Howie Meeker has left the arena of life
HodgePodge By Charlie Hodge
Golly gee whiz I miss him already.
My very dear friend Howie Meeker died earlier this week – and although he was 97 years old it is still too soon for me. In many ways Howie was much more than simply a friend. He was a brother, father, advisor, mentor, roommate, sharer of secrets, workmate… Most of all he was a true buddy.
For the better part of five years I had the unique pleasure of hanging out almost daily with Howie writing two books: Golly Gee It’s Me – the Howie Meeker Story followed up with Stop It There – Back It Up a 50 year look at the NHL through the eyes of Meeker. We had a ridiculous amount of fun at his house or mine, not to mention time on the road touring the country taking in hockey games, conducting interviews, or doing book signings together. It was a wonderful and life altering experience.
As I sit today in reflection of those times together I continue to chuckle or grin at the many stories, special moments and poignant times. I saw the best and worst of the Canadian icon and can say he was nothing less than a total class act.
Many readers remember Meeker as the voice and face of Hockey Night in Canada, BCTV and TSN, for literally decades of broadcasting. Not many are aware there is much more to his history.
Born Nov. 4, 1923 in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario Howie learned early the value of hard work and integrity. He was already a promising young junior hockey player in Stratford when WWII broke out.
As far as ‘Meeks’ was concerned, anything and everything he did following the spring of 1944 was a bonus. That was the day a grenade blew up between his legs – knocking him into the air, out of the army, and certainly out of contention as a potential candidate for the NHL. In fact, after removing more than 60 pieces of lead and Bakelite from his ankles, legs, groin and testicles, doctors told Howie he’d be lucky to walk again, let alone skate. Obviously those Allied Forces doctors did not know the burning tenacity within ‘Hurricane Howie’. Meeker thrived on beating the odds, on overcoming obstacles and challenges.
It was that same gusto that earned him the 1946-47 rookie of the year award, two rookie records, and his first Stanley Cup. When his first NHL season was complete Howie had scored 27 goals, including an amazing five-goal affair against Chicago, and 45 points. Meeker’s five-goal game performance still stands today. (Ranger rookie Don Murdoch tied the one-game output in 1976 but no one has eclipsed it).
Howie beat a promising Red Wing rookie for the Calder Trophy a strapping 17-year old named Gordie Howe. Howie beating Gordie for the Calder Trophy is one of the all time great hockey trivia answers, and even Meeker grimaced at the comparisons.
“That had to be the greatest miscarriage of hockey justice ever. Actually the comparisons were not even fair and back then no one saw it that way either. I was a 24-year old man just back from war; he was a 17-year old gangly kid. You knew he was going to be a star some day, but he was just barely out of diapers,” Meeker squeaked to me one afternoon. “Shucks, in the years to come I couldn’t have carried Gordie’s equipment bag.”
While playing for the Leafs Howie was elected and served as a Member of Parliament (Conservative – Waterloo-South).
During the eight seasons he played in the league he garnered four Stanley Cup rings. One of my favourite Howie memories involved him taking home the Stanley Cup for a few days as all players get to do when winners of the legendary mug.
“I remember we had the trophy sitting in the living room on the floor. It was too big to sit on the mantle or table so we plunked it down on the hearth area. Well a couple of weeks after I won the thing, I came home from somewhere or other and was mortified to discover that (wife) Grace had filled the thing with diapers. When I mentioned it to her with certain trepidation, she gave me her no nonsense look and said, “Oh Howie don’t be silly. The darn diapers are all clean – and what the heck am I supposed to do with the stupid thing anyway?”
The diapers stayed.
After leaving the NHL due to a back injury he immediately coached Pittsburgh of the American Hockey League (the Leaf farm team) for two successful seasons and then spent one dismal season as coach of his beloved Leafs. The following spring he was named GM of the Leafs but was canned a few months later after punching Stafford Smythe (Conn’s kid) in the nose.
“It was my best punch in hockey,” he chuckled.
Meeker moved to the Maritimes and went to work coaching senior and junior hockey, and eventually ran the entire Avalon Minor Hockey system in St. John’s, Newfoundland. He also earned a living working regular radio and TV sports shows, traveled the entire ‘Rock’ as a sales representative and supplier for various companies including Samsonite luggage, Winchester Guns and Ammunition, and Brunswick Bowling, and began his own hockey schools.
In 1968 Meeker was invited to sit in as a guest colour commentator for a Hockey Night in Canada broadcast in Montreal and wound up staying behind the cameras of professional hockey broadcasting for 30 years. Perhaps Howie’s greatest legacy to hockey, and to life, was his relentless work with youth in teaching the game of hockey. He instructed hockey players across North America in the fundamentals of the games through his famous hockey schools for more than 30 years, and spent countless hours involved in fund raising and charity events – particularly those involving youth and the Special Olympics.
His efforts were finally acknowledged in 1998 when he was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame as the recipient of the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award for broadcast excellence. It was an award long overdue.
Howie was always humbled and honoured when it came to getting attention, however I know that of all the accolades and awards he received over the years nothing warmed his heart more than being presented the prestigious Order of Canada – one of our country’s highest civilian honours. The Order recognizes a lifetime of outstanding achievement, dedication to community, and service to the nation. Howie received his Order of Canada for, “his contributions to hockey as a broadcaster and coach to players across the nation.”
Certainly he deserved it for I have met no man who better personifies the word professional.
I saw Howie Meeker at the best and worst of times and my respect never faded, once. We have lost a great man and great Canadian.