One of the rare players in NHL history to hail from South America, big Willi Plett was born in Paraguay, though raised in Ontario. He and his parents moved to Ontario when he was only 1½ years old. His parents were born in Russia but moved out from there when they were in their 20's during the World War II. Then they lived in Germany, Poland and South America before finally settling down in Canada. Willi's dad, John, worked in Canada as a bricklayer to support his family.
Willi didn't start playing competitive hockey until he was 13 years old. Up until that time he played high school football and lacrosse, two vigorous contact sports that aided Willi on the ice. Willi was never much of a skater but was a hard worker and a team player. He used his muscles in and around the goal cage and was hard to move away from the slot. Willi had a very short junior career and only played a handful of games for Niagara Falls and St. Catherines. He was regularly criticized for not using his size to his advantage. Despite that, someone from the Atlanta Flames scouts saw him and liked what they saw. The Flames drafted him with their 4th choice, 80th overall in 1975.
Willi started his professional career in CHL for Atlanta's farm team, Tulsa Oilers. Plett is quick to credit head coach Orland Kurtenbach for making him into an NHL player. Kurtenbach was a similar player to Plett. Both got off to late starts in their hockey careers, and both made it in the NHL due to their size and willingness to use it. It was Kurtenbach who convinced Plett to charge into corners aggressively, be the immovable object in front of the net, and be willing to battle with all comers.
In his first pro season in Tulsa he played well enough to earn a four game call up to Atlanta. During the 1976-77 season he started in Tulsa again but after 14 games he was called up to Atlanta and never looked back.
On November 12, 1976 he made his NHL season debut on the right wing on a line together with Tom Lysiak and Eric Vail. The "Downtown Connectors" clicked immediately and finished the season with 208 points, 95 of them goals.
Willi scored 20 goals in his first 35 games, while fellow NHL rookie Don Murdoch of NY Rangers (who scored 16 goals in his first 16 games), to create one of the most interesting races in the history of the Calder Trophy as the rookie of the year. While Murdoch was slumping during the second half of the season, Willi continued playing strong two way hockey for the Flames. Willi finished his rookie season with 33 goals and 56 points in 64 games and won the Calder Trophy.
Willi had some stellar seasons in Atlanta / Calgary. His best season goal and point wise came during the 1980-81 season. He scored 38 goals and had 68 points.
He was a fan favorite in both Atlanta and Calgary because of his aggressive player. Yes, Plett was a feared heavyweight NHL fighter, but, save for his plodding skating, he was also an extremely good player.
"His greatest plus is his size. No one can forget he is out there running around. And my biggest defenseman can't handle him in front," suggest Atlanta coach Fred Creighton.
"He had one ability," says Cliff Fletcher, long time Atlanta/Calgary GM and one of Plett's earliest believers, "In all sorts of heavy traffic he could get the puck, snap off a shot real quick and most times it was pretty accurate. And he was big. I had to like that."
He was traded, on his birthday nonetheless, to Minnesota during the 1982 entry draft with Calgary's 4th rounder that year for Steve Christoff, Bill Nyrop and Minnesota's 2nd rounder that year.
Willi spent five relatively anonymous seasons in Minnesota. Despite once scoring 4 goals in a single game while in Minny, his role seemingly was reduced to that of pugilist more than all around player. The old Norris division featured some bitter rivalries and many brawls. His goal totals dwindled while his fighting majors and penalty minute totals increased. As he aged, the intimidating, ornery warrior found he less and less enjoyed the game.
Minnesota traded Plett to the NY Rangers for Pat Price on September 8, 1987. But before Willi played a game in New York he was claimed by Boston of the waiver draft. The veteran only played one year in Boston before retiring after the 1987-88 season. It almost became a very memorable season. He helped Boston reach the Stanley Cup final, where they lost to the strong Edmonton Oilers team.
Willi played hardnosed hockey all the time and finished his 13 year NHL career with 2572 penalty minutes in only 834 regular season games, still ranking him among the all time leaders in PIMs. Willi could not only fight but also put the puck in the net. He had 437 points (222 goals and 215 assists) in 834 regular season games and 46 points (24 goals and 22 assists) in 83 playoff games. In addition, he retired with 466 NHL playoff penalty minutes, once an NHL record.
No, Willi Plett was never in the running for the Lady Byng Trophy for gentlemanly play, In 1980, he landed a huge bodycheck on Philadelphia's Paul Holmgren, and the ensuing fight touched off a bench--clearing brawl. In 1982, he was suspended for eight games for a sticks-winging incident with Detroit goalie Greg Stefan. In the 1984 playoffs, he went after Blackhawks goalie Murray Bannerman after being speared, touching off a bench-clearing brawl. The next season, Plett and Detroit's Greg Smith began to fight as the teams went to their dressing rooms after the first period, The ensuing brawl included a wrestling match between coaches Glen Sonmor and Nick Polano. In 1988, he received a five-minute head-butting penalty during a fight-fest between Boston and Quebec in which 219 minutes in penalties were doled out.
Willi Plett returned to Atlanta following his NHL days. He opened a car dealership, but later found his true post-hockey calling the Willi Plett's Sportspark in Atlanta--a golf course, driving range, baseball batting cages, and restaurant in one 15-acre complex.