ST. LOUIS - Bob Plager likes to joke that back in his playing days, he was "No. 5 in your program, but No. 1 in your heart."
And to him, that's all it is - just a joke, a subtle way to remind you that he wore the Blue Note once and was awfully proud to do it. But for everyone who hears that wisecrack - and trust us, he's told it to plenty of people - they know that he's actually onto something quite profound. In fact, joke or not, there may not be a truer statement ever made, because you won't find one person in the Blues organization - past or present - that is more beloved or endearing than good ol' No. 5.
That's why Thursday night was one for the ages, a moment 50 years in the making. Before the Blues battled the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scottrade Center, Plager's No. 5 was raised to the rafters in its rightful place alongside his brother Barclay's No. 8, Al MacInnis' No. 2, Brett Hull's No. 16, Bernie Federko's No. 24 and so on.
Plager didn't earn his way up there with gaudy stats or championships - although he did win one as the head coach of the Blues' minor league team back in 1991 - instead he did it with a relentless passion and long-term commitment to the Blues. In fact, many would say he's become the very heart and soul of the franchise, epitomizing what it means to be a Blue.
"He's everything. He's a tremendous person," said former Blue Keith Tkachuk. "You cannot help but smile every time you see him, because he always has a different story for you. He goes out of his way for you no matter who you are - a great player, an average player or a guy that put on the Blue Note for two games - he treats everybody the same. You need people like that around the rink and around the community. Everybody loves Bobby and that's for a reason."
Video: Plager's banner raised to rafters
"He still has a wealth of knowledge, a lot of wisdom, to this day about what it takes to win," added MacInnis. "I know the game has changed a lot, but there's still a lot of things that have to be part of a team to win, and that's playing together and playing for each other, and he has a lot of knowledge and stories to pass down about that. Even when I came in here as a player on a visiting team, there was one thing you knew and that was you were in for a hard day's work (playing the Blues). You never came to play the St. Louis Blues where it was going to be an easy day, and Bobby was a huge part of that culture."
For 50 years, Plager has given everything he has to the organization. He joined the club as a 21-year-old in an expansion draft trade with the New York Rangers in 1967 and became an instant fan-favorite thanks to his tenacious style of defense and his famous hip checks. He played 10 seasons in St. Louis, racking up 615 regular season games, 141 points and 762 penalty minutes.
He retired from the League after the 1977-78 season, but retirement wouldn't mean lazy days at home or lying on a beach somewhere. Since hanging up the skates, he has since held many positions with the organization, including head coach, vice president, director of professional scouting and director of player development. Today, he works in the Blues' Community Relations department, serving as an ambassador in the community not just for the Blues, but for St. Louis, the NHL and the game of hockey in general.
"Bobby and his brothers and guys like Jimmy Roberts really built the Blues' name in St. Louis," said former Blue Barret Jackman, who will be the last player to wear No. 5 in St. Louis. "Getting to know Bobby over the years, he's got time for everybody. No matter what the organization asks him to do (he's there) and really, they don't have to ask him to do anything. He's at every event and he's got a pen in his pocket ready to sign an autograph whenever asked, or pose for pictures, or sit down with current players and tell them about the history and make sure they're comfortable wearing the Blue Note.
"He's been a great friend and one of the godfathers of Blues hockey."
Video: Plager's jersey retirement speech
For half a century, Plager has helped create an unbreakable bond between the Blues and the St. Louis community. To this day, as Jackman said, he remains a role model for current players coming up through the ranks by showing them what it means to be a Blue.
"Being from Canada, it was my dream to play one game in the NHL," Plager told the entire organization back in October, just minutes after Blues Chairman Tom Stillman told him his No. 5 would be retired. "When you get to play one (game), maybe two, (then you want) maybe a year or three. I'm very blessed to have played in St. Louis. And after 50 years to still be here, I'm very fortunate, very lucky."
With the jersey retirement, Plager received the highest honor a team can give one of its former players, and it's well-deserved. His No. 5 is the seventh jersey to be retired by the Blues and the 123rd among the NHL's 30 teams. Bob and Barclay Plager join only one other pair of brothers to have their jerseys retired by the same team: Maurice "The Rocket" and Henri Richard of the Montreal Canadiens.
Now, the Blues legend has another saying to use, one that rings familiar but is altered a bit: "No. 5 in your program, No. 1 in your heart and forever in the rafters."
And that's exactly where it belongs.