Remembering Howie Meeker's journey from Canadian soldier to hockey legend

Howie Meeker, a four time Stanley Cup champion with the Toronto Maple Leafs and legendary broadcaster has passed away at the age of 97.

Howie Meeker was bound to make the most of his 97-year life.

An early brush with death, before he spent a single day in the National Hockey League, sparked Meeker to take nothing for granted.

Meeker, who died on Sunday, four days after his 97th birthday, left us the same day as another Canadian legend, Alex Trebek.

If Trebek had framed a Jeopardy line around Meeker, it might have read: “He was a hockey player but was better known for saying ‘gee willickers’ and “Jiminy Cricket’ on television.

We’re guessing that Meeker used more colourful language on that day in 1944, when the young man nearly died while representing his country in World War II.

Meeker, just 20 at the time, was training in England as a machinist apprentice in the army’s corps of Royal Canadian Engineers when a corporal in his unit blindly tossed a grenade over a stone wall. The grenade landed at Meeker’s feet, right between his legs.

“It threw me 12 feet in the air,” Meeker told me during a visit to Ottawa in 2000, providing his own play-by-play commentary of the friendly fire that could have ended his life.

“Fortunately, it was a training grenade, made with Bakelite (a plastic made from synthetic components). If it had been metal, I’d have been dead.”

Though he survived the blast, Meeker suffered serious and lasting injuries. Pieces of lead and plastic were scattered like installation art all through his shins and groin. He lost a piece of his calf muscle, he said, rolling up his pant legs to illustrate some of the many small holes in his legs. Lifetime reminders of his personal war effort.

Today, we know Meeker’s history as a standout player, coach and broadcaster -- he was named NHL rookie of the year for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1946-47, beating out the immortal Gordie Howe, among others.

The wonder is that he ever put on another pair of skates after his war experience. The grenade blast happened not long before the Normandy Landings of D-Day, but Meeker had his own battle to fight -- nearly three months rehabilitating in a London hospital. It was a testament to his fortitude that he emerged from the hospital to fight another day, serving his country through the end of the war in 1945.

In that time he experienced numerous “buzz bomb” raids, the nickname for the V-1 flying bombs used by the Germans to terrorize London and other parts of England. Some of Meeker’s favourite war memories were on the makeshift ball fields and outdoor rinks, where he played on service baseball and hockey teams.

Prior to enlisting, Meeker had been a proven goalscorer at the Jr. B level in Kitchener. When the war ended, Meeker spent a season with the Senior Stratford Indians, where he caught the eye of the Maple Leafs, who signed him to a contract in 1946.

Playing alongside Teeder Kennedy and Vic Lynn -- the Kid Line or Tricky Trio as they were called -- Meeker exploded into the NHL. He scored 27 goals and added 18 assists for 45 points in 55 games, legitimate Calder Trophy numbers. Five of those goals came in a single night, a 10-4 romp over Chicago in early January of 1947.

Meeker was hardly a big man at 5-8 and 170 pounds, “but that was about average at the time,” he said. His skating and stick-handling were his strongest assets, although with 76 penalty minutes as a rookie, he was not timid. That first NHL season turned out to be his best.

Hockey injuries slowed him later in his career. Meeker was done as an NHL player in 1953, finishing with 83 goals and 185 points in 346 NHL games -- still a great run, and a magical time to play in Toronto for the Leafs, who won four Stanley Cups with Meeker in a key support role.

Incredibly, in 1951, Meeker had become a Member of Parliament while still playing for the Maple Leafs. What a charmed year that was for Howie, who happened to be the one who passed the puck to Bill Barilko for his famous overtime Stanley Cup winner on April 21, 1951.

(A family Barilko story: my father would otherwise have been in Kingston, where my older brother, Tom, was born that night, but he had tickets to Game 5 and was at Maple Leaf Gardens when Meeker and Barilko teamed up on the famous goal. Dad caught the first train to Kingston the next morning).

In 1953, just two years after that Cup glory, after the Barilko goal and his subsequent disappearance, Meeker left both arenas, politics and the NHL.

In his next phase, Meeker’s teaching instincts served him well as a coach. He won an AHL championship with the Pittsburgh Hornets and spent one season (1956-57) as head coach of a Leafs team that wasn’t as strong as the one he played on. Following an even briefer stint as Leafs general manager, Meeker moved on to Newfoundland, running minor hockey programs while coaching and playing senior hockey.

During that span, in the 1960s, fate intervened for the benefit of hockey viewers throughout the land. Meeker was traveling through Montreal for a business convention when he ran into hockey play-by-play man Ted Darling, who needed an analyst in the booth for a game that night between the Canadiens and Chicago Blackhawks.

Meeker made the most of his moment, inadvertently launching a Hockey Night In Canada broadcast career that would last for two decades. He used the platform to entertain (“Ya gotta go upstairs!!!” he’d bark after a player shot a puck into a goalie’s pads), but also to educate viewers on the nuances of the game.

In his biography "Stop It There, Back It Up!" Meeker explained that he knew he would have to express strong opinions to make it as an analyst, given his limitations, including a squeaky voice.

Strong opinions came naturally to Meeker, including in his role as a hockey instructor.

At age 76, he was on the ice in a Stittsville arena, west of Ottawa, at 7:20 a.m. for a full day’s work. During one session, I saw Meeker lift a player up by the back of his jersey to keep the boy from going offside during a scrimmage. Camp organizers had to occasionally explain to parents that Howie had his own way of doing things, including frank instruction. Old school.

It drove him crazy that kids would be sent out onto the ice with sticks that were clearly too long for them.

Some of what Howie Meeker espoused rings true today.

Like Brian Burke, Meeker lamented the fact the NHL didn’t make their arenas slightly larger when they had the chance, at a time when many new arenas came into the league.

And it pained him, the idea that so many teenagers get left behind when they don’t make competitive teams.

“The rules are perfectly made to drive the boy of average size, skill and mental toughness out of the game by the time he is 13 or 14,” Meeker said. “The kid has to wait until he’s 25 or 30 to get back in, to play oldtimers’ hockey.”

Playing for fun and with an emphasis on skill was always paramount with Meeker. Yet, Meeker was appalled when Canada lost the Olympic tournament in Nagano, even with Wayne Gretzky on the roster (though not in the shootout lineup!).

Afterwards, Meeker wrote a letter to the Ottawa Citizen suggesting that every minor hockey organization put an emphasis on skating and skill to return Canada to its rightful place in the game.

“What I’ve urged minor hockey to do is teach mental and physical skills to the average student so that he or she will eventually become creative in the game and enjoy the great rewards of mind and body working together in the wonderful game of hockey.”

I’d say the country took that loss, and Howie’s words, to heart.

There is no skill lacking in Canada’s game today, led by Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Mathew Barzal etc.

After growing weary of the travel involved in the national broadcast and having settled on the west coast, Meeker spent the final years of his broadcast career doing colour analysis of Vancouver Canucks games.

In 1998, Meeker was named winner of the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award from the Hockey Hall of Fame. That same year he finished with the Canucks broadcasts, catching himself thinking how he’d rather be fishing or golfing or spending time with family. In 2010, Meeker was appointed to the Order of Canada.

“I got out at the right time,” Meeker said, of his broadcast career. “But I had a wonderful kick at the cat.”

Fittingly, on Remembrance Day 2020 we will pause to remember this hockey titan, once a beaming, young Canadian soldier.

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