Meeker gardens with his wife, Leah, in their long-time home in Parksville, on the eastern shore of Vancouver Island. He fishes for salmon. They do charity work for guide dogs. They spend time with their nearby grandchildren, both in minor hockey. And they travel, most recently to their old home in Newfoundland where, on Canada Day, they held an early 90th birthday celebration at the Capital Hotel in St. John’s.
“They had 150 name tags ready,” Meeker says, “and they ran out in less than hour.”
Was there a name tag set aside for him? “Hell no!”
All Howie Meeker’s life he has been associated with the winter game.
He was a junior star in Kitchener and Stratford, Ont. He joined the Maple Leafs in 1946, after three years in the army and time spent recovering from injury – and promptly won NHL rookie of the year honours. He tied an NHL rookie record the night he scored five goals against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Remarkably, Meeker won Stanley Cups his first three seasons, and a fourth before retiring from the game after only eight seasons. He briefly served as a Conservative member of Parliament while still playing and later became head coach and then general manager of the Maple Leafs. He ran hockey schools, put out instructional manuals and film, served as Hockey Night in Canada’s pre-eminent analyst and continued playing recreational hockey well beyond becoming a senior citizen.
It was while he was in Parliament that he became concerned about the state of minor hockey in the country and what he believed was poor to non-existent coaching for kids who were basically teaching the game to themselves on outdoor rinks.
“I grew sick and tired of them bringing in foreign coaches in all other sports but in our own minor hockey there was no coaching,” he says.
Three times, to three different governments, he proposed a sports council that could formulate and spread “a national minor-hockey philosophy.” He imagined various universities could establish sports departments that could “teach the teachers to teach” in one- or two-year course. It could be funded, he argued, one-third by the federal government, one-third provincial, one-third municipal. But there was no interest.
“I may as well have been farting against thunder,” he says.
Today, he bemoans the state of minor hockey and minor-hockey coaching. “Kids today can’t skate,” he says, “can’t handle the puck, can’t turn, can’t think.”
Canadian hockey organizations today, he believes, cater to the good players, the ones who will one day fill the junior ranks and perhaps reach the NHL – a percentage so small he believes the country is in a foolish chase.
Two of his grandchildren, 15-year-old Courtney and 12-year-old Jordan, are playing minor hockey and, over Thanksgiving weekend, nearly-90-year-old Howie Meeker took them out in the driveway so the young girl and boy could show their stuff. While he loves his grandchildren, he wasn’t impressed for what the youngsters are getting for registration fees that cost the family more than $1,000.
“They’re not teaching them anything,” he says. “There’s no such thing as coaching. There’s guys on the ice, but most have never played a game of hockey in their life.”
He would stress skating and skills and puck handling. He would never allow 12-year-olds to play on a full ice surface. Half-ice at most, one-third the ice surface would be preferable. And working with coaches who have the proper training, not just a group of volunteer dads.
“We have to train people to teach skills,” he says.
And a skilled hockey mind, he believes, is as important, and as teachable, as skilled skating or stickhandling. “They can skate and check,” he says, “but they’re not creative. Holy jumpin’ but they are not creative.”
He would cut down sharply on the number of games played and make practices the main emphasis – even if parents complained. “That’s all the kids do,” he says. “They play games. Practice is a waste of time.”