My Howie Moments
Hockey icon Howie Meeker just died at 97.
To Canadians and hockey enthusiasts across North America, he will be remembered for his tremendous contribution to not only NHL hockey, but for his passion and love of the game in general. But my memories of Howie are slightly different and a little more personal.
Howie is known for winning 4 Stanley Cups with the Toronto Maple Leafs, played in 3 NHL All-Star games and was one of 44 players to score 5 goals or more in a game. He was inducted in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and was the fastest Maple Leaf to score 25 goals (Auston Matthews has since broken this record).
If these accomplishments somehow escaped your attention back in the day, you certainly knew about Howie Meeker’s Hockey School. These were 107 short film clips produced in St. John’s that played between periods with Peter Puck on Hockey Night In Canada in the 70s. They offered Howie’s hockey tips and knowledge from his hockey camps across North America, and us kids loved them.
However my experiences with Howie start from a different place. On a summer vacation in the early 70s my family drove to St. John’s from Toronto. Somehow, for reasons inexplicable to my Mom and Dad to this day, we ended up at Howie Meeker’s house in St. Philip’s (just outside of St. John’s). I was very young but have two vivid memories of this: he had a beautiful horse in his garden, and there was a pair of shellacked (a type of varnish) skates that may or may not have been Howie’s hung on the wall. Howie wasn’t there though. Big deal you say. You saw Howie’s house, so what?
Howie’s Sporting Goods Store on the corner of Freshwater Rd. and Harvey Rd. St. John’s, Newfoundland.
Fast forward a few years, and my dad just bought me a pair of kangaroo leather CCM Tacks. They were awesome, a bit costly on my family’s hockey budget, and I loved them. In an attempt to make them last my dad had an idea inspired by that visit to Howie’s. Off he went in the cold snowy night to Canadian Tire to purchase some shellac. And on that same night my beautiful new skates were now super shiny, highly glossed replicas of those skates that hung on Howie’s wall.
The reasoning was sound. The leather wouldn’t absorb water and get heavy, they’d last a little longer, and they’d offer a bit more protection from pucks. That was not my reality though. My reality was a pair of skates that twinkled under arena lights until they yellowed and cracked over time. I had constant stares and jeers from teammates, opponents and referees until I outgrew them, and the great shellacking incident was never repeated on another pair of my skates.
Around that same time, dad put me in one of the many hockey schools I went to in Toronto as a kid. The arena was right next door to the night school my dad attended while I skated. I was about 9 or 10, and my dad had bought me a brand new KOHO wooden stick. He taped it up beautifully with white tape and wound a big tape knob on the end so that I could easily pick it up with my hockey gloves on if I dropped it. He left me at the arena and went to his class next door. This particular evening Howie Meeker made an appearance. This was perfect! I had my new stick, a new bright white tape job, and I got to do my hockey stuff with Howie Meeker watching! Things couldn’t get better!
As Howie was talking and scanning us group of kids standing on the ice, he suddenly stopped and looked at my stick, then looked at me. In his unique voice and out loud he said, ‘Why do you have such a big knob on your stick kid, are you a goalkeeper?’
Loud laughter rolled through the arena and I was mortified! I did not know that only goalies had big knobs on their stick to make it easy for them to pick it up with a blocker on their hand. Cursing my dad I went home and immediately stripped the tape knob off my stick. To this day I have only the smallest twist of tape on the end of my stick, and I hear Howie’s words and voice every single time I tape it.
That was my last ‘Howie and me’ moment for many years, until I was commissioned in 2000 by the St. John’s Maple Leafs to do a tribute painting that showcased the St. John’s Caps and the St. John’s Maple Leafs’ best players and fan favourites. Of course Howie was voted as best coach and was included in the piece. He coached the Guards here in St. John’s for many years, bringing the rough and tough hockey of the day to Newfoundland, and he was loved for it. (If you want to know how important this time in Howie’s life was, you should absolutely read this article: https://www.thetelegram.com/sports/local-sports/howie-meeker-changed-st-johns-hockey-and-he-always-said-newfoundland-changed-him-518146/ )
I was travelling a lot in those days and never stayed anywhere longer than 3 months. Because of this I set up my studio temporarily wherever I could. This particular painting found me using my friend John’s furnace room to complete the months long piece.
‘Nights to Remember’ original acrylic painting.
I phoned Howie at his residence in British Columbia to let him know about the project and to get any photo reference he had of his St. John’s years. He wasn’t available so I left a number where he could reach me.
Around 2 or 3 in the morning my friend John comes into his furnace room where I’m painting feverishly with loud music filling the little space. With a completely puzzled look and phone in hand he says, ‘Howie Meeker is on my phone looking for you!’
This was the beginning of a very different relationship between Howie and me. We exchanged a handful of phone calls back and forth even after I had finished up the painting. The calls were generally about an hour or slightly more, and I was regaled with so many great stories and laughs by the man himself, delivered in his distinct voice to my own ears only.
His memory was fantastically sharp. His enthusiasm as he relayed his stories of his hockey and coaching time in Newfoundland was contagious. These calls flew by and I was excited about everyone of them. Not all of our conversations were about hockey. Sometimes we exchanged things that were a bit more personal. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to have these moments with such a great storyteller and NHL legend!
We even exchanged mail back and forth. We had some common interests. At the time he had two schnauzers he loved, the same breed of dog I had as a kid. He sent me some pics of him with his dogs, and I felt we had something a little more in common than just hockey.
When the painting was completed I sent him one of the limited edition prints. He loved it. Years later his son called me looking for one. Our correspondence dwindled until it eventually stopped. It ceased forever with today’s news that he is gone to the big rink in the sky.
I’ll never forget my Howie moments, and the hockey world will never forget the great Howie Meeker.
Goodbye Howie, and thank you for sharing such a brief moment of your time with me.