Howie Meeker, who played on four Stanley Cup championship teams with the Toronto Maple Leafs and went on to become a Hockey Hall of Fame broadcaster for his innovative and colorful commentary, mostly with the hugely popular “Hockey Night in Canada” telecasts of the 1970s and ’80s, died on Sunday at a hospital in Nanaimo, British Columbia, on Vancouver Island. He was 97.
The Maple Leafs confirmed his death.
Meeker, at 5 feet 9 inches and 165 pounds or so, held his own against bigger players. He was the N.H.L.’s rookie of the year in 1947 and a three-time All-Star.
In his commentary for the CBC network during intermissions at N.H.L. “Hockey Night” games, Meeker was a pioneer in using a telestrator to diagram the action on instant replay segments. He ordered the technicians to “stop it right there,” one of his trademark phrases, so that he could draw lines or circles identifying players who were, or weren’t, playing the game the way he thought they should. His analysis provided insight that had seldom been offered to viewers.
And he did it with flash and passion.
“Nobody understood more about pizzazz and shazzam than Howie,” John Shannon, a former executive producer for the Saturday night telecasts, said in the book “Hockey Night in Canada: 60 Seasons” (2012). “Howie found a niche, created a brand.”
When he grew excited, Meeker was known to exclaim in his squeaky voice, “Golly gee willikers!” or “Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat!” or “Jiminy Cricket!”
He also taught hockey skills to youths through his summer camps and his “Howie Meeker Hockey School” segments on CBC. He was the author of instructional books, most notably “Howie Meeker’s Hockey Basics” (1973).
Meeker was a member of the Canadian Parliament during his last years playing for the Leafs and a longtime supporter of Special Olympics Canada, running an annual golf tournament in British Columbia to raise funds for it.
He was named a member of the Order of Canada in 2010 for his contributions to hockey.
Howard William Meeker was born on Nov. 4, 1923, in Kitchener, Ontario. After playing junior hockey, he was serving in the Canadian Army in World War II when a grenade tossed by a fellow soldier during training in England exploded beneath his legs while he was on guard duty, seriously wounding him.
He made a full recovery and joined the Maple Leafs in 1946, playing at right wing. He received the Calder Trophy as the N.H.L.’s top rookie, scoring 27 goals, including five in a game against the Chicago Black Hawks, and he added 18 assists.
Often appearing on a line with Ted Kennedy, the future Hall of Famer, at center and Vic Lynn on left wing, he was an All-Star in 1947, 1948 and 1949.
Meeker played on Leafs teams that won the Stanley Cup in 1947, 1948, 1949 (when an injury kept him out of the playoffs) and 1951, when he set up one of the most memorable goals in Leafs history.
Early in sudden-death overtime of Game 5, with the Leafs leading the Canadiens by 3 games to 1, Meeker sent a pass from deep in Montreal ice to defenseman Bill Barilko, who scored with a diving shot, giving Toronto a 3-2 victory and its fourth Stanley Cup championship in five years.
But the euphoria was short-lived. Four months later, a small plane carrying Barilko on a fishing trip to northern Ontario disappeared. The wreckage and the remains of Barilko and a friend who flew the plane weren’t found until 1962.
Meeker was elected to the Canadian Parliament as a member of the Progressive Conservative Party from the Waterloo-Kitchener area in 1951. But he didn’t seek re-election two years later. Hampered by injuries, he retired from the N.H.L. after the 1953-54 season, having scored 83 goals with 102 assists.
He returned to the Leafs as their head coach for the 1956-57 season. But Toronto finished fifth in the old six-team N.H.L. and he was fired.
Meeker moved to the province of Newfoundland and Labrador in the late 1950s and spent many years building hockey programs based in its capital, St. John’s, while also broadcasting hockey and running a sporting goods store.
In the late 1960s, Ralph Mellanby, the newly named executive producer of “Hockey Night in Canada,” gave Meeker a tryout as a commentator.
“It was Toronto-Montreal coast to coast,” Mellanby recalled in an interview with The Globe and Mail of Toronto in 2001, “and Howie started saying things like, ‘Look at that idiot. There’s no skill in that,’ and ‘Jeepers, can’t any of these guys finish a check?’”
“Everybody was stunned,” Mellanby said. “Nobody had ever talked like that on ‘Hockey Night in Canada’ before.”
Meeker was hired full time.
He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1998 for his broadcast work during some 30 years with CBC, Canada’s TSN and NBC. He also received the 1998 Foster Hewitt Memorial Award, named for the famed Canadian radio and TV hockey broadcaster.
Meeker is survived by his second wife, Leah; his daughters, Jane Tucker, Peggy Barbour and Kim Horwood, and his sons, Howie Jr., Mike and Andy, all from his first marriage; 13 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren. His first wife, Grace Meeker, died in 1998.
Meeker spent his later years in Parksville on Vancouver Island. But as his 90th birthday approached in 2013, he returned to Newfoundland and Labrador for a celebration at a hotel in St. John’s.
He was as popular as ever.
“They had 150 name tags ready,” Meeker told The Globe and Mail, “and they ran out in less than an hour.”