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 terrorise 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 goal scorer 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.