Hockey Night in Scotland: Ron Plumb's championship season
After playing hockey in the WHA, NHL, Germany and Japan, Ron Plumb was back in Kingston at the age of 34 and wondering what to do next. His agent called and asked him to go to Toronto – a rep from a Scottish hockey team was in Canada, looking for a player/coach.
“They don’t play hockey in Scotland. I’m not coming to Toronto,” he exclaimed before hanging up.
A week later the agent called back, sounding desperate. The Scottish rep was only in Toronto for one more day and still hadn’t found a player/coach. Finally, Plumb agreed to go and check it out.
It was July 1984. Within weeks, Plumb and his family were flying to Edinburgh and settling in the nearby small town of Kirkcaldy, population 50,000. Plumb calls it the highlight of his 25-year hockey career, more rewarding even than playing in the NHL and WHA.
There were just three Canadians on the Scottish team: Plumb, Dave Stoyanovich and Danny Brown (whose son Connor now plays with the Ottawa Senators).
The rest of the squad was a ragtag group of players from Scotland and England. It was Plumb’s job to build their skills, mold them into a team and push them forward.
The Fife Flyers won their first game. While the players were ready to head home, Plumb convinced them to go for a beer at the arena pub – with the first drink on him. “When the fans saw the players arrive at the pub, they immediately started buying beer for the players,” he recalls. “I don’t think they had to pay for a single round all year.”
The team only played one game a week so the Kingstonian had plenty of time to promote the team. With a couple of players in tow, he would head out to local schools and explain what hockey was about. Plumb would get a “volunteer” student to don the goalie equipment and try to stop shots that the players would fire at him. The team donated 100 tickets to each school – and by Christmas the 3,000-seat arena was sold out for every game.
The Flyers never lost a home game all season and captured the British Hockey League title. Plumb was named coach of the year. “It was the best experience of my entire hockey career. To win a championship was just phenomenal,” he says.
Established in 1938, the Flyers are still going strong today with a squad of Canadians, Europeans and some locals. On its website, the team touts the Plumb period as the Golden Years.
Growing up in Kingston in the 1950s, Plumb saw hockey as just something every kid played. “We really played for fun and it became more fun because I was good at it.”
He came from a hockey family. His dad Ed flooded a backyard rink and coached local teams. All three of Ron’s brothers played – Rob went on to skate with Detroit and Rick and Randy both played in the OHL.
The Peterborough Petes invited him to try out. Plumb still didn’t have his eye on playing professionally – but he knew that OHA players had a chance to get a university education, which was important to him.
Roger Neilson, who would later go on to coach the Toronto Maple Leafs, was behind the bench in Peterborough. Neilson was a creative leader who earned the nickname Captain Video for pioneering the use of film as a learning tool. He also loved to exploit loopholes in the rulebook. If the opposing team was awarded a penalty shot, Neilson would replace the goalie with a defenceman. As soon as the rush started, the defenceman would charge the opposing player. The Petes didn’t let in a single penalty shot all year.
Under Neilson’s tutelage, Plumb blossomed. He was named defenceman of the year in the league in 1970. In the NHL draft that same year, he was chosen in the first round and 9th overall. That was the good news. The bad news was that he was selected by the Boston Bruins.
In 1970, the Bruins had no shortage of defencemen – in fact, the team had the greatest defenceman of all time, Bobby Orr. Number 4 had turned the position upside down, changing it from stay-at-home to one that saw him rushing down the ice to score goals by the bucket. The Bruins captured the Stanley Cup in 1970 and would win it again two years later.
“With the Bruins having just won the Cup, I knew they would not be making a lot of changes,” Plumb says. Instead, he developed his skills on the Bruins farm team in the Central Hockey League, the Oklahoma City Blazers.
And then a group of upstarts established the World Hockey Association. It sent the demand for players – and salaries – soaring. Plumb recalls that players in the minors who were making $8,000 to $10,000 a year were suddenly being offered five times that in the WHA.
He knew the WHA was a gamble. “No one was sure how long the league would last and there were threats to players that if you went there you would never play in the NHL again.”
Plumb signed with the Miami Screaming Eagles – but the team never played a single game. Instead, it was moved to Philadelphia and named the Blazers. Teammate Derek Sanderson famously inked a $2.6 million multiyear contract with the Blazers, making him the highest paid athlete in the world at the time. The previous year, Sanderson’s salary with the Bruins had been $70,000.
The Philadelphia Blazers only lasted one year and the team was moved to Vancouver after being purchased by multimillionaire Jim Pattison. Plumb went on to play a total of seven seasons in the WHA, in Cincinnati, San Diego, Vancouver and New England.
In 1977 with Cincinnati, he was named the WHA’s top defenceman as well as a member of the all-star team. That year, he notched 11 goals and 58 assists and what would prove to be the highest-point season of his career.
While playing in Hartford in 1978-79, Plumb would car pool to practice with Mr. Hockey Gordie Howe and his two sons Mark and Marty. Howe was 50 years old and would retire two years later at the record age of 52.
The WHA collapsed in 1979 and four teams were amalgamated into the NHL – Edmonton, Hartford, Quebec and Winnipeg. Plumb finally got a chance to play in the NHL with the Whalers, cruising the blueline for 26 games in the 1979-80 season.
Then he spent a couple of years in the AHL. Time was starting to catch up with him. He was in his early 30s and younger players were faster. Nevertheless, he wasn’t ready to hang up his skates. He played a season in Germany and Japan, before heading to Scotland.
Returning to Kingston after the championship in Scotland, he served behind the bench for a couple of years at Queen’s but the pay wasn’t enough to support a family. Instead, he got a job as a sales manager with a window and doors company, where he worked for three decades, retiring five years ago.
Ron Plumb was inducted into the Kingston and District Sports Hall of Fame in 2008.