Although they are as close as players and coaches can be, you won’t see Jacques Demers, Bernie Federko and Brian Sutter socializing during this playoff series, won’t see them at restaurants, or chatting before the bus pulls up to the hotel.
“It’s too hard to do that and then try to beat him,” says Federko. They are opponents now — Federko and Sutter star with the Blues, Demers coaches the Red Wings. Yet when the hockey ends, the friendship must resume, for they have much to talk about, much to reminisce. The last time they were all together was a cold day in February, at the funeral of a man they loved like a father, Barclay Plager.
All three helped carry his casket.
This is a story of different colored uniforms but one-color hearts. We often hear about the hatred players boil for opponents, and how that hatred can lead to victory. But this is not about hatred, this is about love, the kind of love swathed in respect, the kind of love that transcends both winning and losing: One tough, brave man brought Demers, Federko and Sutter together.
And then he died.
It would take more than playoffs to tear them apart now.
WHO WAS BARCLAY PLAGER? Ask anyone who knew him and they’ll say: “He was the St. Louis Blues” — the type of man who put on a hockey sweater once and remained in its fabric forever. He played on the very first Blues team, back in 1967-68, and lasted another nine years, all in St. Louis, a 5-foot-10 defenseman known for his grit, determination, and sometimes, brute force.
“If I told Barclay Plager he’d have to beat up 20 guys to guarantee us a win, that’s what he’d do,” Scotty Bowman, his one-time coach, used to say. He was a classic hockey contradiction: a soft-spoken man with the tenacity of an alley cat. He fought like mad, yet accepted the consequences. First as a player. Later as a coach.
And finally, as a man. Just a few months ago, when the cancer that had invaded his body dragged him toward death, Plager, who’d fought the disease for three horrible years, finally pulled the oxygen tubes from his nostrils and said to his family: “I’ve had enough. It’s time.”
A few weeks later, he was dead.
Who was Barclay Plager? The man who brought Federko and Sutter into the St. Louis organization, the man who nurtured them, guided them, coached them from juniors to the NHL. And the man who surrendered the head-coaching reins to Jacques Demers in 1983. Not long after Demers arrived in St. Louis, Federko and Sutter confronted him: “We think it would be a good idea to keep Barclay as your assistant,” they said.
Demers met with the man. After 10 minutes, he offered him the job. And while Plager might have resented the new guy — after all, Barclay, along with his brothers Bob and Bill, played all those years in a St. Louis uniform, then served as a St. Louis scout, then a St. Louis assistant coach, and finally a St. Louis head coach — well, that simply wasn’t his style. He was, first and forever, a Blues Man. A one-note player.
The note was loyalty. So Demers and Plager became fast friends, best friends, they ate together, traveled together. “I was high strung, he was low key, I was emotional, he was
calm,” says Demers. “It was a perfect match.” So respectful was Demers of Plager’s experience, that when Jacques decided to marry at age 40, he asked Plager for his blessing.
In hockey, they valued the same things: hard work, discipline. Loyalty. Always loyalty. Once, a Blues player went to Plager to complain about Demers
(figuring he’d get some sympathy from the assistant coach). Plager said:
“Wait here a second.” He left the room and brought Demers back with him. “You have a complaint, you make it to the coach himself,” Barclay scolded.
“He was the perfect intermediary,” Demers recalls. “When I would get mad at a player, Barclay would calm me down. And when a player got mad at me, he would step in and cool him off. He just always had the right thing to say.”
It was through their friendship that Demers began to grow fond of two of Plager’s favorite players: Federko, the star center, and Sutter, the left wing and captain. Both embodied the work ethic the coaches admired. A friendship was born. The four of them talked often. They saw each other’s families. It should be noted that Demers is not George Patton in the locker room, he does not slaughter emotion for the sake of discipline.
“He is a player’s coach, just like Barclay was,” Federko says today. “He gets involved with you as a person. He not only cares about your hockey, he cares about your family, about your kids.
“A lot of times in this game you feel like you’re just being used as an athlete. But Jacques, even now, when he comes back to St. Louis, some player’s wife will walk by in the hall and he’ll say, ‘Hello, Linda’ or ‘Hello, Mary.’ He remembers their names, their kids’ names, even two and three years later. Barclay was like that, too.” So with their star players leading the way, Demers, the coach, and Plager, his most trusted assistant, built something special in St. Louis. They built an atmosphere in which players felt they mattered, an atmosphere in which winning seemed to be the only logical result, because everyone wanted it so much. There was ambition in the Blues locker room. There was hunger. There was laughter. Demers’ famed butchering of the English language (his native tongue is French) was matched at times by Plager. “Between the two of them,” Sutter laughs, “there were a lot of hockey players who never existed. When we went out on the ice, we had to go by the numbers. We weren’t sure who they were talking about!”
Language aside, the results were still good. The Blues won the Norris Division in 1985 (their first winning season in four years). In 1986, they came within one game of the Stanley Cup final.
But then things changed.
Demers took the job with Detroit, a job he could not turn down. And Plager already sick, grew steadily worse. Cancer had been discovered, the most horrible kind, brain tumors; they were inoperable. And while the former tough guy did his best to fight it, took dose after dose of chemotherapy, wore hats to hide the loss of hair, it was clear the disease was taking its toll.
“You could tell he was getting sicker,” Demers recalls. “When I went back there during my first year in Detroit, it was so hard to even visit him. I couldn’t believe it was him. I said, this is not the Barc I know.”
Through it all, Demers remained close to Federko and Sutter. He called them often, to keep up on their mutual friend, just as he had called them first to tell them he was leaving the team. “That’s the way Jacques is, just like Barclay,” says Sutter. “He talks to you. He asks you questions. He wants to know what his players are thinking.”
He knew what they were thinking when he got that call just a few sad months ago. It was February, the All-Star Game was coming up — in St. Louis of all places — but there would be no more visiting Barclay. The Blues Man, who, a few days earlier, had taken hold of his wife’s hand in the hospital, told her he loved her and their four children, and said: “I think I’m ready”
— was dead.
He was 46. It’s funny how people weave in and out of each other’s lives. Demers says he has never felt as close to any hockey players as he has with certain guys in St. Louis — Federko and Sutter, in particular — and the players, for their part, say they have never really had a coach like Demers. Yet all of it really goes back to Barclay Plager, the Blues Man, the guy in the middle who rubbed off on them all.
“I miss him very much,” says Demers. “It was like losing a father, and a brother. He was such an inspiration to me.”
“It was Barclay’s style of coaching that Jacques followed,” says Federko.
“Caring about the players. That’s what made both of them special.”
“All they wanted from us,” says Sutter, “was to come out every night ready to play.”
They played again Saturday night, Detroit versus St. Louis, Federko and Sutter on the ice, Demers behind the opposite bench. And when it was over, the three men deliberately avoided contact, because that only makes it harder.
“It’s like playing your brother,” says Sutter of the confrontation. Yet when this playoff is complete, they will get together again, like brothers, to talk about the families, to talk about the memories.
To talk about Barclay Plager, whose number 8 now hangs from the rafters in St. Louis Arena. He has no visible part in this series. You probably won’t hear him talked about on the TV or radio. Yet he helped create something that transcends what is going on out there on the ice, something that proves that players and coaches can be friends as well as competitors.
Think of that. How very lucky. Wherever Barclay Plager is now, he’s watching this playoff series. And he gets to smile no matter which team wins. Mitch Albom will sign copies of his new book, “The Live Albom,” today at WaldenBooks, Eastland Mall, from 1 p.m. (brief question-and-answer-period) to 2:30 p.m, and at WaldenBooks, Lakeside Mall, from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. CUTLINE Barclay Plager (left) and Jacques Demers were special friends who shared many a laugh.