By day, he loves what he sees.
From his living room window, he can watch sunlight play over the Strait of Georgia. He can catch sight of a bald eagle soaring high over the shoreline, sometimes see the churn of salmon as they gather for the fall run up nearby French Creek.
By night, he can barely stand what he sees.
He tried to stop watching several years ago, and instantly his sleep improved, but of late he has found his eyes drawn back to the late night scores and highlights of NHL hockey, and he can only wince.
Howie Meeker turns 90 on Monday. He can still shout “Golly Gee Willikers” as well as he ever could in the 1970s and 1980s, when his enthusiasms and criticisms of the national game became a CBC fixture. Meeker was renowned for his beloved telestrator and, most of all, for a voice and expressions – “Hold it right there!” “Jiminy Cricket!” – that made him as famous then as Don Cherry is today.
Today, Howie Meeker is not as opinionated as he once was.
He is much more opinionated.
Flow: “They dump it out, they dump it in. Lots of times, there is absolutely no reason for them to be dumping it in.”
Shot blocking: “It should be a penalty. If you leave your feet to go down to stop a shot, it should be a penalty. If you go down to block a pass, no problem, but to me it’s obvious that it should be a two-minute penalty if you go down to block a shot on goal. This isn’t entertainment. It just makes for dull hockey. It’s crazy. The NHL needs goals and here they’re doing everything possible to stop goals from going in. They’ve got to be out of their minds.”
Fighting: “The game doesn’t need it. I can’t understand it. There’s just no need at all. You don’t need fighting. The playoffs are wonderful entertainment – and there’s no fighting. Fighters are like the dinosaurs, they are history.”
Goon players and staged fighting: “It degrades the team. It degrades hockey. I just turn it off.”
Scrums and pushing after checks and scrambles: “I’d send them to the [penalty] box. ‘Get your ass off the ice!’”
Size of ice surface: “They’ve got to be bigger, that’s the problem. I tried to tell them. I sent [former NHL president Clarence Campbell] a letter advising the league to build rinks so the ice surface could be made larger if you ever need it. They wouldn’t listen. Players today are so big, so strong. I was 5 [foot] 9. Half the players were 160 [to] 175 pounds. [1950s Toronto Maple Leafs forward] Harry Watson was a giant at 200 pounds.”
Goaltender equipment: “You take a skinny guy 160, 170 pounds and you turn him into Superman. It’s almost as if they double in size when they put that equipment on.”
Sticks: “I’d cut every player’s stick by three or four inches. They have them long for defence, but the result is no one ever has the full blade alone the ice. Pucks go under the toe, under the heel.”
On and on the thoughts pour out, including some sure-to-be controversial observations on minor hockey.
As far as the NHL goes, though, Meeker would instantly institute far-more severe penalties for intentional head shots – penalties so severe the issue would be rendered moot in a short time. He would not only love to see fewer teams in the current 30-franchise league, he believes there should be fewer players per team: Two talented lines capable of scoring, a third line able to check and contribute in a meaningful way, four defenceman, with a fifth as spare in case of injury or fatigue.
He talks for nearly two hours and does not himself tire, or wander. His health is good, but for a wonky leg that periodically quits on him – somewhat ironic for a man who preached: “Keep your feet moving!”
“Doctors had me wired up like I was going to the moon,” he says of a recent series of tests to determine what was causing the problem.