. It was captured on social media and quickly went viral.
Plager grew up in Kirkland Lake, Ontario, in a hockey family. His father was the chief official in the Northern Ontario Hockey Association. He played junior hockey with the Guelph Biltmore Mad Hatters and the Guelph Royals and was known for his aggressive and physical play — he broke a then-record in the Ontario Hockey Association for penalty minutes in a season in 1961-62. He signed a professional deal with the New York Rangers in 1964 but only played 29 games over the next three seasons. He spent much of his time in the minor leagues with the Baltimore Clippers. But the NHL’s expansion gave him his chance to become an NHL regular with the Blues.
Plager himself was St. Louis’ coach in 1993, although he only guided the team for nine games. He went 4-6-1 in his brief tenure. He definitely never left the Blues, the team he loved to the moment he died.
Plager was “part of the reason I was drafted, Blues legend Tony Twist told Karraker and Smallmon on St. Louis’ 101 ESPN … “There’s not a guy who bled Blue more than Bobby.”
Plager’s Legacy Will Be Player Development
Plager’s legacy for the Blues will always be with how he helped develop young players for the team. He was a master of getting the most out of his players, Twist said.
Plager never really left Peoria, where he was the head coach of a Peoria Rivermen team. “He led Peoria to an IHL championship in 1990-91 — and was the architect behind a pro hockey record 18-game win streak that stood for more than 20 years, The Peoria Star-Journal reported (‘Peoria Rivermen and St. Louis Blues Icon Bob Plager Dies in Car Accident,’ Peoria Journal-Star, 3/25/21).
He would come back to Peoria to visit at a Rivermen game, the Journal-Star reported. “Or come into town for a reunion with players. He made history with the Rivermen and then spent the rest of his life embracing it, even though he did bigger things in the pro game at the NHL level before and after his stay in Peoria.”
“Plager put Peoria on the hockey world’s map that magical season,” the paper reported. “National media in the U.S. and Canada followed that team as it raced to a win streak record. A newspaper from Russia called the Journal Star at 3 a.m. central time one night asking about the Rivermen players that were on it. The playoffs that followed were a storybook tale. It was a magnificent ride.”
Plager was inducted in to the Rivermen Hall of Fame in 1994.
A Friend, a Mentor, But Always a Coach
Players like Twist have the utmost respect for Plager, whom they called a friend, mentor and coach.
“Anybody can print out X’s and 0’s and a lot of people can give you the grit of the game but the mechanics of the game how he works, how the dressing room works,” Twist said. “… His insight into the game came from a different level. He played the game and he coached the game. He understood the game from all levels.”
“There’s a piece of Bobby Plager in each one of us guys who played rough and tumble,” Twist said, getting emotional as he talked about Plager. “Bob was a great captain and ambassador for us on two levels. … He was not always the most talented player, but Bobby had skill. …
“One liners – one line things to remember. All of us have a few of those” that Bobby passed along, Twist said.
Bob Plager helped Tony Twist “become a man” when he first arrived in the league, the former Blues enforcer said.