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'Whatever Howie Meeker is, it started here,' once said the Hockey Hall of Famer, who died Sunday at 97
Howie Meeker, the man credited with revamping the way hockey was played in St. John’s and with turning the Guards into a local senior hockey powerhouse, died Sunday in a Nanaimo, B.C. hospital. He was 97.
Meeker won four Stanley Cups with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and was the oldest living Maple Leaf. He won NHL rookie of the year in 1947, beating out Gordie Howe for the honour.
And he’s in the broadcasting wing of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
But for all Meeker did in hockey – which also included a one-year stint as Leafs coach and a rise to "Hockey Night in Canada" icon status — plus the fact he was once a Member of Parliament, he's probably best known in this province as the guy who headed up the Guards and changed the style of play in the capital city league.
It was a different time, a different era in Newfoundland sports when Meeker stepped off the plane at Torbay airport back in October of 1957, which was four years before a Newfoundlander — Alex Faulkner — would become the first from this province to play in an NHL game.
Back then, the St. John's Senior Hockey League was the local NHL and the Boyle Trophy was the local Stanley Cup. And when it came to the Boyle Trophy competition, no one could beat that “God-damned crowd” — those were Meeker’s words — from St. Bon's.
"There was no system here, no teaching of skills," Meeker Told The Telegram in 2010 as he judged the hockey in St. John’s in those days. “It was three years before (the Guards) won a championship, three years of teaching skills."
Wow. Thank you Hayley. ❤️ https://t.co/GrE3klILxL— Geoff Meeker is staying where he's at (@geoffmeeker) November 9, 2020
His arrival in St. John's has been well-documented; he was invited to the city by then-city clerk Ed Foran to run 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."
However, 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 lynchpin within the Guards Athletic Association — did not offer to top, by $5,000, whatever the city was giving Meeker to run the Guards.
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 an epic upset, on the eve of St. Patrick's Day, St. Bon's had 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 facility, Prince of Wales Arena, and Feildians theirs, Feildian Gardens.
Howie Meeker lived a life and charted a path like no other. A four-time Stanley Cup winner, a Member of Parliament, and a beloved television broadcaster, he was a great Canadian and will be missed. My condolences to his loved ones and everyone who looked up to him.— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) November 9, 2020
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.
He told The Telegram 10 years ago those who didn't like him didn't know him.
"Give me five minutes, and I can sell myself to anyone."
Meeker was born in Kitchener, Ont., and played junior hockey in that area before serving in the Canadian Army in the Second World War. He was badly injured by a grenade in a training accident, but recovered and was playing in the NHL in 1946.
For that first season with Toronto, As a rookie, he scored 27 goals and 18 assists for 45 points in 55 games and tied the league record for most goals in a game by a rookie with five in a game against Chicago.
He's in the Hockey Hall of Fame for his work on "Hockey Night". He’s also in the Newfoundland and Labrador Sports Hall of Fame and Hockey Newfoundland and Labrador Hall of Fame.
Because of his heavy workload on Hockey Night in Canada and his then-popular Howie Meeker Hockey Schools, Meeker stepped back from coaching shortly after leading the St. John's Capitals to the 1970 Herder Memorial Trophy championship.
One of his big regrets was not coaching the Caps’ teams which won four straight Herders from 1973-76. They were coached by Badcock, and nicknamed the “Kiddie Corps,” led by several future Hall of Famers and rugged customers.
"Oh," said Meeker, in that 2010 interview, "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, Meeker was on hockey broadcasts, impressive given that his voice — at least when compared to Bob Cole, Hewitt or Danny Gallivan — could at best have been described as squeaky.
Lines like “stop it right there” on video review and “Golly gee willikers" became his catchphrases (“Golly Gee — It’s Me” was the title of his biography.)
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 telestrator and going home.
Home by then was on Canada's west coast.
Meeker left St. John’s in the 1980s for British Columbia, lured west by the balmy Vancouver Island winters.
Meeker and his first wife Grace, to whom he was married for 55 years before she died of cancer, had six children. He and his second wife Leah lived in Parksville, B.C.
Meeker often said he never missed the weather in Newfoundland and Labrador after moving to B.C.
But he did miss the people... people who remembered him not as the former NHLer and Leafs' coach, but as coach of the Guards. People who remembered his radio voice or when he was a television broadcaster at CJON or his popular bowling show or his sporting goods store on Freshwater Road.
"Whatever Howie Meeker is," he told The Telegram when he came “home” for his 87th birthday, "it started here."
Robin Short is The Telegram's Sports Editor