TORONTO — Howie Meeker, who won four Stanley Cups with the Toronto Maple Leafs, served in Parliament during his playing days, and went on to become a Canadian icon as a respected and colorful television hockey analyst, has died. He was 97.
A spokesman for the Maple Leafs confirmed Wednesday via email that Meeker died Sunday. There was no immediate word on the cause of death.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman commended Meeker for his accomplishments as a player, broadcaster and educator for the game of hockey.
“Howie Meeker spent his long and remarkable life playing, teaching and broadcasting the game of hockey and serving his country with incredible enthusiasm,” Bettman said in a statement.
Different generations had different memories of Meeker, but almost all involved hockey. He played it, talked about it and taught it. The Maple Leafs said he was their oldest alumnus.
As an NHL player, Meeker won the Calder Trophy as the top rookie in 1947 — the same year Gordie Howe entered the league — and went on to play in three All-Star games. He won the four Stanley Cups in eight seasons with the Maple Leafs, the most memorable moment his pass to Bill Barilko for the 1951 Cup overtime winner against Montreal.
Remarkably, right after that NHL title, Meeker spent two years as a Progressive Conservative member of Parliament while also playing for the Leafs.
Meeker replaced King Clancy as coach of the Maple Leafs in April 1956. He went 21-34-15 in his one season behind the bench before moving upstairs to become general manager the next season.
While Meeker’s NHL playing career was over at age 30 after 346 games — he had 83 goals, 102 assists and 329 penalty minutes — he continued to play pro hockey on and off for another 15 years at a variety of levels, including the American Hockey League and Newfoundland Senior League, among others. He retired from playing after the 1968-69 campaign and kept skating into his 80s.
Meeker remained indelibly linked to hockey via the broadcast booth. He was honored by the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1998 with the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award after a 30-year career on CBC and TSN.
“Howie was Howie. And he set the bar, no question about it,” fellow “Hockey Night in Canada” commentator Dick Irvin once said.
Meeker, often clad in a CBC powder blue jacket, was hard to miss and his enthusiasm was straight from the heart, with “Golly gee willikers” and “Stop it right there” his trademark sayings during his video analysis.
Meeker’s excitement level often was like that of a child on a sugar high, but he knew his stuff having played and coached. He also ran hockey schools for more than 30 years and literally wrote the book on hockey: “Howie Meeker’s Hockey Basics,” published in 1973.
During the 1970s, Meeker offered drills and tips during his “Howie Meeker Hockey School” sessions on CBC. He later wrote another book, “Golly Gee — It’s Me: The Howie Meeker Story,” and he never ran short of opinions on how to improve the game he loved.
In 2010, Meeker was appointed to the Order of Canada and was invested in a ceremony the following year. He was inducted into the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame in 2010.
Born in Kitchener, Ontario, Meeker’s childhood entree into hockey was helped by the fact that his father had a Coca-Cola route that employed several NHL players during the summer. New York Rangers defenseman Ott Heller gave the young Meeker his first hockey stick.
Meeker played junior hockey for the Stratford Kroehlers and the Brantford Lions before serving in World War II. His legs were badly injured by a grenade in training and he missed D-Day because of that. He recovered and returned to hockey with the Stratford Indians and signed a free-agent contract with the Maple Leafs in 1946.
As a rookie, the 5-foot-9, 165-pound Meeker notched 27 goals and 18 assists for 45 points in 55 games. He also tied the league record for most goals in one game by a rookie when he scored five times in a 10-4 win over Chicago on Jan. 8, 1947. He also had four goals and four assists in the ensuing playoffs as the Leafs defeated the Canadiens in the final.
Meeker had six children with his first wife, Grace. They were married 55 years before she died of cancer. He remarried and lived with wife Leah on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, where they were active in fundraising for a guide dog service.