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obituary

Howie Meeker, at his home in Parksville, B.C, on Oct. 24, 2013.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Howie Meeker was a square-jawed and craggy-faced former player whose squeaky-voiced enthusiasms entertained – or annoyed – generations of hockey fans.

Mr. Meeker, who has died a few days after turning 97, was a ubiquitous presence on Canadian television in the 1970s. As well as providing analysis for Hockey Night in Canada, he was host of a weekly 15-minute television program for children and coaches called Howie Meeker Hockey School. He wrote two books about the teaching of hockey fundamentals, the first of which the Literary Review of Canada cited as one of the 100 most important books in the country’s history. At century’s end, the Hockey News selected him 76th on a list of 100 most colourful figures in hockey history.

On air, his lexicon was sprinkled with folksy words such as “dunderhead” and “malarkey.” He used “goldarn” and “humpty-dumpty” as adjectives. Having grown up on ice rinks and served in a military in which expletives were not unknown, he trained himself as a broadcaster to rely on cornpone exclamations such as “Jiminy Cricket,” “Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat!” and “Golly gee whillickers!” The folksy phrasing, delivered in hyperkinetic outbursts, made him a favourite target for parodists and impressionists.

Howie Meeker, photographed circa 1951 when he played for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Mr. Meeker’s fame rose following the eight-game Summit Series in 1972, when Canada’s best National Hockey League professionals barely avoided humiliation at the hands of the Soviet Union. In the wake of that near disaster, a proselytizer for mastering basic hockey fundamentals such as skating and stickhandling seemed to hold the answer to what ailed Canadian hockey.

For three decades as a hockey analyst for CBC and TSN, he saw himself as an on-air teacher whose blackboard was video replay and whose chalk was a Telestrator, a tool that allowed him to draw circles and arrows to spotlight events on the ice.

“To me, it’s education,” Mr. Meeker told Peter Gzowski on CBC-TV’s 90 Minutes Live in 1977. “The more you see, the more you enjoy the product.”

To an older generation, Mr. Meeker was known as a bristly, flat-topped forward who won four Stanley Cups with a post-war Toronto Maple Leafs dynasty. He scored five goals in one game in his rookie season, which set an NHL record, and went on to claim rookie-of-the-year honours in the same season in which Gordie Howe made his debut.

An unsuccessful term as Leafs coach and a disastrous short stint as general manager was followed by a long stretch in Newfoundland, where he developed the coaching philosophy he later espoused on national television. It was while in self-exile that Mr. Meeker made his broadcasting breakthrough as host of a bowling program, among other shows.

While he held a spot on the Maple Leafs players’ bench, Mr. Meeker also won a by-election as a Progressive Conservative in 1951 to gain a spot on the Opposition backbench in the House of Commons. He was the first active NHL player to serve in Parliament.

Howard William Meeker was born in Kitchener, Ont., on Nov. 4, 1923, to the former Kathleen Wharmsby, known as Kitty, a painter’s daughter, and Charles Howard Meeker, both English immigrants. The family later moved to nearby New Hamburg where his father ran a country inn.

The elder Meeker had immigrated to Canada as a young man to work as a gardener before enlisting for overseas duty in 1915. He was gassed on the Western Front while serving with the Royal Canadian Dragoons and was discharged as medically unfit with “chronic bronchitis with an asthmatic tendency.” After marrying in London, the couple came to Canada with £55 in savings to start a new life.

Young Howie, the oldest of five brothers, first gained notice as a goal scorer while playing Junior-B hockey for the Kitchener Greenshirts and the Kist Canadians, a team sponsored by the Kist beverage company of Stratford, Ont. In 1942, Stratford defeated the Galt Civics, Waterloo Siskins, Hamilton Tigers and Sault Ste. Marie Rapids to claim the provincial Junior-B title. Mr. Meeker, playing centre and wing, recorded four goals and two assists in a 13-0 shellacking of Waterloo and three goals with six assists in an 18-4 defeat of Galt.

In 1943, at an age when he might have been getting a tryout in the NHL, Mr. Meeker enlisted in the army’s Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers. A minor heart condition kept him from the front lines, so he was assigned to give physical instruction. In one training session, a live grenade exploded at his feet, sending shrapnel into both legs. He recovered, and by war’s end was playing hockey for army teams in England.

The Maple Leafs signed the forward in 1946 after a goal-a-game season with the senior Stratford Indians, during which he completed his high school education. In training camp at St. Catharines, Ont., Mr. Meeker, then 22, played right wing with fellow rookie Vic Lynn, 21, at left wing and 20-year-old Teeder Kennedy at centre. The line mates were dubbed The Kid Line and The Tricky Trio.

The intense Mr. Meeker, who was described by one sportswriter as being “perennially worried looking,” scored 27 goals in his first campaign, spurred by a five-goal outburst against goaltender Paul (Babe) Bibeault in a 10-4 Leafs victory on Jan. 8, 1947. Two of the goals were originally credited to Wally Stanowski but players urged officials to change the scoring during the second intermission. Mr. Meeker went on to score two more goals in the final stanza. A few weeks later, NHL president Clarence Campbell told officials to stop awarding what he described as “dressing-room points.” Don Murdoch equalled Mr. Meeker’s one-game rookie standard in a 1976 game.

Mr. Meeker was a runaway winner in voting by hockey writers and broadcasters for the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie, gaining 49 of a possible 54 points.

The sensation proved to be a fragile forward who suffered a series of injuries in following seasons, including a broken foot, torn knee ligaments and a broken shoulder blade when he stepped on a stick during practice and fell awkwardly into the boards. A nagging back injury would end his playing days.

He played a key supporting role in Toronto winning four Stanley Cups in his first five seasons, a dynasty culminating in Bill Barilko’s famous overtime goal in 1951.

A few weeks later, Mr. Meeker was enjoying a breakfast of trout at his favourite fishing hole in the Ontario bush when a dusty limousine arrived. Progressive Conservative leader George Drew made a personal appeal to the reluctant player to run for the federal party in a by-election.

The hockey player defeated two challengers to hold Waterloo South for the Opposition Tories.

He hinted at retiring from pro sports, saying, “I’ll play hockey if I’ve got the time, and if the people who elected me want me to play.”

The salary for a member of Parliament at the time was $4,000, less than he made as an athlete. At age 27, Mr. Meeker was the “baby of the Commons,” as some newspapers called him, since he was three months younger than Paul Hellyer of the Liberals. In the end, the player kept both his on- and off-ice jobs, though he decided not to run in the 1953 general election.

The novice politician found the atmosphere on the floor of the House to be familiar. “It’s an arena,” he once said. “It was exactly the same as playing hockey. There’s arguing and bitching and complaining and everything else.”

In 346 NHL games, the right winger scored 83 goals with 102 assists. He scored six goals and nine assists in 42 playoff games.

After retiring as a player, he coached senior hockey for a year before going behind the bench of the Pittsburgh Hornets of the American Hockey League. He guided the Toronto farm club to a Calder Cup championship in his first season.

The Maple Leafs hired him as head coach for the 1956-57 season, but the club was in a rebuilding phase and missed the playoffs. He was promoted to general manager only to be fired six months later before the start of the season. Some accounts have him punching Stafford Smythe of the ownership group, though Mr. Meeker insisted over the years the altercation involved nothing more physical than the grabbing of lapels.

He packed up his family and moved to Newfoundland, where he reorganized boys’ hockey programs. While coaching senior teams in St. John’s, the former pro occasionally laced up, playing competitive hockey until age 45.

In 1960, Mr. Meeker got a tryout doing five-minute radio sportscasts. An outspoken style made him an immediate hit and within a year he was sports director for a radio station and three television outlets owned by the Newfoundland Broadcasting Company. He delivered between-period commentary during playoff games, providing memorable descriptions of the action, including this about a small winger on a scoring streak: “He’s killing those guys, and he’s hardly got enough meat on him to make a suitcase for a canary.”

The commentator also played host to a popular weekly television bowling report, as well as a series on outdoor activities such as archery in the barren hills of the Avalon Peninsula and scuba diving in St. John’s harbour. On radio, he provided two-minute-long fishing and hunting tips.

When not on air or in the rink, he worked as a sales agent for a knitting mill and manufacturing firms. He also owned a sporting-goods store.

Mr. Meeker was attending a trade show in Montreal in 1968 when local Hockey Night in Canada host Ted Darling asked producer Ralph Mellanby to use him as an analyst. As it turned out, the producer had been a boyhood fan. It was the start of a two-decade run on the legendary show.

“No one broadcaster ever changed TV hockey coverage more than Howie,” Mr. Mellanby later said.

The former player was a Picasso with the Telestrator, an innovation that allowed him to draw on the screen like a coach in the locker room. The broadcaster added to the national lexicon with his chirpy instructions to unseen video operators to “Stop it there!” and “Roll it back, fellas, roll it back!”

Two instructional books, Howie Meeker’s Hockey Basics (1973) and More Hockey Basics from Howie Meeker (1975), influenced a generation of players, many of whom learned the game while wearing Meeker-endorsed CCM and Bauer hockey equipment.

He became a popular guest speaker at hockey banquets and it was on one of those tours that he and a son hooked a pair of large salmon off Vancouver Island. He decided to move from one side of the country to the other in 1977, settling in on a seaside home overlooking the Strait of Georgia near Parksville. He was an indefatigable supporter of several charities, including the Special Olympics and the B.C. Guide Dog Services.

Mr. Meeker died on Nov. 8. There was no immediate word on cause of death. He leaves Leah Meeker, his wife of 21 years. years. He was predeceased by his first wife, the former Grace Hammer, who died in 1998. A complete list of survivors was unavailable. A memorial will be held in New Hamburg, Ont., at a later date, the Leafs said in a statement.

The former player has been inducted into several regional and provincial sports halls of fame. He was presented the Gordon Sinclair Award for outspoken opinion and integrity at the ACTRA (now known as the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists) ceremonies in 1974. In 1998, he won the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award for broadcasting at the Hockey Hall of Fame. He was enshrined in the media section of the B.C. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003 and was named a member of the Order of Canada in 2010.

Perhaps his most fitting accolade was one he originally balked at receiving because he felt unworthy of the honour. In Parksville, local children now skate and play hockey in a 1,000-seat rink named the Howie Meeker Arena.

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