In a sad year on a sad weekend, more bad news: Howie Meeker has left us at the age of 97.
A hockey icon to most people, a Toronto Maple Leafs player who won four Stanley Cups with the team shortly after World War II, Meeker, to me, was a friend. He was injured in the war during training and was lucky to emerge with the use of his piston-like legs. He once told me, “On the ice, my legs moved faster than my mind.”
How did we meet? Back in 2008, working for a local paper, I thought it might make good copy to interview Meeker, who lived nearby, for his thoughts about an NHL playoff series. He was happy to oblige, and other stories followed. My wife Karen and I were invited to Howie and Leah’s home, which overlooked the ocean on the east side of Vancouver Island. They loved to talk about the whales they’d seen or the varied bird life they kept track of. On the walls were lovely water-colour paintings of area scenes by Leah.
Health issues in recent years slowed down the Kitchener-born Meeker, Leah too, and we stepped aside to give them more space and more rest. But about 12 years ago he and Leah attended my 50th birthday party, and he was a spark-plug then as he had been on the ice as a right-winger.
Most of my experiences with Howie were in his own home. “Come with me,” he said one time, and he led downstairs to a little hockey shrine, where photographs of his playing career adorned the walls along with other memorabilia. “Look at this,” he said, pointing to a black and white picture. It showed Gordie Howe punching a smaller man, whose head was down to protect himself. Around the pair stood a bunch of Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings players, watching.
“I took a pummeling from Gordie,” he said, “and the buggers just stood there. Can you believe it?” I smiled and mumbled some kind of regret, recalling that Howe was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the NHL, while Howie, at five feet nine inches (maybe) and 165 pounds, was clearly beneath Howe in the pugilism department.
Don’t be mistaken, Howie spoke highly of his teammates. He revered Teeder Kennedy, a centre known for giving his best every shift. He knew and praised Bill Barilko, who scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal in 1951, after receiving a pass from … Howie Meeker. Barilko died in a plane crash on a fishing trip that summer.
By the way, Meeker won the Rookie of the Year award in 1947, when he scored 27 goals and 45 points in 55 games. Who did he beat out? Just one of the greatest players who ever laced on skates, Gordie Howe himself.
Howie loved to talk hockey. He was a CBC colour commentator for “Hockey Night in Canada” where he left an indelible mark. He debuted on the show in the early 1970s, and as an internet article notes: “Unlike anyone before him, Meeker pulled no punches and told it like he saw it. NHIC Executive Producer Ralph Mellanby deserves much credit for hiring Meeker and bringing more ‘spice’ to the telecast. According to Mellanby, ‘no one broadcaster ever changed TV hockey coverage more than Howie.’”
Meeker brought passion and superb analysis to his spots during the intermission. He was an Xs and Os kind of guy, and he helped a lot of us understand what was happening on the ice. “Holy gee whillickers!” he’d say, or “jiminy cricket!” He told me they were substitutes for more colourful language, which of course wasn’t allowed on TV.
More than anyone before him on “Hockey Night,” Meeker told it like it was. He was about the only analyst or commentator to say what to many of us was patently obvious in 1972—those Russians sure could play hockey! That was during the famous Summit Series, and Meeker told me he got in big trouble for being so frank. Some people called him a traitor and the like, all for being honest about how good that Russian team was.
Howie and I were sitting in his living room watching a Leafs game one day, enjoying a couple of cool ones, when a puck ricocheted off someone’s backside and into the net. “That happened to me once,” he said. It was on a night he scored five goals. Then Don Cherry came on Coach’s Corner, along with Ron MacLean. Don got talking about things unrelated to the game at hand, which was his style. “Analyze the game!” Howie said. “Talk about the game!”
Cherry rarely did. Just as Howie had changed the tenor of hockey analysis from the low-key approach of Bob Goldham, who used to talk to Ward Cornell in a poker-face-cum-monotone, so did Cherry revolutionize his commentary in comparison to Meeker by talking about late hits in other games, or stories from his past about Bobby Orr, and Howie was not impressed.
He and Leah often flew “home” to Newfoundland, where he had made his name as a hockey coach and hockey school innovator in the 1960s and 1970s. Even in Parksville, B.C., where they settled later, his name adorns a rink in the local arena. He and Leah in their later years put a lot of time and effort into fundraising for the B.C. Guide Dog Services, hosting a golf tournament. He wrote books about hockey and his life. He even tried, early in his career, to get the NHL to adopt the wider rinks used in Europe, which he’d played on and liked in the 1940s. He told me he approached Clarence Campbell of the NHL and told him how good the wider rinks were, but nothing came of it.
Now Howie is gone, but maybe it’s not so sad after all. Ninety-seven years is a terrific run. And just thinking of his many accomplishments, and knowing he’s now in a better place, is a positive. Thanks for everything, Howie. During those scrimmages in hockey heaven, watch out for Gordie’s elbows, OK? And be sure to look up your old buddy Barilko.
Brad Bird is an award-winning reporter and editorial writer based in British Columbia. He is the author of “No Guarantees,” about the pro hockey career of Don Dietrich.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.