Happy Birthday to a best buddy – who also happens to be a Canadian Icon.
By Charlie Hodge
Getting to Parksville Nov.4 is a long, cold trip, however who knows.
It’s rare to wish someone a happy 99th birthday and even more meaningful when the character is one of your dearest friends.
Howie Meeker is much more than just a good buddy though. He’s also a mentor, brother, father, grandfather, and hero. Not to mention a true Canadian icon.
I had the unique, distinct pleasure of hanging out almost daily with the ‘golly-gee’ guy for five years during the mid-to late 1990’s when Howie and I worked on two books together, including his biography, Golly Gee It’s Me. It was a wonderful, life altering experience.
My respect and admiration for the man increased each day that ticked by. To say he is a class act is an understatement.
Many readers remember Meeker as the voice and face of Hockey Night in Canada, and TSN, for literally decades of broadcasting. Yet there are many other impressive attributes about the man.
The most significant is winning the prestigious Order of Canada our country’s highest civilian honour. The Order recognizes a lifetime of outstanding achievement, dedication to community, and service to the nation.
Certainly he deserves it – I have met no man who better personifies the word professional. I saw him at the best and worst of times and my respect never faded, once. Howard William Meeker was born Nov. 4 1923 in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario and learned early the value of hard work and integrity.
He was already a promising young junior hockey player in Stratford when WWII broke out. Like manyHowie accepted the challenge to make a difference.
As far as Meeker is concerned, anything and everything he’s done in life since the spring of 1944 has been 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, medical doctors told Howie he’d be lucky to walk again, let alone skate.
Those Allied Forces doctors, like many NHL scouts and future opponents, didn’t know the burning tenacity within ‘Hurricane Howie’.
It was the same gusto that earned him the 1946-47 Calder Trophy (rookie of the year award), two rookie records and his first Stanley Cup. When his first NHL season was over Howie had scored 27 goals, including an amazing five-goal affair against Chicago, and 45 points. The 27-goal record survived until Bernie Geoffrion scored 30 in his 1952 Calder winning season. However, Meeker’s five-goal game performance still stands today. Not bad for a guy never supposed to skate again.
“When I made the National Hockey League that first season I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I was the happiest man in Canada. Absolutely nothing beat that feeling those first few games wearing a Maple Leaf sweater on my chest,” Meeker recalls.
Howie also beat another promising rookie for the Calder, Gordie Howe. The lanky forward from Floral, Saskatchewan saw limited action, but plenty of attention. Everyone knew Howe was going to be a superb player. Howie beating Gordie for the Calder Trophy remains one of the great hockey trivia answers. Even Meeker grimaces at the comparisons.
“That had to be the greatest miscarriage of hockey justice ever. The comparisons were not even fair. 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 squeaks. “Shucks, in the years to come I couldn’t have carried Gordie’s equipment bag.”
While playing for the Leafs he also 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 and some very memorable moments.
After leaving the NHL 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 chuckles.
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 also 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. 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.
Perhaps Howie’s greatest legacy to hockey and life, has been 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 hockey schools for more than 30 years, and spent countless hours involved in fund raising and charity events – particularly those involving youth and Special Olympics.
Howie received his Order of Canada for, “his contributions to hockey as a broadcaster and coach to players across the nation.”
Being a class act is simply icing on the cake.