Forty-four years ago, when the St. Louis Blues skated onto the ice for the very first time at the old Arena, Bobby Plager was right in the middle of the action: He turned opposing players upside down with his patented hip checks and blocked shots, and threw many a mean right-hand punch. He recorded the team’s first assist, first penalty and the first game misconduct.
My dad took me to a lot of games during those early days of Blues hockey. It was back in the time when businessmen wore suits to the games and ladies wore the latest fashions. Most of us didn’t have much of a clue about what was happening on the ice—what the difference was between an icing call and a cross check—but we knew the Blues were winners. The team made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals its first three years, and Bobby Plager was always right there.
It was a special time in St. Louis sports history. I personally remember how Plager was always the last player off the ice: He’d scoop up the puck and toss it to one of the kids in the crowd. Plager himself remembers most of it like it was yesterday. “To come onto the ice as the fans sang When the Blues Come Marching In, you got goose bumps. It was unbelievable the way we were treated by the fans and the Salomons, who owned the team,” he says. “Players on the other teams hoped to get traded to St. Louis because this was the place to come in the time of the NHL expansion.”
All these decades later, St. Louis remains home to Plager, who still works for the team in community relations, although his unofficial job title is ‘heart and soul’ of the St. Louis Blues. Nobody bleeds bluer.
Plager also is in the restaurant business. The original Bobby’s Place is in Valley Park, and a second is set to open soon on Main Street in downtown St. Charles.
I caught up with him recently. We sat at his restaurant’s bar as he smoked a cigarette, looking almost as tough as I remember him. I tell him my stories about him and the early years of the Blues, as well as those classic bare-knuckle brawls. You want to see a brutal battle? Just google Bob Plager vs. Derek Sanderson and you’ll see what I mean. So I wasn’t surprised when he told me he can still throw a haymaker when he has to. “I’m in the bar business ya know, they don’t drink milkshakes in here.”
I think to myself, It’s a good thing he quit drinking eight years ago because I’m sure there are still a few people who would like to challenge one of the toughest guys ever to wear the blue note. But Plager admits sometimes, it was the other way around. “When I was drinking, I was the one going up to the big guys in the bar and thinking, I can take ‘em.”
Back in the day, it wasn’t just Bobby Plager who patrolled the ice, he had his two brothers right there with him: Younger brother Billy played with the Blues for four seasons. And of course, there was his legendary big brother, the late Barclay Plager. Bobby Plager still glows when he thinks back to a game in Montreal: It was hockey night in Canada and the entire nation was watching. The Plagers were all defensemen but for the opening faceoff, and coach Scotty Bowman lined them up together across the front line—the kind of stuff legends and movies are made of. In fact, there was a movie made about them— well, sort of. Paul Newman starred in Slap Shot, in which three of the main characters, the Hanson brothers, were rough-andtumble bruisers who had no fear. Although the filmmakers never admitted it, most observers, including Plager, believe the Hanson brothers were inspired by him and his brothers. “There’s one scene where Paul Newman is coming into his apartment with his girlfriend,” Bobby says. “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!”
Plager has more hockey stories than you can imagine, and every one of them is a classic. He’ll tell you those stories all day long. All you have to do is have a seat at the bar and listen.
Plager is 68 now, and while it used to be that the people who came up to him and said, You were my favorite. Now, it’s usually You were my grandpa’s favorite. “I hope I’m around another 15 years, maybe then, it will be the great-grandmothers who remember us.”
Plager says he and his brothers never cheated the fans or their teammates; instead, they gave the game everything they had. That’s what he hopes fans remember most. But don’t get too brave when you run into Bobby, you might find yourself upside down on the wrong end of one of those legendary hip checks. After all, Plager is still right in the middle of the action.