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Snipe hunts a fond memory for Unger

by Evan Weiner

Bob Plager has been a part of the St. Louis Blues franchise since its inception in 1967 as a player, coach, scout, administrator and a jack-of-all-trades.
It happens in all sports, Major League Baseball rookies aren’t part of the “family” until their teammates “steal” their clothes from their lockers on a getaway day and replace them with women’s clothes or other bizarre attire and have them walk in public in an airport. That usually happens after a few road trips.

National Football League rookies have to get up and sing their college fight songs or other tunes at training camp. Or, if they end up on the “right” team, they could be tied to a goalpost until someone remembers to cut them down.

National Basketball Association Hall of Famer John Havlicek spent two seasons carrying basketballs and doing chores for his Boston Celtics teammates in the 1960s. The reason? He was the Celtics’ only "rookie" during the first two years of his career.

In the NHL, rookie initiations used to include things like tying a player down and shaving his head and all the hair on his body. The most famous shaved head may have belonged to the New York RangersRon Duguay, whose long locks were shorn off by his teammates during in the 1977-78 season. Duguay’s hair eventually grew back, and his long hair helped him get commercials and modeling jobs.

Other teams had other ways of welcoming rookies and some veteran players.

In the four decades of St. Louis Blues hockey, few people are held in higher esteem than Bob and Barclay Plager. Barclay was the captain and then coach of the Blues. His No. 8 hangs from the rafters of Scottrade Center, and to many, including Scotty Bowman, his coach in the early days of the Blues, Barclay was the heart and soul of the team. Bob Plager has been a part of the franchise since its inception in 1967 as a player, coach, scout, administrator and a jack-of-all-trades. Bob also was known around the Blues as “Dr. Robert,” because when he put on his white smock and started humming the old Gillette shaving cream theme song, it was time to welcome someone to the Blues.

Bob Plager was the team’s chief prankster, and when someone joined the Blues in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he needed to have his head on a swivel because Bob always was scheming and playing jokes on players – rookies and veterans – to make them feel a part of the team.

Bob Plager once snuck into the dressing room while the Blues were practicing, took defenseman Noel Picard’s false teeth and mailed them home during a long road trip. Plager said years later he “regretted” mailing Noel’s teeth home because Noel looked so sorry trying to eat without them.

Garry Unger was traded to St. Louis by Detroit along with Wayne Connelly for Red Berenson and Tim Ecclestone on Feb. 6, 1971. Unger immediately became fair game for Plager, who wanted to make the newcomer feel at home. Unger had long blond hair and dressed in what was termed then as “mod” fashion. That was enough for Bob Plager.

“I was kind of a cool cat when I went into St. Louis,” recalled Unger. “That was a warm climate and it was a time when white shoes were in and white belts, and I was kind of a mod dresser. I came in after a practice one time and my white shoes were nailed to the floor — autographed by the whole team. My belt was on the floor, autographed by the whole team. Bobby Plager was up to that. My pants were cut off, I had shorts.

“They did that all the time. These guys were crazy guys.”

Unger emphasized that he became fast friends with Bob Plager and that he became a part of the Blues family partly because of Bob’s shenanigans.

“Mainly it was cutting guys’ ties and cutting the ends of their socks, and that went around all the time. I got him back a few times doing that. Bobby and Barc were the main guys that were involved with that type of thing.

“We had a really good family team,” Unger said of the Blues in the 1970s. “That’s what we had in St. Louis with Bob and Barc, Noel Picard, Jean-Guy Talbot, Eddie Kea and all sorts of guys. It was really a close-knit club, and I really enjoyed that part of it.”

Unger got so involved with the Plagers and his other teammates that his Eureka, Mo., farm became the focal point of a team bonding ritual that not only involved the players, but also local police, lawyers and a judge.

The Plagers helped organize an annual Blues newcomer snipe hunt, which took place in Eureka. This was not just something that happened overnight. The annual event took lots of planning.

Garry Unger emphasized that he became fast friends with Bob Plager and that he became a part of the Blues family partly because of Bob’s shenanigans.

“I was one of the main guys in the snipe hunt,” Unger recalled with a laugh. “I remember one of the guys that came in was a guy named Chuck Lefley, and he spent the night in jail. Actually, I lived out on the farm and they actually used my farm for it, the one time. What it was, we had it up with the police in Eureka. We had it set up with the police and the judge and the whole thing. We got all the guys together and we worked on it for about two months. We picked teams and we talked about who would catch these snipe.

“We would get the rookies to have these nets. They were big, huge nets. You would go across the cornfields, and the veterans would supposedly chase these snipes who were little birds who ran over a hundred miles an hour. Nobody ever saw one; there is no such thing, actually.

“They chased these snipe across the field and the rookies tried to catch these snipe. Well, halfway in the thing, the police come flying up and grab these rookies for having oversized nets and hunting snipe out of season. They grab them and take them down and put these guys in jail for snipe hunting out of season with oversized nets — and because we are from Canada, it works even better because what they say is, ‘OK, we are going to deport these guys. They will never be able to play in the National Hockey League again because they will be deported from the States and they can only play in Canada.’ So these guys are scared to death.

“You got young kids who just came out of Western Canada somewhere and they got hayseeds coming out of their ears, and we let them spend the night in jail. We come down in the morning with a lawyer and tell them they are going to be deported. We don’t tell them until a couple days down the road that we got it all straightened around.”

Most of the young players, once they found out that the Blues’ annual snipe hunt and subsequent night in jail was a prank to welcome them to the team, were fine with the Plager brothers-led joke. But Lefley, who was not a rookie, had had some playing time with the Montreal Canadiens and was traded to the Blues after a slow start, with just one goal in 18 games, for defenseman Don Awrey on Nov. 28, 1974. He had a big problem with the Plagers and the Blues.

“Actually we had one guy who after he found out the story was going to kill everybody,” Unger said with a chuckle. “It was Chuck Lefley, because he was on his way home and he called his dad and he was quitting hockey and away he was going. Really at times it’s not that funny for the guy that was involved — but the veterans were having a hilarious time.”

Lefley, who then was 24 and from a farm near Winnipeg, Manitoba, apparently didn’t have the same set of characters that thought of schemes like the Plagers and Unger in Montreal.

“It was about three days down the road, three days into practice, that someone had let it slip,” said Unger said about how Lefley found out he had been had. “He was really mad. He was really hopping, but he got over it. He played the rest of the season. He got over it."

Lefley scored 23 goals in St. Louis that season and followed up with a 43-goal season in 1975-76.

Unger was a pretty good player during his days in St. Louis. In each of his eight full seasons with the Blues, he scored 30 or more goals and never missed a game. The Blues sent him to the Atlanta Flames on Oct. 10, 1979 for Ed Kea, Don Laurence and a 1981 second-round draft pick. He was a six-time All-Star while with the Blues and broke Andy Hebenton's NHL consecutive-games played record of 630 on March 10, 1976 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, his first team. Unger's streak of 914 straight games ended when he was benched by Flames coach Al McNeil on Dec. 22, 1979, and the record eventually would be broken by Doug Jarvis. Unger finished his career in Great Britain, playing three years with the Dundee Rockets and the Peterborough Pirates from 1985-88.

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