February 13, 2024

“He was always called ‘Mr. Blue Bomber’ and the ‘Greatest Blue Bomber of All Time.’”

Ken Ploen, long considered the greatest Winnipeg Blue Bomber and one of the most popular athletes in this province’s history, has died at the age of 88.

His family confirmed his passing in communication with former Blue Bombers play-by-play radio voice Bob Irving – a long-time friend and colleague of Ploen’s – Tuesday afternoon.

“I’ve been here for almost 50 years, and he’s always been viewed by fans as the ultimate Blue Bomber, the one that all others are measured by,” Irving said Tuesday night. “He was always called ‘Mr. Blue Bomber’ and the ‘Greatest Blue Bomber of All Time.’

“On a personal level, I certainly remember him as a player growing up watching him on TV and was obviously aware of his legend when I got to Winnipeg. When I started working alongside him on our Blue Bombers broadcasts when I got to CJOB it was intimidating at first. But he was such a good man, a quality, down-to-earth person.

“He was humble and so easy to get along with and he instantly welcomed me in – that’s what I’ll remember most about him, just how wonderful a guy he was.”

Ploen first came to Winnipeg in the spring of 1957, just months after being named the MVP of the 1957 Rose Bowl in leading the University of Iowa to victory. Over his 11 seasons in Winnipeg, he became a dominant player and a fan favourite as part of four Grey Cup championship teams in 1958, 1959, 1961 and 1962.

A superb two-way athlete, the product of Lost Nation, Iowa was named an all-star three times, twice as quarterback and in 1959 as a defensive back after setting what was then a club record with 10 interceptions that season.

He retired in 1967 as the Blue Bombers all-time leading passer and sixth all-time in the CFL and was later inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1975, the WFC Hall of Fame in 1984 and was added to the club’s Ring of Honour in 2016.

His iconic jersey #11 is one of only three numbers – along with Jeff Nicklin’s #28 and #75 worn by Tommy Lumsden – to be retired by the organization.

“Ken Ploen was the face of the Blue Bombers for years and then became a part of the fabric of this community following his playing days,” said Winnipeg Football Club President & CEO Wade Miller in a statement. “He was a four-time Grey Cup champion as a player and a great ambassador for our franchise and our city.

“The WFC would like to extend our deepest condolences to the Ploen family and to his many friends and family in Winnipeg as well as across Canada and the United States.”

Ploen’s playing days in Winnipeg were perfectly aligned with Bud Grant, who was named the Blue Bombers head coach in 1957. He was one of many Iowa products recruited by Grant, along with Frank Rigney, Frank Gilliam, Sherwyn Thorson and Bill Whisler as the perfect fit to play quarterback in his offence.

He retired in 1967 and opted to remain in Winnipeg and raise a family here with his wife Janet, working for MacMillan-Bloedell Packaging, CJOB and the Blue Bombers.

“It’s a great spot,” Ploen said of Winnipeg and Manitoba in conversation with upon his induction to the club’s Ring of Honour in 2016. “Once we got settled in here, my children were all born here, and I had a job it just made sense to stay. We’ve got a place at the lake, and we’ve just enjoyed it in every way. It’s been special.”

It was his trademark humility and his commitment to the Blue Bombers and this province that so endeared him to fans here and across the CFL beyond his athletic skills.

The final words come from the late Jack Matheson, the iconic Winnipeg Tribune sportswriter, who penned this for the November 3, 1968 edition of the paper after a tribute night for Ploen at what was then Pan Am Stadium:

“The record book reveals the greatness of K.P. in all the big games and almost a hundred little ones. More than 20,000 yards as a passer, 5,000 more as a runner, 20 touchdowns in league play alone, four Grey Cups, etc.

“But record books are cold and callous. They list the physical accomplishments, the tangibles that everybody sees on payment of $5 for a hard seat. There isn’t a page devoted to character references, or what a man means to his team, especially in times of great stress.

“… Class is the word for Kenneth Allan Ploen, and I guess it was always that way. The folks, the Ploen Seniors, and Janet and the kids must be proud today. So am I, because I was with him on all the great occasions and the no-so-great ones, too. Trouble was, with Kenny, you couldn’t tell one from another.”

Rest in peace, Kenneth Allan Ploen – June 3, 1935-February 13, 2024