Article by: Jim Howard
Discovered by Montreal Canadiens’ forward Ralph Backstrom at a Worcester, Massachusetts hockey school in August of 1963, Larry Pleau, a star on the Lynn English high school team, began his pro hockey career as a 15-year-old playing with the Montreal Junior Canadiens. Scotty Bowman, head coach of the Junior Canadiens at the time, described Pleau as “the best prospect among forwards on our team.” Adding, “he’s strong, a good skater and he has hockey sense.”
He played junior hockey from 1964 until he was drafted into the U.S. Army in June 1967. After completing Boot Camp at Ft. Campbell in Kentucky he was sent to Ft. Dix, located in New Jersey, where he would remain throughout his enlistment. While at Ft. Dix, he asked for and was granted permission to try-out for the United States Olympic hockey team. As a part of the 1968 Olympic squad, he teamed with such notable players as Lou Nanne, John Cunniff, Bob Paradise and Herb Brooks, who went on to orchestrate the Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Olympic games. Pleau finished the tournament tied for second on the team in scoring with 6 points in 7 games. The U.S. finished sixth overall with a record of 2-4-1.
After the Olympics, he headed back to New Jersey to finish out the remainder of his 18-month military hitch. Once back at Ft. Dix, he was loaned by Montreal to the Eastern Hockey League’s Jersey Devils, an affiliate of the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers. After watching him play for the Devils, Flyers’ GM Bud Poile asked the Canadiens how much it would cost to buy Pleau’s contract, Montreal GM Sam Pollock, not willing to lose one of his top prospects, set a hefty price of $100,000. Not surprisingly, the offer was quickly turned down by Poile. Pleau played just one season with the Devils, incredibly, despite his military duties keeping him away from the practice rink, he scored 37 goals, collected 44 assists and amassed a professional career high 53 PIM’s in the rough and tumble Eastern circuit, good enough to make him the unanimous choice for rookie of the year as voted on by the league’s coaches.
With his military commitment behind him, it was time to head back to Montreal, but not before he once again represented his country, this time at the 1969 World Championships held in Stockholm, Sweden. The U.S., who had very little time to practice, posted a dismal 0-10 record.
He started the 1969/70 season with the Montreal Voyageurs, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Canadiens. As fate would have it, he was called up to the parent club on January 24, 1970 to replace the man who had discovered him, Ralph Backstrom, who had taken ill with the flu. He recorded his first NHL goal on March 11 of that season against Ed Giacomin and the New York Rangers. He played a total of 94 regular season and 4 playoff games for Montreal from 1969/70 until the end of the 1971/72 season. Realizing it would be hard to get steady playing time on a stacked Canadiens team, he called Pollock and requested a trade, which was denied by the hanky chewing general manager. Seeing no other options, the very next morning, despite warnings from Pollock that he would never see the NHL again, he happily signed with the New England Whalers of the fledgling World Hockey Association, becoming the first “publicly” signed player in Whalers history. After signing, he was approached by General Manager Jim Gregory, along with King Clancy, of the Toronto Maple Leafs who had just acquired his rights in the NHL’s intraleague draft after having been left unprotected by Montreal. The Maple Leafs, in an attempt to lure him away from the WHA, offered to double his salary and pay any legal fees he may incur by breaking his contract with New England. Opting to stay put, he turned down the Leafs’ very generous offer. That first season saw the Whalers win the inaugural WHA championship. Pleau played in 468 games for the Whalers, recording 372 points from 1972 until the end of the 1978/79 season, the last for the WHA. The Whalers became one of four teams to join the NHL for the start of the 1979/80 season, but the 6’1” 185 lb forward would not make it back to the National League, he was forced to retire due to a blood condition that left him constantly feeling tired.
All told, he would spend nearly 20 years in the New England/Hartford organization as a player, coach, general manager and even a color analyst. In his first game as head coach of the Hartford Whalers on February 22, 1981 he took on the Craig Patrick coached New York Rangers, this marked the first time two American born head coaches faced each other in an NHL game. After his time with the Whalers came to an end, he moved on to those same New York Rangers, serving as an assistant general manager and director of player personnel, where he had a big hand in helping the Blueshirts end a 54-year Stanley Cup drought. Leaving Gotham behind, he headed west to St. Louis, where he was named the Blues’ general manager, serving in that capacity from 1997 until 2010 when he turned the reigns over to Doug Armstrong. Some of the draft picks acquired under Pleau’s tenure as general manager played an instrumental role in St. Louis’ 2019 Stanley Cup Championship. Asked by Armstrong to stay on in some capacity with the team, he currently serves as the Senior Advisor of Amateur Scouting.
I spent a few minutes on a Sunday afternoon speaking with the 2000 U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame
inductee about the inspiring Blues’ playoff run.
In all your time in pro hockey, have you ever witnessed a turn around like the one the Blues just
“Not that I can remember, and it’s something we probably won’t see again.”
What do you see as the biggest contributing factor in the team’s amazing turn around? Was it
Craig Berube, the players coming together or a combination of the two?
“I’d say a combination of the two. Craig came in and was able to get the players to work so hard
together. They were such a tough forechecking team and got some consistent goaltending.”
Brian Burke on Hockey Central at Noon mentioned you as one of the people who deserves some
credit for the Blues’ championship. Having been gm of the team for 13 seasons, several of the
players involved were acquired under your watch. From that perspective, how satisfying is this Stanley Cup for you?
“That was nice of Burkie to say that. Doug and I worked together for two years before he took over. Of course, being a part of the organization, I wanted to see them win, anytime you win there is a great sense of pride and the response from the fans and the city was great.”
You were involved in another drought ending Stanley Cup win with the Rangers. How can you
compare the two?
“Both teams were built differently. Neil (Smith) did a great job of putting the Rangers together. New York spent more on that team, the Blues had more from the draft side. For me though, when you win, you win. It’s a great feeling.”
One of the bigger stories in all of this was Laila Anderson, did you get the opportunity to meet
“No I didn’t. I followed along with her story on T.V. though. It was great what the team did for her
by having her at the games and the parade. She was a huge influence for the guys.”
Are you still listening to “Gloria”?
Laughs, “Yeah, you hear it once in a while. That was another great story from this year, whatever
It takes to get the guys going.”
As the Senior Advisor of Amateur Scouting, is there a prospect, other than Jordan Kyrou, who
you would consider a lock to make the team?
“I guess for me it would be the young guys who have been playing with the team. Sammy Blais, Ivan Barbashev and Jordan Kyrou. Of course, Robert Thomas too. Watching him in the OHL, you could tell he was ready to make the jump to the NHL. The team does a great job with their prospects, they take their time and let them develop.”
Montreal Gazette archives
Boston Globe archives
Courier-Post (Camden, New Jersey) archives
St. Louis Blues official website