If it had happened in Montreal or Boston or New York or Philadelphia or Pittsburgh—places where the Plager Brothers have cracked a few rival skulls—the crowd would have cheered for more blood and a lone bugler would have sounded taps. But this was Vancouver, a city new to the National Hockey League and the Plager Gang from St. Louis, and the crowd responded to the sight of a Plager stretched out cold on the ice with silent sympathy.
Barclay Plager and Bob Plager were kneeling on the ice alongside their kid brother Billy, who was dreaming sweet dreams and squirting blood from a gash over his left ear. Moments before, Billy had caught Ray Cullen of the Vancouver Canucks skating with his head down just inside the St. Louis blue line and, like a good Plager, had upended Cullen with a solid body check. But as Cullen somersaulted back to ice level, the blade of his skate sliced into Billy's skull. Billy immediately jumped up. Then he noticed he was bleeding and crumpled back onto the ice.
"When I saw the blood pouring from the kid's head, I knew he was all right." Bob Plager said later. "It was really sawdust that he was losing, not blood. And hey, no Plager is hurt when he gets hit on the head. What have we got up there to hurt?" Although Billy was wheeled from the ice on a stretcher, which, he admitted, "was not good for the family image," he upheld another family tradition by returning to the St. Louis bench 14 stitches later. "It was nothing," he said.
When they are not getting hit on the head, or hitting other players on the head, the three wild Plagers play defense for the St. Louis Blues, an accomplishment that is unique among the numerous brother acts in pro sports this year. There are other brothers who play for the same team, like Henry and Tommie Aaron, Bobby and Dennis Hull, Larry and Wayne Hillman and Ernie and Billy Hicke. Then there are the Conigliaro brothers, Tony and Billy, who played in the same outfield until the Boston Red Sox management decided the act was a "liability" and shipped Tony to California.
The three Alous all played the outfield, but for different teams, in the National League, and the three Richardsons play for different clubs in the American Football Conference. Some brothers are rivals, like Tom Van Arsdale, who guards his twin brother Dick; Phil Esposito, who shoots pucks at his brother Tony; and Miller Farr, who tackles his brother Mel (and also his cousin, Jerry Levias). Some brothers are in different leagues, like Jim and Gaylord Perry, who each won more than 20 games this year, Richie and Hank Allen, Joe and Phil Niekro and Carlos and Lee May. Some brothers play different sports, like Alex Johnson, who won the American League batting championship, and brother Ron, who is one of the National Football League's leading rushers. Finally, there is Umpire Bill Haller, who someday may have to call his brother, Catcher Tom Haller, out on strikes.
Barclay Plager, 29, and Bob, 27, are a regular pair in the Blues' blue line while Billy, 25, is a swing defenseman. They all arrived in St. Louis courtesy of the New York Rangers, and they play the game only one way—rough. Wherever they have played, they always have been among the leaders in penalty minutes. Last year, for instance, Barclay and Bob accounted for half the Blues' major penalties, and major penalties generally are fighting penalties. Never has a Plager been accused of playing defense with finesse; indeed, the Plagers believe the only way to take the puck from someone is to slam that person onto the ice or into the boards. "Is there any other way?" Billy asks.
"Some people call our dad 'Squirrel,' because they think he raised three nuts," Billy adds. "Dad never let us come crying to him. If we had something going, either with each other or with some other kids on the street, we had to go out back and settle it." Some of the best fights in Ontario were private brawls between Barclay and Bob.
"One time we were playing amateur hockey—Barclay in Peterborough and me in Guelph," Bob says, "and we really squared away. One of my teammates, Al Lebrun, tried to break us up but the referee wisely pulled him off. We were still feuding at the end of the game, and we both said we'd get the other one soon. Well, that night Barclay came into a restaurant where I was eating and walked over to my table. The whole place anticipated another brawl. Huh—Barclay just wanted to borrow $5."
Bob was the first Plager to arrive in the NHL, joining the Rangers during the 1964-65 season. "I was supposed to be the tough guy they needed," he says. Instead of a muscleman, though, Bobby became a comedian—which he still is—and soon was back in the minor leagues. "I used to get mad at people because they thought Canada was an uncivilized place," he says, "and I was always making up pretty good stories to tell them." One time someone asked Bob how old he was. "I don't know," he said. "Indians attacked the settlement where my family lived, killed my parents and burned down the general store where all the records were."
Barclay, meanwhile, was playing for Eddie Shore in Springfield, easily the worst place for a hockey player during the mid-'60s. "Eddie suspended you if he didn't like the way you sneezed," Barclay says. "He used to tie rope around the players' legs so they would not skate with too wide a gap. It got so bad that we all went on strike and forced Eddie to give up running the club."
Young Billy turned professional with the Montreal Canadiens' organization in 1966 and played that year at Houston where, like a good Plager, he accumulated 130 penalty minutes in only 51 games. Then came expansion in 1967, and soon all the Plagers were together in St. Louis. Bob was traded from the Rangers to the Blues moments after the expansion draft. Barclay arrived late in November with Red Berenson. Billy played part of the 1967-68 season with Minnesota, became a Ranger for one day in the summer of 1968 and then was traded to the Blues.
While Billy shuttled between St. Louis and the minor leagues the last two years, Bob and Barclay were becoming solid NHL defensemen—Barclay made the West All-Star squad—and, well, a two-man gashouse gang. "Barclay and I are hated everywhere," Bob says. "People buy tickets just to see if the Plagers will get theirs. Hey, we even sold out Pittsburgh. Barclay and I had a brawl with a dozen Pittsburgh guys and Barclay had his nose broken. Of course, it took three of them to break it. The next time we went into Pittsburgh they had a sellout, the first one ever."
Bob also became the Blues' team comedian, a title he does not seem likely to lose. "He's always around cutting your tie in half or cutting off your pants' leg or stealing your luggage just before flight time." Billy says. "He's brutal with me. I can't pronounce my R's, and he always kids me about it in front of the other guys." In Vancouver, Bob asked Billy questions, and Billy's answers had the other players almost in hysterics.
"What kind of car have you got?" Bob asked.
"A yellow Wolls-Woyce," Billy said.
"Who was the greatest player ever to play in the NHL?"
"What kind of game will we play tonight?"
"A wuff one."
Bob, who is the only bachelor among the three, leads an active social life, one that makes early-morning flights to NHL cities a hazardous prospect at best. "I'm a night person," he says. "I play better when I come in late than when I go home and get 12 hours sleep the night before a game." Once he missed an 8 a.m. flight from St. Louis to New York and arrived at Madison Square Garden barely in time for the game.
Lynn Patrick, a vice-president of the Blues, asked Bob what he was trying to prove. "Lynn," Bob said in front of the other players, "you won't believe what happened to me. I jumped out of bed and the clock said 10 o'clock. I looked up at the ceiling and said, 'Why always me, God?' Then the ceiling opened, a big finger pointed down at me and a voice said, ''Cause you bug me, Plager.' " Even Patrick had to laugh.
Billy remembers trying to contact Bob one summer so that Bob could be the best man at his wedding. "I finally gave up," he says, "and then Bob appeared at the wedding and wanted to know why he wasn't my best man." Bob laughs. "When the hockey season ends," he says, "no one knows where I am. One year everyone thought I was in Australia, and all the time I was in Little Rock, Arkansas. The publicity office gives you these sheets and asks you where you will be during the summer. I just write: 'In transit.' "
Right now Bob, Barclay and Billy are in transit around the National Hockey League, and before the season ends even the people in Vancouver will know that you never cheer the wuff Plagers in a visiting wink.
THREE NICE GUYS—before the game begins, of course—are brothers Bill, Barclay and Bob.