howie meeker, 1923—2020

Sorry to hear the news today that, just days after his 97th birthday, Howie Meeker has died. Born in Kitchener, Ontario, in 1923, Meeker broke into the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1946. He won the Calder Trophy that season as the league’s top rookie, just three years after he’d been injured in a training accident involving a grenade while he was serving in the Canadian Army. Meeker went on to play eight seasons on the Toronto right wing, winning four Stanley Cups for his efforts. He was elected to Canada’s Parliament in 1951, while he was still skating for the Leafs, and served two years the Progressive Conservative MP representing the southern Ontario riding of Waterloo South.

Meeker’s tenure as coach of the Leafs lasted just a single season, 1956-57, and when the team fell short of the playoffs, Billy Reay replaced him as he took on duties as Toronto’s GM. He started job with a bang, signing 19-year-old Frank Mahovlich to a contract on his very first day in office. The thrill didn’t last: Meeker was dismissed before the pucks dropped to start the new season. He upped skates, next, for Newfoundland: Premier Joey Smallwood wanted him to come and help develop the province’s youth hockey program, so he did that.

As a player, the adjectives that adhered to Meeker were speedyand pugnacious. If you’re of an age to recall his fervent years at the Telestrator on CBC’s Hockey Night In Canada, you might remember that his style as a broadcaster was much the same, and how he shook the nation weekly with his barky sermonizing. His enthusiasm for teaching hockey fundamentals extended to summer skills camps as well as to books.

Howie Meeker’s Hockey Basics (1973) was influential enough to have been the only hockey-minded volume to be included in The Literary Review of Canada’s 2006 listing of Canada’s all-time Most Important Books. The author himself professed some shock that his modest 1973 paperback was mingling in the company of Margaret Atwood, Stephen Leacock, Jacques Cartier, and Lucy Maud Montgomery. “You’re kidding,” Meeker said when he heard the news. “That’s sensational.”

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famous faux: commemorating rocket richard’s 500

As It Happened: On the ice in 1957, Maurice Richard scored his 500th NHL goal with a slapshot, from 15 feet out, but by the time he and Chicago goaltender Glenn Hall were immortalized in wax in 1965, the Rocket had migrated into Hall’s crease.

The building was in a bedlam the moment the red light flashed. The crowd stood up, clapping hands and roaring acclaim. Programs were showered don on the ice. The Rocket’s teammates on the bench dropped sticks and gloves and stood up an applauded. The organ played “Il A Gagne Ses Epaulettes.” The Rocket himself leaped high in the air and landed on Jean Béliveau, who had fed him the pass that set up the goal.

* Dink Carroll, The Gazette, October 21, 1957

It was on a Saturday of this date in 1957 that Maurice Richard became the first player in NHL history to score 500 goals. The Chicago Black Hawks were in at the Montreal Forum that night, and the rink was packed with 14, 405 fans, as the biggest — and most expectant — crowd of the young season awaited the Rocket’s record-breaking goal.

Fifteen minutes and 52 seconds into the first period was when Dickie Moore passed to Béliveau’s at the side of the Chicago net and he found Richard in the slot, about 15 feet out. The Rocket beat Chicago goaltender Glenn Hall with a slapshot; Carroll said it whizzed. Once the bedlam subsided, Montreal went on to beat Chicago 3-1.

“That mark of 500 threatens to stand up as long as the Babe’s record of 60 home runs in a single season,” Carroll would venture in his Gazettedispatch. Ruth’s monument was, by then, 30 years old, and had another four years to run before Roger Maris got around to hitting his 61. Carroll was just a little off: Gordie Howe scored his 500th NHL in March of 1962,  just over six months after Maris did his record-breaking deed.

Still, Richard was first, and for that — and because he was the Rocket, and this was Montreal — one of his rewards was to be immortalized in wax. This was later, 1965, when Tussaud’s Ville Marie Wax Museum opened at the downtown corner of Ste. Catherine West and Drummond, 12 blocks or so from the Forum. Glenn Hall was rewarded, too, as a supporting actor, though for him it may have felt more like penance, all the more so if he ever saw the display, above, as it would later appear to paying customers.

Richard himself dropped by the Museum before it opened to check himself out. He’d donated the uniform and skates his doppelganger; I don’t know where Hall’s gear came from. Fashioned in London from photographs by Josephine Tussaud, a descendant of the original Madame, waxy Richard got some final adjustments before meeting the public. Joining him and Hall  in the museum were scenes featuring an array of the faux and famous, including  Abraham Lincoln (at his assassination), Jesus (partaking of the Last Supper), Joan of Arc (at the stake), and Brigitte Bardot (just out of the shower).

Model Citizen: Another, modern-day waxen Richard, this one from the Musée Grévin Montréal, in the Centre Eaton in the city’s downtown, wherein an ersatz Guy Lafleur, Mario Lemieux, and Sidney Crosby keep company with Jacques Cartier, Céline Dion, and David Bowie.