HodgePodge by Charlie Hodge
Admittedly it was a tad strange.
After 41 years in the game, I do not recall ever being interviewed by another columnist, however there he was, Lance Hornby of the Toronto Sun newspaper rattling some polite questions at me about my dear friend Howie Meeker. Howie might be mentioned as part a Hockey Night In Canada’s feed on Saturday and Lance wanted some memoirs based on the two books I wrote with Howie. (Golly Gee – It’s Me, and Stop It There Back It Up).
Howie may have died a few years ago but it wasn’t hard to ‘think up’ recollections of Howie – he’s never left my mind. ‘Squeaker’ may have been 97 years old when he departed but it’s still too soon for me. In many ways Howie was 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, we had the unique pleasure of hanging out almost daily writing the two books. 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.
He never left a rink or building without signing something for someone.
As I sat today reflecting on 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.
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 someday, 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.
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 40 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.
However no award warmed his heart more than receiving the prestigious Order of Canada. 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.”
I saw Howie Meeker at the best and worst of times and my respect never faded, once.
Golly gee whiz I miss him already.
Thanks for the ‘memories’ reminder Lance.