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Howie Meeker at his home in Parksville October 24, 2013 who will celebrate his 90th birthday next week. (JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Howie Meeker at his home in Parksville October 24, 2013 who will celebrate his 90th birthday next week. (JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Roy MacGregor

Howie Meeker not dimmed by age Add to ...

He would put a fast end to costly travel and tournaments for minor-hockey players. He would discourage, completely, the current mania for expensive “hockey academies.” As he graphically puts it: “It’s crazy – you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken [expletive].”

And he would put an end to the arbitrary divisions that decide minor-hockey levels by birth date: “It’s got to be by size and skill.”

Years ago, Meeker was among the first to argue in favour of taking checking out of minor hockey in favour of skill development. He once said there should be no checking until 14, but today, he has changed his mind on that: he would raise the no-checking rule to 16.

“You have to do that,” he says, “so the little guy isn’t afraid to handle the puck. Once they’re 16, the junior teams can draft the players they want – and play any goddam rules they want.”

Something happened to Howie Meeker when he became a senior citizen. He became convinced the game he loves is not for the elite but “for life.” Letting youngsters play through the critical drop-out years, 14 to 16, would keep them in hockey “so that when they’re 60 years old, they can still be playing the game.”

Looking back, the 90-year-old believes he can pinpoint exactly when he truly fell in love with this game. Not when he was the teenage star in Stratford. Not when he was rookie of the year in the NHL. But when turned 65.

He was a senior citizen and he found a group of old-timer players around Parksville he could play with – make plays, try plays, be creative, get to know each other perfectly – and it made him think back more than four decades to when he was a young man with the Maple Leafs.

“I remember one game we were playing the Montreal Canadiens,” he says, “and I was on the bench and I couldn’t help but notice that half the Montreal players were smiling as they played. They were having fun!

“I turned to my linemate, Vic Lynn, and said: ‘Look at those crazy buggers. This is war! And they’re having fun!’”

Forty years later, in a small rink in Parksville, B.C., with not a soul in the stands, Howie Meeker finally found that same fun.

“At age 65, my feet slowed down to match my brain,” he says. “And in old-timers’ hockey I found four more skilled old farts to play with.

“And you know what? I wouldn’t exchange the years we played together anything I’ve experienced in hockey – Stanley Cups and all.”

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