Howie Meeker was Hockey's Renaissance Man

The former player and broadcaster, who died Sunday at the age of 97, was so much more than an on air-quipster. He taught generations of Canadians more about the game they love. And sometimes of those lessons were blunt and unforgiving.
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Back in 1968, Howie Meeker was in Montreal for a sporting goods convention when a chance meeting with Ted Darling, then the play-by-play man for a local television station, changed the landscape of hockey broadcasting forever. Darling took the liberty of booking Meeker as a between-periods guest analyst for the Montreal Canadiens game that Saturday night, unbeknownst to producer Ralph Mellanby, who had already booked legendary Montreal writer Red Fisher for the broadcast.

Mellanby bumped Fisher for Meeker, who joined Dick Irvin in the studio that night, and a star was born. Or in the case of the former Calder Trophy winner and four-time Stanley Cup champion, reborn. From the time Meeker opened his mouth to criticize J.C. Tremblay for making the wrong play, which was unheard of in hockey broadcasting at that time, Meeker was an unadulterated hit. “He blew away the country,” Mellanby said. “The phone calls and fan mail I got…”

In the wake of Meeker’s death Sunday, four days after his 97th birthday, you’re going to be hearing an awful lot about Meeker terms such as golly-gee-willakers and jumpin’ jehosephat and jiminy crickets. And if you’re unfamiliar with Meeker’s life, or even if you are, it might create something of a cartoonish image. But Meeker was so, so much deeper than that. In fact, he was a hockey renaissance man, one of the game’s true giants and one of the most interesting men ever to be associated with the sport.

He was a World War II veteran who escaped crippling injuries when one of his comrades accidentally dropped a live grenade near him during training exercises. He was the league’s best rookie in 1946-47 before going on to win four Stanley Cups in an eight-year career. He was a Member of Parliament in Canada, a hugely successful businessman, a Hall of Fame broadcaster and hockey television pioneer, a friend to many charities and one of the best teachers the game has ever known. He taught Canadians about the game through the airwaves, with his hockey how-to books and his hugely popular hockey school. He warned everyone about the Soviets in 1972, saying their skill level would give the supposed best players in the world all kinds of trouble. He won a Calder Cup championship as a coach in the American League and coached one season in the NHL, leaving the job after punching Maple Leafs executive Stafford Smythe in a confrontation during training camp.

Howie Meeker was the game's conscience and one of its great teachers. And the lessons were sometimes blunt and unforgiving, but they needed to be taught. At a time much of the hockey culture prized violence and intimidation, Meeker pivoted and talked about how Canada was falling behind other countries because it wasn't teaching kids the proper skills. And he was right.

Forty years before today’s crop of television analysts were breaking down every piece of minutia in the game, Meeker was doing just that, daring to point out mistakes and bad plays at a time when that simply wasn’t done. “He set us all back a bit,” Irvin said. “I remember Tremblay did something that night and Meeker’s phrase was, ‘You can’t do that.’ The rest of us were wimps, we wouldn’t say anything like that. He would talk about skill. We never thought about skill in a hockey player, but Howie brought that to the people. There’s a way to play this game and he hammered away at it. Whether anyone ever understood him, he didn’t give a sh--.”

It wasn’t long before Mellanby realized that Meeker was a star in the making. After lining him up for a couple more guest appearances at $100 per appearance, Mellanby offered Meeker a permanent job with Hockey Night in Canada, but found that Meeker was every bit as unforgiving as a negotiator as he was an analyst. “He said, ‘I’m not doing that for a hundred bucks a show,’ ” said Mellanby, who spoke to Meeker last week on his birthday. “I said, ‘I’ll tell you what. I’ll give you a thousand bucks a show,’ which was a lot of money in those days, but he was truly unique.”

Meeker used his new status as a TV star to launch the Howie Meeker’s Hockey School, which was an enormous success. Schools were held all over Canada and students would spend two weeks on site learning the game and playing other sports. Meeker parlayed that into a television series that taught children the basics of puck control, skating and passing. He was years ahead of his time, talking about players’ edges years before that would become a staple in the hockey lexicon. And he was never afraid to level criticism at all levels of hockey for the way kids were being taught the game. In one segment, Meeker said, “No such thing as weak ankles. Weak parents, bad skates, no support, no steel in the blade…But weak ankles? Any kid who can walk can skate and skate well.”

But it was with Hockey Night in the 1970s where Meeker would gain most of his prestige. Mellanby had learned about the telestrator, which allowed an analyst to ask the producers “in the truck” to back up replays and to draw on a TV screen with a light pen. The first time Meeker used the telestrator, Mellanby made sure he was producing the game so there would be no problems with it. “We were practicing with it before the game and he gets on and says, ‘I can’t get this gall darn thing to work,’ ” Mellanby recalled. “So I told him in his ear, ‘Try using the on switch,’ and he said, ‘Ah, there it is!’ And that really boosted his career.”

When Meeker died, he was one of only four remaining players – Ed Sandford, Marty Pavelich and George Armstrong are the others – who played during the 1940s and went on to play at least 300 NHL games. But Meeker’s impact on the game went well beyond his playing days. And there was one thing that drove him all those years to try to make the game better. “I got to thinking and I don’t know of anybody who liked hockey more than he did,” Irvin said. “Just a really deep appreciation of the game and what it meant.”

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