'He loved people,' sports and life, says nephew of the late Howie Meeker
The hockey legend died Sunday at the age of 97
While people remembering Howie Meeker may think back on his career as a four-time Stanley Cup winner with the Toronto Maple Leafs, or of his legendary career as a broadcaster with Hockey Night in Canada, a Conception Bay South man is remembering the uncle who used to scare the snot out of him, or make him lunch.
Geoff Meeker says learning hockey drills from his famous uncle was terrifying.
"He was complicated, in that he scared the life out of me as a youngster — like I'd be afraid to go on the ice with him, the way he yelled," Meeker said.
"And he was a real taskmaster, but when he sat down with kids, he was the sweetest person in the world. So he had those sides — two sides to him. And of course the hockey thing — that was partly for show, because that's what coaches do."
Howie Meeker was the oldest living Maple Leaf. He died Sunday at the age of 97 at Nanaimo General Hospital in British Columbia.
Howie has passed away. At the amazing age of 97. It's a sad day but, golly gee, what a life he lived. He was always an inspiration, and in so many ways. It was a privilege to call him Uncle, but he was Dad for my Newfoundland cousins... and to them I send condolences. <a href="https://t.co/D2PvRTYujA">pic.twitter.com/D2PvRTYujA</a>—@geoffmeeker
Geoff Meeker hasn't spoken to all of his uncle's family, but those he's spoken to said Howie hadn't been well for a couple of weeks. Funeral arrangements are pending.
Howie Meeker retired from playing after the 1968-69 campaign, but continued skating into his 80s.
Born in Kitchener, Ont., Meeker lived in Newfoundland for 25 years, where he had a hand in boosting hockey.
"His last role with the Maple Leafs was as a general manager, and that didn't go that well … so he sort of said, 'I need a fresh start,' and somebody from Newfoundland called and Joey Smallwood called and said, 'We need you down here to solve our hockey problem for us,'" Meeker told CBC's St. John's Morning Show on Monday.
The Maple Leafs organization is deeply saddened by the passing of Howie Meeker.<br><br>Our deepest sympathies go out to his family.<br><br>Full statement: <a href="https://t.co/hVOq3umL7k">https://t.co/hVOq3umL7k</a> <a href="https://t.co/nhLSvs9xCs">pic.twitter.com/nhLSvs9xCs</a>—@MapleLeafs
"So Howie came down and started building hockey from the ground up down here.… He accomplished that and of course he stayed here for 25 years and loved this place, he really did — it changed him, he said."
In 2015, when Howie Meeker was awarded an honorary degree from Memorial University in St. John's, he told the crowd the province had changed his life.
"I owe Newfoundland. I owe it an awful lot," Howie Meeker said during the ceremony.
"I learned how to work, and more than anything else, I learned how to live."
Some of that living he spoke of included sports, of course, as well as salmon fishing, socializing and hunting.
"'He loved people. He noticed the difference in the people here, he really did. And you wouldn't think the people would be different — because I always assumed people are the same everywhere you go — but no, he really loved the people here," Geoff Meeker said.
"They were something like him because he always lived at the speed of light, kind of, and so did the people here."
Meeker said his uncle learned his fly-fishing technique from locals who taught him their tricks on Newfoundland rivers.
Howie Meeker came to Newfoundland to coach Prince of Wales College. <a href="https://t.co/Q4YRJxD2Af">pic.twitter.com/Q4YRJxD2Af</a>—@MUN_asc
"And moose hunting — I've been moose hunting with him in the woods behind Gander Lake … and he would ask everybody, 'What do you want for lunch today?' and I would say, 'SpaghettiOs' and someone else would say 'soup' and somebody would say 'beans,'" Meeker recalled.
"He'd open up every can and put it all in one pot and say, 'This is for everybody. Come and get it.' And it was OK, actually," he laughed, "because you were camping."
At his uncle's house, too, Meeker remembers fun adventures every weekend.
Our sincerest condolences to the friends and family of Howie Meeker, a Canadian hockey legend who showed his passion and pride on the ice and in the broadcast booth. <a href="https://t.co/lLJz83TTJp">pic.twitter.com/lLJz83TTJp</a>—@HockeyCanada
"We lived in Mount Pearl and of course he was in St. Philip's, and every Sunday we'd drive out and visit him, and Howie was an agent for Mattel, the toy company, so we just could not believe the fortune of toys they had there all over the place," Meeker said.
"And then you go out and you went around the fields and chased the horses and jump in the river."
Howie Meeker's legacy includes a two-year stint as a Progressive Conservative member of Parliament while playing for the Leafs. In 2010, he was named a member of the Order of Canada and inducted into the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame.
He ran hockey schools for more than 30 years and wrote the book on hockey: 1973's Howie Meeker's Hockey Basics.
But he may be best remembered for some of his best-known catchphrases used during his broadcasting days, including "Jiminy Cricket," "Golly gee willikers" and "Stop it right there!"
Meeker said it's his uncle's love and enthusiasm for hockey — and sports in general — that stands out for him.
"I remember seeing him on TV doing his analysis for Hockey Night in Canada and the 'golly gee' thing became a bit of a cliché, even though he did say it from time to time. But when he was excited about a play and he had — I think it was called a telestrator, a kind of machine that would do animation over the video — and when it went too fast he would say, 'Wait wait, bring it back, bring it back, bring it back!'" Meeker said with a laugh.
"And it was classic Howie because he was excited when he said it. Bring it back! Bring it back!"
With files from The St. John's Morning Show