I was in my twenties when I met Bob Plager, and I was in awe. When I was in 5th or 6th grade, I got a book called “Saga of the St. Louis Blues,” a picture book on the history of the franchise. Keep in mind, the franchise was probably only ten years old at the time, so there wasn’t much history.
Bob was featured heavily though. Pictures of him with his greased back hair, or his afro, or him fighting. That book made me a fan. So for a kid that grew up watching him play and never leaving the organization, you can imagine what it was like to meet him. With Bob, even though there were many looks, there wasn’t any deviation to his personality. He always had a joke, he always had a smile, he was never in a bad mood.
Bob could not have been more fun. Up until the last time I saw him when we did a Blues game day parade about six months ago, we always hit it off. Whether it was when the Blues fired Brian Sutter and hired Bob without telling him he was going to be the head coach, or the stories about how he developed the likes of Kelly Chase, Tony Twist, Nelson Emerson, Guy Hebert and more. He always had a story.
He LOVED his players. He always enjoyed talking about his 1990-1991 Peoria Rivermen. They were great, but it wasn’t because they were loaded with superstar talent that they won the IHL championship. Bob fostered a feeling of team, a feeling of unity. He knew that goes a long way in hockey, and his players completely bought in. After they won the championship, and as much as he loved his guys, Bob returned home to St. Louis after that season because he wanted to be with his family.
I have a couple of Bob Plager stories. He LOVED that Blues crest. He adored it. He hated the idea of the jersey touching the ground, and along with his brother Barclay started the tradition that the sweater never hits the floor. After games, Blues players put their sweater in a bin when they take it off. The sweater never hits the floor. He took tons of pride in that. And when Barret Jackman was drafted by the Blues, nobody loved it more than Bob did. Jackman played the game the way Bobby liked it played, so he suggested to the club they give Jackman his number 5. Bobby wasn’t shy about showing his pride that a guy that had never worn another team’s jersey wore his number. He was all about complete loyalty to The Note, and the note, and Jackman epitomized what Plager loved.
It was out of loyalty that Bobby accepted the Blues head coaching job when Brian Sutter was fired after the 1991-1992 season. He had coached Peoria to a championship in 1991, so it was a legitimate hire. But the NHL player he was going to coach was different than the International Hockey League player. Plager was stressed, and knew early on that he wasn’t in for the long haul. He decided to resign after the tenth game with the team 3-6-1, but wanted to coach one more game, against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Scotty Bowman had been Bobby’s coach for a time with the Blues, and the two were close friends. Bowman had won five Stanley Cups with Montreal. Now, we was coaching the Penguins. In Bob’s last game as a coach, he beat Bowman’s Penguins 6-4 at the Arena. And for the rest of his life, Bob said, he would tell Scotty Bowman “I’m the only coach to go undefeated against you.” He always had something to make you laugh.
Another thing about Bob was that he never lost his passion for the team. Up until the end of his life, if the Blues lost, he would wear it. I’d show up at practice the next day, and he’d sidle up…cup of coffee in hand…and start talking about the previous night’s game. “(Player X) can’t give that puck away in the last minute of the period. You always let the clock be your coach. In the last two minutes of a period, just chip the puck off the boards and out of your zone.” There was always a little bit of coaching, be it for a player or a hockey neophyte.
When we would do postgame shows from the old 14th & Clark, Bob never turned down an autograph or a conversation. Drunk people would come up and start talking to Bob while he was on the air, and he would still engage them. His name adorned several drinking establishments in St. Louis over the years, and he made sure that everybody was happy when he was there and they came in. For the last many years of his life, Bob didn’t drink; but whether someone was sober or not, he was great to them. I should also point out that after those shows, I learned SO much hockey. Bob would stay with me for an hour after the place had cleared out, and just talk and teach hockey. He did it in a simple, straightforward way. But he taught me about what winning hockey looked like. And when the Blues won the Stanley Cup in 2019, that team looked like Bob Plager’s ideal.
Finally, it’s important to note that Bobby got is parade. He suffered with all of us through the heartbreak of playoff losses and frustration of bad teams. More times than not, the Blues were in the playoffs, just not good enough to win it all. When the Blues introduced Ryan O’Reilly at the Ice Breaker at Ballpark Village in 2018, he said to O’Reilly “I hope you can get me my parade.” And O’Reilly and the Blues did just that. They ended a season without the heartbreak that Plager and endured for fifty previous seasons. He was as happy as any player or fan. He completely enjoyed the experience, and the franchise let the spotlight shine on him.
So even though Bob leaves us at the age of 78, he leaves us a happy man. As horrible as the Wednesday news of his death was, we can celebrate a happy, wonderful, caring, generous man that got to experience his dream. RIP, Bobby. Heaven just got a little funnier.