There is someone very interesting living across the water from me, just over on Vancouver Island, and I wanted to find out what he thought about a couple of things, including the Habs.
So I phoned him.
Howie Meeker played eight years in the NHL, between 1946 and 1953, and all eight were with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He beat out Gordie Howe for rookie of the year, and although he played with and against legendary and mighty warriors during the golden age of hockey, he says he doesn’t dwell on the past. “That was then and this is now,” he says. I don’t think about it.”
After Howie retired he coached the Leafs for a season, became a Member of Parliament, and probably his biggest claim to fame was the gig he found himself in when hecame an outspoken and much-talked-about Hockey Night in Canada analyst in the 1970′s and 80′s. He also sounds the same now as he did then.
My little phone call with Howie wasn’t exactly award-winning, because I’m no Peter Mansbridge or Ron MacLean or George Stroumboulopoulos. I just tried to shoot the breeze with him and I think he got bored with me quite quickly. He doesn’t know me, I was interrupting his day and his oyster shucking, and I understand that. But it thrills me when I can chat with someone from back then.
I asked what he thought of this year’s Habs. “A lot of heart,” he said, “but too small.” But, I countered, is small such a bad thing? “You bet,” he said. “Small guys have to play the game of their lives every single night. They must be number one stars all the time.”
It wasn’t exactly what I was hoping to hear. I wanted him to say that even though they’re small, they can win. But he didn’t. (And hey Tomas Plekanec. Howie says small guys have to play the game of their lives.)
What do you think of the Canucks playoff run so far? “They’re toast,” said Howie. “Kesler’s done nothing. The playoffs are a step faster and tougher, and Kesler hasn’t been tough. He’s called a power forward but nowadays, he’s too small to be called a power forward.”
Then came the question I like to ask of any oldtimer. What he thought of the Rocket. “I HATED THE SON OF A BITCH,” he said in his raised and good old Howie Meeker voice. “I hated the way he played. I thought he was a no good, rotten……….But I got to know him later on when I was doing HNIC, and I really got to like him.”
I also asked him something I’ve been curious about for many years. I’d always heard that Busher Jackson, part of the famous Leafs ‘Kid Line’ of Jackson, Joe Primeau, and Charlie Conacher, had a real drinking problem and had become destitute in his later years, even selling Leafs game sticks on Carlton St. outside Maple Leaf Gardens.
But Howie set me straight. “Busher was a great guy. I knew him well. And he was the best player on that line.” But what about him becoming destitute? “Not so, said Howie. “He happened to like drinking and Conn Smythe disliked him for some reason because of this, made a big deal of it, and kept him out of the Hall of Fame for years.
Howie was also one of the Leaf forwards on the ice when Bill Barilko scored his famous Stanley Cup-winning overtime goal in the 1951 finals against the Habs, and when I brought this up, he shot back, “I should have scored it. I hit the post. And then big dum-dum skates in and scores.”
And then, without warning – “Gotta go,” Howie announced. “I’m shucking oysters.” And that was that.
In the famous photo below, that’s Howie being pinned against the boards by Tom Johnson after he had passed the puck out to Barilko. (Barilko would later die that summer in a plane crash in Northern Ontario.)
You can see a couple of other retired player chats I’ve had, right here Drinking beer with Aurele Joliat and here, Shooting the breeze with Terry Harper.
I also asked Glenn Hall once about the Rocket and he said Gordie Howe was better. Another answer I didn’t want to hear.