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He stood on Guards, by golly


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About to turn 87, Howie Meeker looks back on the Guards and St. John’s hockey.

For all Howie Meeker has done in hockey — his four Stanley Cup rings with the Toronto Maple Leafs, an NHL rookie of the year award, a one-year stint as Leafs coach, rise to “Hockey Night in Canada” icon status — he’s probably best known around here as the guy who headed up the Guards.

It was a different time, a different era in Newfoundland sports when Howie Meeker stepped off the plane at Torbay airport back in October of ’57. The NHL crackled over the radio before the advent of grainy, black and white television in Newfoundland in 1955 — “Hello, Canada, and hockey fans in the United States and Newfoundland,” Foster Hewitt would say.

It would be another four years before a Newfoundlander — Alex Faulkner, of course — would play an NHL game.

Back then, the St. John’s Senior Hockey League was our NHL, the Boyle Trophy our Stanley Cup, Hughie Fardy our Doug Harvey and a young Ian Campbell our Jean Beliveau.

And no one could beat that God-damned — as Meeker would say — crowd from St. Bon’s.

“There was no system here, no teaching of skills,” Meeker says of hockey in St. John’s back in the late 1950s and ’60s. “It was three years before (the Guards) won a championship, three years of teaching skills.”

It’s been 34 years since Howard William Meeker left Newfoundland, lured west by the balmy Vancouver Island winters.

The easy life in Parksville, B.C., has done Meeker well. He’ll turn 87 in two months’ time, his only noticeable health issue being a couple of hearing aids.

He looks tanned and relaxed these days, and moves about well on those little bow legs, a bit of a medical miracle given a hockey career that resulted in 92 stitches to the face, a broken shoulder, separated shoulders on three occasions, a broken foot, broken toes and a couple of torn knee ligaments, to boot.

The fingers on his abnormally large hands, the ones he used to score 27 goals as an NHL rookie in 1946-47 — beating out a chap named Howe from Detroit for the Calder Trophy — are gnarled and twisted, no doubt from throwing punches as a take-no-prisoner crackie who played the game like someone twice his size.

His arrival in St. John’s has been well-documented; he was invited to the city by then-city clerk Ed Foran to runs its hockey program.

Meeker, closing out a two-year term as the Tory MP for Kitchener-Waterloo, was intrigued with the idea. And it didn’t take long for him to recognize what was at least part of the problem: an uneven playing field as St. Bon’s, with its own rink, was steamrolling the competition year after year.

“I told Ed Foran, ‘I think I can fix this in five or six years,’” he recalls, “but you have to give me the keys to (Memorial Stadium). I have to be the boss.

“It was the only way to do the job ... you’d have to step on somebody’s toes.”

No go.

The city rejected having Meeker take over the hockey program, from minor to the senior league, so the Kitchener native was prepared to head home.

Until he met Dr. Harry Roberts.

Contrary to rumour, Roberts — a linchpin within the Guards Athletic Association — did not offer to top whatever the city was giving Meeker to run the Guards by $5,000.

Whatever the arrangement, Roberts got what he wanted — Meeker agreed to take over the Guards’ teams, from junior and senior high school, to the junior and senior hockey clubs.

From 1928, when they won their first Boyle Trophy, until 1960, when St. Pat’s pulled off the epic upset, on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, St. Bon’s won 27 Boyle Trophy championships (a champion wasn’t crowned in 1942 and ’43).

Included in that streak were 16 straight championships from ’43 to 1959.

“St. Bon’s had the only ice in town and were deeper in talent,” Meeker said. “And they’d always import one or two teachers who could play.”

For six to eight hours a day, Meeker would be on the ice, working with the kids to the senior Guards. He’d emphasize drills, drills and more drills.

There wasn’t much difference in the young players here than their mainland counterparts, he said. In fact, the Newfoundland kids were more anxious to learn.

But they didn’t know how to play the game.

“To their credit,” he said, “they worked like dogs.”

The green and gold from St. Pat’s would eventually topple St. Bon’s and, as it turned out, pretty much finish the Bluegolds’ program (St. Bon’s would win only once more, in 1969). But the Guards would have their time in the spotlight, winning three straight Boyle Trophy titles from 1962 to ’64.

The Guards eventually got their own arena, Prince of Wales Arena, and Feildians theirs, Feildian Gardens.

Some of the best to ever play the game — among them Hall of Famers Campbell, Bob Badcock and Eggie Billard — were moulded by Meeker.

It’s been said when it came to Howie Meeker, it was only black and white. There were no grey areas; you either liked him or disliked him.

Today, he contends those who didn’t like him didn’t know him.

“Give me five minutes, and I can sell myself to anyone.”

And as for the whole Catholic/Protestant thing that was so prevalent during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, Meeker said some of his closest friends went to Mass.

What separated Meeker from many others was that he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. And this, from a mainlander, wasn’t exactly endearing to many Newfoundlanders.

Which brings us to the Regatta. For years, Meeker would interview the winning St. John’s Regatta crews as part of his duties with CJON and later CBC, when Meeker joined the media ranks.

Through this work, Paul Ring maintains, Meeker can take a bit of credit for a seemingly unbreakable record being broken.

“For years,” said Ring, “he’d tell us, ‘You’re not in shape! You’re not in shape to row!’”

So, a group of rowers from the Gut, who would be later sponsored by Smith Stockley, set about to get in the best shape of their lives.

In 1981, the famous 9:13 fell.

“That’s a time I still miss,” Meeker says, “down at the pond. I remember that, telling them they needed to be in shape. You didn’t get in shape just by rowing. You needed to do other things.

“Boy, I would have loved to have been around that day (when Stockley beat the record).”

By the early to mid-1970s, Meeker was a media celebrity. He had become a staple on “Hockey Night in Canada” — he’s in the Hockey Hall of Fame in the broadcast wing for his work on “Hockey Night” — and his Howie Meeker Hockey School was among the most popular in Canada.

Because of his heavy workload, Meeker had to step back from coaching shortly after leading the St. John’s Capitals to the 1970 Herder Memorial Trophy championship.

In fact, one of his big regrets was not getting the team — the Caps’ “Kiddie Corps,” led by Randy Pearcey, Hubert Hutton, Nige Facey, Glen Critch, Max Hayes and the gang — Bob Badcock led the four straight Herders.

“Oh,” said Meeker, breaking into a mischievous grin, “I would have given anything to coach that team, to take those guys into Corner Brook and Gander and kick the shit out of them all.”

For nearly 30 years, by golly, Meeker was on hockey broadcasts, impressive given  that his voice — at least when compared to that of the incomparable Bob Cole or Danny Gallivan — could at best have been described as squeaky.

His last broadcast came in 1998 when he woke up one morning in Los Angeles and realized it wasn’t fun anymore. Broadcasting had become work.

“I was sitting on the edge of my bed, and I said to myself, ‘What in the @#$% am I doing here, and not home?’”

So he called Ralph Mellanby, the former “Hockey Night” producer who had been heading up TSN’s hockey broadcast, and told Mellanby he’d be doing only 10 more games.

He was taking his telustrator and going home to Parksville.

Meeker still watches hockey, but it’s a different game today, he says.

Like chalk and cheese compared to — depending on your birth date — the heyday.

If we could, ahem, back it up, Meeker says the stick has been taken out of checking. Some of the today’s calls were mere love taps during the rough and tough ’60s, brawling ’70s and even free-flowing ’80s.

There isn’t a flow to today’s game, although this year’s playoffs, he said, provided plenty of excitement.

And, like all of us who can’t help but try to compare eras, he wonders what the stars of yesterday — the Orrs, Howes, Lafleurs and Beliveaus — could do in today’s NHL.

For once, Howie Meeker is silenced, if only for a moment, when asked to select the best he’s seen.

After some thought, he elects to take the high road, choosing the best over a five- and 10-year period. No surprise, it’s Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky.

“Over five years, before the knee got him, Orr was the best who ever played the game,” he said. “The skills, the great acceleration, the great competitiveness.”

There will never likely be another season like Orr’s 1969-70 campaign, when the Bruins took the Stanley Cup and Orr won the scoring title, regular season and playoff MVP and top defenceman award.

With Gretzky, it begins and ends with the 61 NHL records he holds or shares. And the 894 career goals. And the 2,857 career points.

“The best, by far,” Meeker said.

And somewhere in between, he says, is Guy Lafleur.

“When it mattered, he was always there with the big goal,” Meeker said. “The Canadiens always entered a game with the one ace up their sleeve — we got Lafleur.”

On Friday, Meeker and his wife Leah (his first wife, Grace, died in 1998, after 55 years of marriage) and daughter Jane hosted an early birthday drop-in at Jane’s place (and Howie’s old house) in Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s — “best view in Canada,” Jane says proudly.

No doubt there was lots of chatter, lots of laughs and a scattered drink or two.

He doesn’t miss Newfoundland, per se. He does, however, miss the people.

People who regard him not as the former NHLer and Leafs’ coach, but coach of the Guards. The radio voice and talking head at CJON. His popular bowling show. His sporting goods store on Freshwater Road.

“Whatever Howie Meeker is,” he says, “it started here.”

 

Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by e-mail at rshort@thetelegram.com

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