Opinion

Hodge: Happy birthday to a Canadian icon

It’s not too often one gets to wish someone a happy 90th birthday, and it’s especially meaningful when that character is one of your dearest friends.

Howie Meeker is much more than just a good buddy. In many ways he is also a mentor, brother, father, grandfather and hero. Not to mention, a true Canadian icon.

I had the unique and distinct pleasure of hanging out almost daily with the ‘golly-gee’ guy for nearly five years during the 1990s when Howie and I worked on two books together, including his biography, Golly Gee It’s Me. It was a wonderful and life altering experience.

To say he is a class act is an understatement.

Many readers remember Meeker as the voice and face of Hockey Night in Canada and TSN for literally decades of broadcasting. Yet there are many other impressive attributes about the man.

The most significant is recently winning the prestigious Order of Canada, one of our country’s highest civilian honours which recognizes a lifetime of outstanding achievement, dedication to community, and service to the nation.

No man who better personifies the word professional. I saw him at the best and worst of times and my respect never faded, once.

Howard (Howie) William Meeker was born Nov. 4, 1923, in the Kitchener-Waterloo area of Ontario, and he learned early the value of hard work and integrity.

He was already a promising young junior hockey player in Stratford when WW II broke out. Like many, Howie accepted the challenge to make a difference.

As far as Meeker is concerned, anything and everything he has done in life since one day in the spring of 1944 has been a bonus.

On that 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, medical doctors told Howie he’d be lucky to walk again, let alone skate.

Those Allied Forces doctors, like many NHL scouts and future opponents, 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 and initiative that not only earned him the 1946-47 NHL rookie of the year award (Calder Trophy) and two rookie records, but also his first Stanley Cup.

When his first NHL season was complete, Meeker had scored 27 goals, including an amazing five-goal affair against Chicago, and 45 points.

The 27-goal record survived until Bernie Geoffrion scored 30 in his 1952 Calder winning season. However, Meeker’s five-goal game performance still stands today.

Ranger rookie Don Murdoch tied the one-game output in 1976 but no one has eclipsed it.

Not a bad rookie year for a guy who was never supposed to skate again. “When I made the National Hockey League that first season I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I was the happiest man in Canada. Absolutely nothing beat that feeling those first few games wearing a Maple Leaf sweater on my chest,” Meeker recalled.

Howie also beat another promising Red Wing rookie for Frank Calder’s legacy mug, a strapping 17-year old named Gordie Howe. The lanky forward from Floral, Sask.,  saw limited action, but caught plenty of attention and everyone knew he was going to be a superb player.

Howie beating Gordie for the Calder Trophy is one of the all-time great hockey trivia answers, and even Meeker grimaces 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 some day, but he was just barely out of diapers.

“Shucks, in the years to come I couldn’t have carried Gordie’s equipment bag.”

While playing for the Leafs he also was elected and served as an MP (Conservative for Waterloo-South).

During the eight seasons he played in the league, he garnered four Stanley Cup rings and some very memorable moments.

After leaving the NHL, 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.

Meeker moved to the Maritimes and went to work coaching senior and junior hockey, and eventually ran the entire Avalon Minor Hockey system in St. John’s, Nfld.

He also earned a living working regular radio and TV sports shows, traveled the entire ‘Rock’ as a sales representative and supplier for various companies including Samsonite luggage, Winchester Guns and Ammunition and Brunswick Bowling, and he also began his own hockey schools.

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.

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.

Perhaps Howie’s greatest legacy to hockey, and to life, has been 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 30 years, and spent countless hours involved in fund raising and charity events—particularly those involving youth and the Special Olympics. “I’m a lucky man in many ways and hockey has been a very big part of that. Everything I have I largely owe to the game.

Howie received his Order of Canada for, “his contributions to hockey as a broadcaster and coach to players across the nation.” Being a class act is simply icing on the cake.

Charlie Hodge is a Kelowna freelance writer.

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