Famed NHL player and broadcaster Howie Meeker passes away at 97

‘He’s one of the truly few people who could give you the shirt off his back. He was a really caring person.’

Canadian hockey ledgend Howie at his home in Parksville on Nov. 21, 2000. Meeker died on Sunday at the age of 97. PHOTO BY RIC ERNST /PNG

Canadian hockey ledgend Howie at his home in Parksville on Nov. 21, 2000. Meeker died on Sunday at the age of 97. PHOTO BY RIC ERNST /PNG

Lyndon Little PostMedia

Golly Gee Willikers, what a life.

Armed services veteran. National Hockey League player, coach and general manager. Member of Parliament. Celebrity television broadcaster. Hockey school owner and operator.

Howie Meeker, who passed away at Nanaimo General Hospital on Sunday morning at the age of 97 did it all. In the jargon of one of the favourite sports cliché of today, going forward, Howie left nothing undone.

Jumpin’ Jehoshophat, what a goal

During his many years as a broadcaster — primarily on Hockey Night In Canada but later on TSN and BCTV (Global) — Meeker became known as an innovator. He was the first colour man/analyst to master the telestrator, using it not only for goal replays but also to educate the viewers on the finer points of the game. He was the first to inform audiences not only how  a goal was scored but why — even if the key to the score occurred 40 seconds before the fact.

However, despite all his analytical brilliance, it is Howie Meeker the person that the people he worked closest with remember him the most.

“I did quite a few HNIC games with Howie, in fact we did the first NHL game from the new Saddledome in Calgary,” recalled Vancouver broadcast legend Jim Robson, a fellow Hockey Hall of Fame inductee. “Howie was quite a guy. A real character. He would go on about how we weren’t teaching the skills to our kids. Of course, he was the first to use the telestrator and that was his big thing.”

Noted hockey producer Larry Isaac worked closely with Meeker in the 1980s on the Canucks on BCTV broadcasts.

Howie Meeker (left, with Cassie Campbell and Ed Jovanovski) greeted Queen Elizabeth II before a puck drop ceremony on Oct. 6, 2002. PHOTO BY DENISE HOWARD /Vancouver Sun

Howie Meeker (left, with Cassie Campbell and Ed Jovanovski) greeted Queen Elizabeth II before a puck drop ceremony on Oct. 6, 2002. PHOTO BY DENISE HOWARD /Vancouver Sun

“One thing Howie brought to every telecast was his undying enthusiasm for the game,” Isaac remembered. “We had some pretty lean times with the Canuck games in those years. He would be one guy who would never be downcast about it. For him, there was always something positive to be found. The enthusiasm he brought was infectious to all of us.

“He was a very genuine guy,” Isaac said. “He’s one of the truly few people who could give you the shirt off his back. He was a really caring person.”

Isaac loves to tell the story of the time during a BCTV Canucks’ broadcast from the old Chicago Arena when Meeker was scheduled to do a live, between-periods interview with a Blackhawk player. Except the player never showed up.

“I could see the empty chair beside Howie and knew the player hadn’t showed,” relates Isaac. “I went to Howie hoping he could fill the time himself. What he did was conduct the whole interview as if he knew what the player was going to say. After asking a question he’d move over to the player’s chair and give an answer.”

Look at that goalie. He’s down on his knees fishing for nickels

HNIC play-by-play man Jim Hughson was Meeker’s partner on numerous broadcasts.

“Howie’s two passions were hockey and teaching the game,” Hughson recalled. “He kept hammering away at how we were falling behind the Russians in teaching the skills to our youngsters. It was a message a lot of people didn’t want to hear, but he was right. When we lost our superiority it was a rude awakening. But Howie saw it was coming.”

Hughson fondly talks about countless hours spent on the road with Meeker and remembers him as a fascinating travelling companion.

“At that stage of my career I was still pretty young and I learned a lot from Howie,” he says. “He’d talk and argue hockey with you from the moment you got up until late after the game was over that evening. I got to know some of the things that would provoke an argument and we’d go on and on. We shared some wonderful moments together.”

As an on-air commentator Hughson says Meeker was unpredictable but fearless.

“You were never sure what he was going to say,” remembers Hughson. “He could come up with something right out of left field. But once he said something he wouldn’t back away. And if he criticized a player he would be right down there in the locker-room area after the game to deal with any possible reaction.”

He went around that defenceman like a hoop around a barrel

Howard William Meeker was born on Nov. 2, 1923 in Kitchener, Ont. He played junior hockey in the Stratford and Brantford areas and was on a path to possible NHL employment when he interrupted his hockey career to join the Canadian armed forces in the Second World War. He was badly injured during service when a grenade exploded between his legs. However, he made a full recovery and after the war resumed his hockey-playing.

At the age of 21, Meeker played one more season of amateur hockey before attracting the attention of the Toronto Maple Leafs. In 1946-47 he had a sensational rookie year with the Leafs, scoring 27 goals — including five in one game — and 45 points and earned himself the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s outstanding first-year player.

An handout photo of Howie Meeker. CNSPICS CND HANDOUT PHOTO

An handout photo of Howie Meeker. CNSPICS CND HANDOUT PHOTO

Meeker’s early career with the Leafs coincided with one of the team’s brightest periods. With Meeker playing mainly on a “Tricky Trio” line with Teeder Kennedy and Vic Lynn, the Leafs won the Stanley Cup in each of his first three seasons and four of his first five. Meeker played in three all-star games and retired with career record of 83 goals and 185 points in 346 NHL contests.

While he was playing for the Leafs, Meeker also spent three years as a Progressive Conservative Member of Parliament for the Ontario riding of Waterloo South. He did not seek re-election in 1953.

After retiring as a player, he coached the Leafs for the 1956-57 season, compiling a 21-34-15 record. He was promoted to general manager in 1957 but was fired before the start of the 1957-58 campaign.

In 1958, Meeker accepted an invitation from Newfoundland premier Joey Smallwood and moved to St. John’s to become involved with that city’s youth hockey program. During his 18-year stay in St. John’s, Meeker united a hockey system that previously had been divided along religious grounds.

Stop ‘er right there, stop ‘er right there

Meeker first appeared as colour man on Hockey Night in Canada in 1968 and rapidly became a familiar face in Canadian homes. He remained with CBC until 1990 and continued with TSN until he left broadcasting in 1998. He won the Foster Hewitt Award in 1998 and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame broadcasters’ section the same year. Meeker is also a member of the B.C. Hockey Hall of Fame and authored two books: Howie Meeker’s Hockey Basics in 1973 and Golly Gee It’s Me in 1999.

Meeker relocated his family from coast to coast, from Newfoundland to B.C., in the 1980s. The Howie Meeker Arena in Parksville is named in his honour.

“I’m the last guy in the world to think I’d be a successful broadcaster,” Meeker once said, reflecting on his 30-year career behind a microphone and camera. “I’ve got a terrible voice and all these other guys have got syrupy smooth voices. They’ve got fantastic memories and mine is long-term great, but short-term not worth a lot.”