Enforcers of the Blues – A Brief History
By this point, it should be no mistake to you that this reporter’s favorite aspects of hockey are the more violent ones, namely, fighting. Over the years in Blues team history, the role of the enforcer has changed – some for the better, some for the worse, but all for the evolution of the sport and the function of fisticuffs in the National Hockey League. The stories of these enforcers run deep among die-hard fans of the club, but their names are largely obscure to most hockey fans.
Following the jump, you will find a brief history of the evolution of the enforcer as the Blues have seen it over the years, mostly revolving around these largely-unknown names.
The Era of the Plager Brothers (1967-1977)
In an era where enforcers were expected to produce on the ice, Barclay and Bob Plager excelled at their roles while wearing the Blue Note. Both generally stay-at-home defensemen who were about average size for the time period of hockey history, they were there for their teammates when the call to keep a pest at arms was signaled. In the early years, they were assisted by another fellow defenseman who would later become one of the most popular broadcasting figures in Blues history (does this story sound familiar?), Noel Picard, plus help from the likes of Steve Durbano, Garry Unger, Pierre Plante, Garnet Bailey, Bob Gassoff, and others. Generally, in the old days, out-and-out fisticuffs were rare outside of scrums, but these boys certainly found a way to get in the opponents’ face, into their minds and – ultimately – into the Sin Bin.
The leader of the group was Barclay Plager, who – in 1967-68, the first year of the Blues’ existence – racked up 153 penalty minutes, leading the National Hockey League in that category. This is not to say that he did not have help. His brother, Bob, was not peaceful by any standard, but did not rack up nearly as many penalty minutes as his big brother. In the cases of Durbano and Gassoff, they often racked up more penalty minutes than both Plager boys combined, but in a shorter term of years and with far less production on the ice. This made the Plagers the gold standard among enforcers during the first ten years of the St. Louis Blues’ existence.
When Barclay Plager was named player-coach of the Blues’ farm team in Kansas City, a young man of only 20 years of age by the name of Brian Sutter came along, and it was as if a torch was passed, despite the continued presence of Barclay’s brother Bob, as well as Unger and Durbano.
Brian Sutter Punches the Note Into the 80’s (1977-1988)
A quiet yet stern leader on and off the ice, Brian Sutter can be best described as the David Backes of the “Live Puck Era” for the Blues. When he was young, he did not often fill the score sheet, but were you to test his patience, he would not be afraid to let you know his displeasure. Not always the biggest guy on the ice, Sutter’s presence was almost always felt when he was skating, as he took no guff from anyone, and quite often was a threat to score or set up a goal.
It was no accident that he went on to become a Blues Captain and a stat-sheet filler as his career progressed, as he possessed an astounding combination of skill, grit, strength and determination. And it is no accident that the Number 11 he so proudly wore is hanging from the rafters at Scottrade Center. When you add in Brian’s coaching acumen, the case could be made that he should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame despite only playing 12 seasons in the National Hockey League.
In other words, Brian Sutter was the exact leader the Blues needed to lead them into a bold new era of hockey, where scoring was high, skating was top-notch, goalies ran scared and bench brawls were anticipated. But such an era also brought more enforcers into the league, some of which had not much of another role than to battle the pests of the opposition, but some of which were top scorers or top defenders for the club. Sutter’s enforcer help came from the likes of Gary Holt, Neil Komadoski, Larry Giroux, Perry Turnbull, Bryan Maxwell, Gerry Hart, Rick Lapointe, Bill Stewart, Jim Pavese, Larry Patey, Rob Ramage, Dwight Schofield, Perry Anderson, Terry Johnson, Lee Norwood, Mark Hunter, Charlie Bourgeois, Herb Raglan, Brian Benning and Todd Ewen. Some of these players – notably Ramage, Hunter and Turnbull – played more of a role either offensively or defensively than the others, with the rest settling for role-playing bits with limited talent, but all of these players were ready for a fight when needed.
Following the 1987-88 season, after battling back injuries for most of his career, Brian Sutter retired from the on-ice side of hockey, opting to lead the club behind the bench. He molded a team with a persona much like his – tough, fast and gritty. His enforcers were an important part of his mission.
Here Come Chaser and Twister (1988-1994)
The likes of Ewen, Benning and Raglan continued to contribute as enforcers as Sutter became head coach of the Blues in 1988. Paul and Gino Cavallini – sometimes jokingly known as the “Flying Cavallini’s” – also did their part while filling a scoring need for the team. But in 1989, two special forces came to the forefront as far as Blues enforcers are concerned – Kelly Chase and Tony Twist.
In an era where the role of the enforcer in hockey was ever-expanding, Chase and Twist became an inseparable duo in 1989, inflicting punishment on anyone who would dare come near angering the talented members of the hockey club. Sadly, it only lasted part of the season, as Twist was traded as part of a package for another enforcer, Darin Kimble. There would be a Chaser-Twister reunion at a later time, but it should be noted that the start of this friendship came under the direction of Brian Sutter.
Chase often led the team in penalty minutes without actually playing in half the team’s games. He was ready for a fight – it didn’t matter who it was against, where the contest was being held or what color jersey the other man was wearing. He had help from the likes of Garth Butcher, Glen Featherstone, Bob Bassen, Dave Lowry, Murray Baron, Basil McRae and even Brian’s brothers, Rich and Ron Sutter. In Sutter’s last season as coach, Brendan Shanahan – one of hockey’s perfect combinations of skill and strength – also filled an enforcer role while playing most of his time with more talented players of the Blues lineup such as Craig Janney and Brett Hull.
Sutter left to take over the Boston Bruins as head coach following the 1991-92 season. In what has largely been regarded as one of the biggest mistakes of the Ron Caron Era, the team hired Bob Plager to coach the Blues. Plager only lasted 10 games behind the bench, stepping down and leaving long-time NHL coaching mind, Bob Berry, as the head coach. Having been an assistant under Sutter, Berry understood the way a hockey club was supposed to be made up, and while his execution of the plan was not always flawless, he was sure to keep pugilists around to keep everything in order. The usual suspects continued to keep the pugilists at bay under Plager and Berry.
After the 1993-94 season, after being swept out of the Western Conference Quarterfinals by Dallas, Berry was fired. Mike Keenan, coming off his lone career Stanley Cup winner with the New York Rangers, stepped in as both coach and general manager. It was about to hit the fan.
The Mike Keenan Era – “All Your Veterans Are Belong To Us” (1994-1997)
The Mike Keenan Era was more known for the veterans the team would pick up for the stretch drive toward the playoffs, and the talent that was expended to grab just one Cup ring, more so than wondering who would enforce “The Code”. It didn’t work out too well for the Blue Note, as most history buffs about the club (such as yours truly) are easily able to point out.
This is not to say there were not enforcers on the club, however. Shanahan still had punishment to inflict on others while scoring goals. Baron and Twist also chipped in. Others that helped Shanahan included Denis Chasse, Shayne Corson and Mike Peluso. Shanahan was dealt to Hartford for Chris Pronger, who did not fight much but did rack up penalty minutes with his nasty on-ice demeanor. Also debuting in 1994 was a young man who would get under the skin of enforcers big and small as his career went along, named Ian Laperriere.
Thankfully during the 1996-97 campaign, after massive roster purges that served mostly to anger and frustrate the Blues’ fan base, Mike Keenan was fired by the club. A short interim period coached by Jimmy Roberts was followed by the hiring of what perhaps could have been the greatest bench boss the Blues have had – Joel Quenneville. Order would soon be restored.
Coach Q – Play D, Check, Fight, Win (1997-2004)
Joel Quenneville’s style was made more for the type of hockey the league was transitioning toward in the late 1990’s, which is to say the team was extremely boring, yet incredibly effective. The “Left Wing Trap” stifled goal-scoring, and while reckless violence in hockey was somewhat curbed by The Trap, fighting was still an important part of the game. The beginning of the Q Era’s first full season saw the reunion of Twist and Chase, as Chaser was brought back via trade from Toronto. For two seasons, this dynamic enforcer duo made sure no ill act against a Blues player went unpunished and freed up the skilled players of the club to make actual hockey plays. Pronger – emboldened by the leadership role he was granted by the club – also chipped in to the cause. Others to emerge as enforcers and pests included Tyson Nash and, one of this reporter’s favorite Blues players ever, Jamal Mayers.
Twist, unfortunately, was involved in a motorcycle accident in July 1999, and his NHL career was cut short due to the injuries incurred in that accident. Chase played the 1999-2000 season before moving to the radio booth. It was time for new enforcers to step to the forefront. Pronger, Nash and Mayers did their part to fill the void, but more was needed. In stepped Reed Low, Reid Simpson, Barret Jackman and Mike Danton. Trades brought highly-skilled, highly-gritty veterans Keith Tkachuk and Scott Mellanby to help these players – and others – chip in on enforcement.
All of these players not only filled roles on these Blues teams, but they helped the Blues reach the highest of highs the organization may have ever seen in team history. But the wall came crashing down after Joel Quenneville was fired late in the 2003-04 season. Then came the NHL Lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season, followed by a lull that the team still has not fully recovered from after the lockout.
Post-Lockout: Jackman and Janssen and Walker, Oh My! (2004-Present)
Quenneville was replaced by Mike Kitchen, and in what can only be considered a major mistake, Kitchen was allowed to coach the team following the lockout. Unfortunately for all involved, Kitchen’s first full season was perhaps the worst, record-wise, in franchise history – recording a paltry 57 points. Unfortunately, with the rules on fighting and pugilism changing following the lockout, Blues players were not willing to drop the gloves as much despite the team being so horrible. But enforcers were to emerge.
Jackman continued to make his presence known while patrolling the blue line. He was assisted by Tkachuk and Mayers. One underground favorite of the new enforcers was Matt Walker, a low-skilled defenseman with brute strength. Recent fan favorite Cam Janssen was acquired in a trade made late in the 2007-08 season. DJ King worked his way up through the Blues system to find an enforcer role with the club. Late in the 2006-07 season, after Mike Kitchen was fired and replaced by Andy Murray, the club saw the emergence of a young David Backes, bringing with him a not-often-seen combo of size, strength, skill, truculence and leadership that will earn him the likely nod to be Captain of the team in years to come. Others to emerge as enforcers for the Blues include Brad Winchester recently and BJ Crombeen currently, with up-and-comer Ryan Reaves waiting in the wings for an extended opportunity to punch his way into the hearts of Blues fans everywhere.
A Synopsis of Blues Enforcement
Many of the most popular players in Blues history have filled an enforcer role of some type with the club. The enforcers epitomize the attitude of hockey fans in the biggest city in the “Show Me State” – namely, “Show me you care!” The enforcer role of the National Hockey League has evolved greatly over the years, but one fundamental principle remains the same . . . enforcers will ALWAYS be needed in the sport of hockey, even if they’re expected to contribute actual hockey talent. This is likely why Gary Bettman is reluctant to ban fighting altogether – it serves a purpose to a contest when done correctly.
The Blues have had many colorful characters play the role of enforcer, and they all deserve the debt of our gratitude for the role they played, playing the sport they love and the sport that we love to watch.