The Toronto Maple Leafs and all hockey fans – especially those in my age group (seniors) are sad to hear about the passing of Howie Meeker at the age of 97. Meeker was a member of four Stanley Cup winners with the Maple Leafs and was named one of The One Hundred Greatest Maple Leafs of all-time.
Although Meeker was out of the NHL by 30 years of age (but played professional hockey at different levels until he was in his mid-40s) he had some amazing seasons with the Maple Leafs. He still holds the NHL record for goals in a game by a rookie, with five. And, what a rookie he was: he won the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie after the 1946-47 season.
Howie Meeker’s Maple Leafs Playing Days
In 1951, the iconic Meeker set up perhaps the most famous goal in Maple Leafs hockey history when he sent a behind-the-net pass to Bill Barilko who scored an overtime Stanley Cup-winning goal against the Maple Leafs arch-rival the Montreal Canadiens.
That Meeker even played hockey in 1951 was a miracle. During World War II he served in Europe and was injured by a grenade, which broke both his legs and left him with almost 50 shrapnel wounds. Even from his hospital bed, he was concerned for his team and wrote a letter to Maple Leafs coach asking to be taken off the team’s player list.
At that point, he wondered if he would ever skate again: but he did. In his
A post today from NHL.com, noted that following his record-setting five-goal game, the Globe and Mail wrote:
“Howie Meeker, the spirited little hockey player with the crew cut hair-cut, who two years ago lay in a military hospital in England, his legs shattered with many shrapnel wounds wondering if he would ever skate again, went on a wild scoring spree to net five goals and pace the league-leading Toronto Maple Leafs to a one-sided 10-4 victory over the Chicago Black Hawks at Maple Leaf Gardens last night.”
Howie Meeker’s First Contract with Conn Smythe
One of the most interesting stories in Maple Leafs history is the story of Howie Meeker’s first NHL contract. It’s stories like these that suggest how the game has evolved and why players’ agents are so important. Meeker’s story is that before he went negotiated his first contract with Maple Leafs owner and general manager Conn Smythe (who was the principal owner from 1927 to 1961 and the builder of Maple Leaf Gardens), one of Meeker’s former coaches Dave Pinkney gave the little right-winger some advice.
Pinkney told Meeker: “Howard for what you’re doing $20,000 is cheap, with the cash flow you’re creating and the other players are creating.”
But after “negotiating” with the great Conn Smythe, Meeker didn’t leave with $20,000. Instead, Meeker left the meeting with a signed contract worth $5,000 for two seasons. However, Smythe did promise Meeker he’d receive a $1,000 bonus if he won any major awards. However, it was a verbal promise that wasn’t written into the contract.
When Meeker was named rookie of the year for the 1946-47 season (after scoring 27 goals, 18 assists, and 45 points in 55 games), he never received the $1000 from Smythe.
Meeker recalls that Smythe repeated his promise twice verbally and then shook hands on the deal; however, after Meeker won rookie of the year award, Smythe refused to pay him the bonus. When Meeker asked why, Smythe said he had already received $1,000 from the NHL.
That incident upset Meeker for a long time. Meeker ended up playing eight seasons with the Maple Leafs, but during that time he also served as an MP (Member of Parliament). When he gave up playing in the NHL, he didn’t give up hockey – and didn’t until the day he passed.
Life After NHL Hockey for Meeker
Meeker moved into coaching, announcing, and running hockey camps, which he did for more than 30 years. Meeker’s known for his hockey analysis on Hockey Night in Canada and later TSN. He had a unique ability to explain the game to a nation of passionate viewers in a way that few hockey commentators could match.
Meeker was an icon and a member of the NHL community for many years. First, he played with the Maple Leaf for eight seasons. Second, his work on Hockey Night in Canada entertained millions of fans. His style and famous phrases were all his own: “Golly Gee Willikers” is something most aging fans will remember.
Meeker was a legendary broadcaster, and received both the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award and the Order of Canada. He leaves his wife Leah, his six children, 13 grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren.
For hockey fans of a certain age, certain phrases belong to Meeker including his three favorites: “Jiminy Cricket,” “Golly Gee Willikers,” and “Stop it right there!”
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