Is Meeker TOUGH ENOUGH to lick the NHL?
For years Conn Smythe preached mayhem in hockey while hiring gentle coaches. Then, with his Toronto Leafs on the ropes, he hired the rough-and-tumble kind of guy he always raved about
Photo by Walter Curtin
Conn Smythe has long maintained that hockey players can't, beat a team on the ice that they can't lick in an alley. Paradoxically. Smythe. who has been the boss of Toronto Maple Leafs for nearly thirty years and is now the president, had never hired a coach to fit the fire-and-brimstone brand of wisdom he preaches until this season. When he bought the old Toronto St. Pats franchise in 1927 the coach was a tall mild clean-playing defenseman named Art Duncan whom Smythe retained until the 1931-32 season when he hired Dick Irvin. Irvin was a moody introvert whose only real passion was raising pigeons and who often went days without speaking an unnecessary word, even in abuse. His third coach was C larence (Happy) Day, whose inherent shyness made him remote, a stonv administrator whose nickname was a misnomer. 1 hen came Joe Primean, a gentle father confessor who rarely raised his voice and seldom grew angry. Finally there was Frank (King) Clancy, a rollicking gremlin of picturesquely profane speech who wouldn't hurt a fly.
But this year, in what could be described as a year of crisis. Smythe uncovered an animated carbon copy of his own bellicose personality This is Howard William Meeker, a thirty-three-) ear-old, straight-talking young
man with a crewcut who has several things in common with his employer. Both arc fieryeyed. comparatively small and unabashedly outspoken. Both were unexceptional hockey players and both were soldiers wounded overseas. Both have attained objectives that detractors derided as being either presumptuous or impossible or both.
Last summer Smythe picked Meeker to succeed Clancy whom he kept in the organization as assistant general manager. In doing so, he took on a coach of only three years’ experience and made him the youngest coach in National Hockey League history. Meeker had barely hit training camp in September before he had the players whimpering under his rigorous morning-and-afternoon workouts.
In a visit to the camp, Smythe took one look at the team, announced flatly that the players looked as if they'd been locked up in a slave-labor camp, and departed, muttering.
Meeker was far from abashed by the master's reaction. "To tell you the truth." he remarked, "it kind of makes me feel pretty good. I never thought I'd be too tou^lt for the Leaf system."
As a player more brash than brilliant, more a plugger than a polished performer, Meeker played for seven seasons, and a fraction of an eighth, with the Leafs. Two of them were divided between hockey and politics. He was the surprise winner of a by-election in Waterloo South in June 1951, and served as a member of parliament for three years. According to the former Conservative leader, George Drew, Meeker was "an enthusiastic, conscientious member.” According to Meeker, he was well on his way to becoming an impoverished one.
Once colorful, Leafs became the third poorest drawing card, out of the cup final five years
"You need money and an education for that job,” he says. "You can’t save a dime on it. My only real education was in hockey and 1 beggn to Wonder what I\1 do if the time came (hat I was defeated in my riding.”
Rather than wait and see, he decided to retire from politics to take his chances on coaching. He became coach of the Stratford Indians of the OH A senior leaglie where he did so wel) in one season that the Leafs offered him (he job as coach of Toronto’s No. 1 farm club, the Pittsburgh Hornets of the American Hockey League. Meeker’s team won the championship in his first season as coach there, and lost to Cleveland in the seventh game of the playoff final last
spring in his second year. He was still seven months away from his thirty-third birthday last spring when he became Leaf coach.
Smythe handed Meeker the job at a moment in Leaf history that had never been darker, at least artistically. The club was continuing to fill Maple Leaf Gardens with patrons, but the team’s record had never been worse. Once the most colorful team in the NHL, the Leafs had fallen to a point where last season they were the third-poorest drawing card on the road, heading only lacklustre Boston and Chicago. They were a full hundred thousand customers behind the eyefilling Montreal Canadiens.
Over the last five seasons, the Leafs had not finished better than third in the regular season, and had not once made the Stanley Cup playoff finals or, indeed, even come close. They’d either not made the playoffs at all—four of the six NHL teams qualify each season—or they’d been eliminated in the fir.st round. In eighteen playoff games since the spring of 1951 the Leafs lost sixteen while winning exactly two. In league games over those five years they won only 126 out of 350, losing 143 and tying 81. By contrast, Detroit won 189 and Montreal 183.
It was into this caldron of mediocrity that Smythe tossed the tempestuous Meeker last fall in a general housecleaning that made the Leafs the youngest team in the NHL. Several older players whom Meeker had coached successfully at Pittsburgh were sold out of the organization when an antiquated rink forced Pittsburgh to shut down operations. Some found their way to other NHL clubs and came back to haunt the still floundering and hard-pressed Leafs as the present season wore on. Meeker meanwhile was handed an assortment of rookies from junior ranks and from the Winnipeg farm in the Western Hockey League. Working with what one hockey writer called “those pea-green babies,” he got the Leafs off to a brisk start. But by December the roof of inexperience was springing leaks, and few observers could see the Leafs finishing better than fifth.
The odds against a better finish seemed long, and some cynics were beginning to quote longer odds against Meeker’s chances of holding his job. But they were shorter odds at least than the ones Meeker has been bucking most of his adult life.
The fact he became a professional hockey player at all ran against all probability. He was twice blown up overseas, once by an exploding hand grenade that threw him above the level of a twelvefoot concrete wall (“1 remember looking over it and thinking how nice the flowers looked on the other side”) and put him in hospital for twelve weeks. When army doctors began repairing his shattered left leg they told him he'd be lucky if he ever walked again. But within three months he was walking, and within a year he was even being blown up again. As an engineer he was helping to put a bridge across the Rhine at night when his company was pinned down by mortar fire. An exploding shell blew Meeker into the river. He remembers swimming underwater, to get otit of range, until he 'thought his lungs would burst. When ne came to the surface in the darkness ne didn't know which side of the river was held by the Allies. He did know which way the river was flowing, however, so he drifted a few moments to ligure out the direction of the current. Once he'd determined that, he got his gearings and swam to the friendly shore. Meeker's leg bothers him occasionally low. It still contains upward of forty ragments of bakelite that are inexorably ¡working their way out of his hide, and I he leg has several insensitive areas into iwhich he can plunge a pin without a change of expression.
The odds against his becoming a member of parliament were almost as long as the odds against becoming a hockey player. The incumbent in the traditionally Conservative riding of Waterloo South, a personally popular figure named Karl K. Homouth, had held the seat for a dozen years, and it was his death that caused the by-election. He had been returned in the general election of 1949 by the narrow margin of 343 votes over Liberal candidate J. M. Moffatt, a former mayor of Galt. Conservative nominees were so certain that MofTatt would win this time, with Homouth’s personal magnetism gone, that none wanted to contest the riding.
Meeker was sought as the Conservative candidate, according to a member of the party's inner circle, “because we wanted a well-known young guy to attract young people to the party.” Also, his name, through hockey, was known in every corner of his home riding—it was therefore net necessary to spend time and money
to establish the name of an unknown candidate.
Meeker at first was reluctant to let his name stand because he felt that politicians required a much broader education than he'd had. His one personal political conviction was that the government wasn't treating veterans fairly in housing. He'd wanted to build a home in Stratford for around ten thousand dollars but had given up when he found that the type of home he wanted would cost at least twenty thousand. However, he didn’t agree to run until after George Drew
and Conn Smythe, himself a Conservative and a bitter opponent of the Liberal government's anti-conscription policy during the war. had urged him to take the nomination. When he did take it, he campaigned with unprecedented zeal.
He got up at four o'clock in the morning to visit farmers milking cows or eating breakfast. He arrived at the knitting mills at three o'clock in the morning to talk to men coming off a shift, and then waited a couple of hours to get the early shift going in at six. "1 was in and out of every store, every store, in Galt, Hes-
peler and New Hamburg,” he says. "1 talked to people about anything they wanted to talk about, just to let them know I was Howie Meeker, the Conservative candidate. I tried to find out what they expected of an MP."
Once, in Galt, he knocked on the door of a house in which two elderly sisters lived. He introduced himself and was invited in.
"We’ll talk to you,” one of the ladies smiled, "but we'd better warn you that we're confirmed Grits. Our vote is pledged."
Meeker had tea with them, learned that they went to the food market in Galt every Saturday morning. The following Saturday he took his wife, the former Grace Hammer, to the market and made a point of finding the two sisters. He waited an hour and a half; when he saw them he introduced his wife and they talked about the rising cost of food.
The day of the election the ladies phoned Gordon Chaplin, president of the Conservative association in the riding, and told him they liked “young Mr. Meeker.” They wanted to know if there
was anything they could do to help him.
"We've hired a taxi to take some of our friends to the polls,” a sister said. "We’ve told them to vote for Mr. Meeker.”
Meeker won the June 25 by-election over Cialt’s ex-mayor Mel Moffatt. More than seventy-one percent of the eligible voters went to the polls and gave Meeker 9,097 votes to MofTatt’s 6,544, an all-time high in the riding. At Ottawa he made four speeches. In his maiden speech on Oct. 29 he criticized government policies on veterans' pensions and the cost of liv-
ing. He spoke in a strong, clear voice, using few gestures and glancing only occasionally at notes on his desk. He said that if members didn’t give attention to an increase in pensions all members "will be charged with turning our backs on the veterans. They’re not asking for anything they don’t deserve.”
“I thought when I came to Ottawa that the National Hockey League had the best pension system in Canada,” he said, "but I’ve changed my mind. I’ve found that a judge who makes about nine thousand dollars a year can retire on a pen-
sion of an equal amount without contributing anything. The government does that for judges while treating veterans as poor relations.”
His victory in Waterloo South, and the subsequent two years in Ottawa, gave Meeker a confidence he’d never known in his life before. Although he played hockey for the Maple Leafs for seven seasons, and was awarded the Calder Memorial Trophy as the league’s outstanding rookie in his first season, 194647, he never had sufficient confidence in his ability to buy a home in Toronto for his wife and family.
"The one thing Grace wanted was a home,” he reflects, "but 1 was always looking over my shoulder to see if there was some young fireball ready to take my job. We kept the place we had in Stratford.”
But when he was sent to Parliament Hill to represent thousands of people he began to evaluate himself in a new light, and after two years in Ottawa he had a new philosophy.
"1 didn’t have much ability as a hockey player so I had to be tough to stick in the NHL,” he says. "People laughed at me when 1 first went into politics—hell, I even laughed at myself at first—but I made the grade there, too. The way I look at it now, I could be anything I wanted to be in this country. If 1 wanted to be president of a bank there’s nothing in this world to prevent it except Howie Meeker. A man can do anything in Canada that he wants to put his mind to and work at.”
A goal a game in penalties
The most graphic illustration of his new-found confidence came the week after he signed as the Leaf coach—he bought a home in Toronto for Grace and their four children.
This is the kind of confidence he’s trying to infuse in his hockey players. He keeps urging them to back down from nobody, in keeping with the Smythe maxim, but he also exhorts them to avoid needless penalties. "1 don’t mind the major penalties for fighting," he says. "In those cases you’re taking a player off with you. Then you’re not hurting your team. The penalties that kill you arc those needless ones where you go off alone for something like tripping, or charging, or hooking. If you have to take a penalty, do your cause some good.”
Last season the Leafs were the most penalized team in the NHL, serving 1,051 minutes in penalties, at least a hundred minutes more than the time served by any one of four other teams, and seventyfour minutes more than their closest rival. In an exhaustive study of last year’s penalties. Meeker discovered that on an average of four times a game the Leafs played a man short, and that every five times that they played a man short the opposition scored a goal That meant they were giving up almost a goal a game. On each player he compiled a personal record. Tod Sloan, for example, served nine penalties for tripping, five for hooking, four for high-sticking and nine for slashing, a total of fifty-four minutes that he caused the team to play a man short.
"If we can cut that down,” Meeker told Sloan at training camp, "you’ll be helping yourself, because you’ll be on the ice longer, and you’ll be helping fifteen other guys on this club. If you have to take a penalty, make it worthwhile. Don’t let anybody push you around, but don’t take penalties for nothing.”
Sloan had received only one penalty in the Leafs’ first ten games this year.
‘‘And that was a beaut,” enthuses Meeker. “It was for high-sticking and he gave it to the guy good. For five stitches. Hell, that’s wonderful!”
Meeker is given to few such outbursts during a game. He paces unemotionally behind the team's bench, staring out at the action in front of him. not even changing expression when the Leafs score a goal. He is a heavy-boned, solidly constructed young man of five-feet-nine and a hundred and sixty-five pounds, and he doesn't look unlike one of the players, with his crewcut and a lean, big-boned face. He has the strong shoulders, narrow hips and fiat stomach of a trained athlete, his most notable physical characteristic being large feet and hands. He wears a size 1 1V2 pair of brogues, and usually grey-flannel trousers and a navyblue blazer when he’s coaching. He leans forward from time to time to talk solen.nly to his players, placing his big hands paternally across their shoulders as they sit on the bench. His eyes are wide and calculating and uninviting.
VIeeker doesn't smoke or drink (neither does Smythe, Day or Clancy, the rest of the Leaf hierarchy) and he has been dedicated to hockey as long as he can remember. His father, Charlie Meeker, a hotel manager, had a rink in the back yard for his five sons at the Meeker home in Kitchener where Howie was born Nov. 24. 1923. Two former NHL players worked for Charlie Meeker in the off-season, Ott Heller and Earl Sichert. both ex-defensemen for the New York Rangers, who fanned young Howie's early interest in hockey.
He played in Stratford, and in 1943, when he was nineteen, he joined the army there and went overseas. After he'd been blown up a second time he learned that Conn Smythe, an artillery major, had been wounded at Caen. He went to see him in hospital because he knew the Leafs had placed him on their negotiation list while he was still at Stratford. Smythe advised him to come and see him when they both got home.
Meeker returned on New Year’s Day 1945 and finished that hockey season with the Stratford seniors. He also went back to high school to get his senior matriculation; he'd decided he’d never be a big-league hockey player and wanted to qualify for a physical-education course ;at the University of Michigan.
Unknown to him. though, Smythe had Iscoutcd him at Stratford and apparently i’hought more highly of his ability than Meeker himself did. Actually, Smythe was impressed by another quality altogether. “He had the guts of a burglar,” Isays Smythe. “The little son of a gun (shouldn't even have been skating.” i Often injured in his career with the Leafs, Meeker was in Wellesley Hospital in Toronto when he decided to leave politics. He figured a dislocated vertebra had ended his playing career, and he decided that he himself would end his political career. But he also pointed out to his wife that if he became a hockey coach he might be hopping all over the country on his way to the big leagues and, more important, he might never get to the big leagues.
“Let's go,” said Grace. "Only some day, somewhere, I’d like a home of my own.”
At that, she and their four children, Jane, who is nine, Peggy, who is five, Kim, who is three, and Howie, who i:, a year, came perilously close to an accident that might have prevented them from getting it.
They were at a hunting lodge that Howie has been operating for three seasons near Armstrong in northwestern Ontai io when they heard their dog barking one dark night. Their children were
asleep in a log-walled tent near their cottage, and Meeker went out to investigate the barking. Near the tent he saw a huge dark shape and when he flashed a light on it he saw it was a bear. It reared up when the light hit its eyes and it began pawing the air and snarling.
Meeker hurried to the cottage.
“It's a bear.” he told Grace. “It's right by the tent. What the hell do we do now?”
He had a .270 Winchester rifle which a friend. Lee (Jeep) Handley, a former Toronto baseball player, had given him
and which he had never fired. He took it. gave Grace the flashlight and told her to stand behind him and shine the light down the gun-barrel so that he could look down the sights.
But Grace shone the light directly on the bear so that he couldn’t find the sight. The bear charged.
"I started to tell Grace to get in the house," Meeker grins in the safety of recollection, “but just as I said ‘Get' I heard the screen door slam.”
He raced for the house, too. and this time he taped a two-cell flashlight to
the gun-barrel and snapped on the light.
He went out again and saw the bear fifty feet away. The flashlight lit up the gun-sights, and Grace shone another beam on the bear. It charged again. Meeker fired once and drilled the bear through the head.
Was he nervous?
"Nervous,” laughs Meeker, “I was as scared as hell. But it's like 1 say, there’s nothing you can’t do in this country if you put your mind to it. and work at it.”
It was precisely the kind of retort his employer would have given. +