Meeker loving life

Howie Meeker celebrated Canada Day by holding a garden party with his wife, Leah, and friends and family, at his Parksville home.

Howie Meeker laughs it up at the recent Vernon Special Olympics banquet.

Howie Meeker laughs it up at the recent Vernon Special Olympics banquet.

Howie Meeker celebrated Canada Day by holding a garden party with his wife, Leah, and friends and family, at his Parksville home.

At 87, he invited people from his past who had reconnected with him through e-mails or phone calls after he was awarded the Order of Canada, the highest civilian honour in the country.

“I never dreamt a dirt farmer from Hanover, Ontario could get the Order of Canada,” chuckled Meeker, in a speech at the Vernon Special Olympics banquet two weeks ago.

Meeker has long supported Special Olympians and in 2004, he was invited to headline a golf tournament fundraiser to benefit B.C. Guide Dog Services.

Originally intended as a one-off event, it was such a success that the Howie Meeker Golf for Guide Dogs tournament ran on Vancouver Island for four years, and is now held annually in the Metro Vancouver area.

From this beginning, the Meekers became the Patrons for B.C. Guide Dog Services and have already helped raise more than $350,000.

I had the pleasure a few years back of playing a round of golf at Spallumcheen with Howie and Leah. Had a blast and listened to some great hockey stories.

So, my first question to Howie in a one-on-one interview at the banquet was about his golf game.

“Not bad,” he replied. “I haven’t played for a year. I tore my rotor but it’s good enough now that I can play. I was surprised I played two rounds recently and hit some balls and I hit them straight so maybe it’s better I have a bad rotor.”

Meeker won four Stanley Cups with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was the first NHLer to score five goals in a game, doing that his first year when he won the Calder Trophy as the premier rookie.

He also coached the Maple Leafs, replacing King Clancy on April 11, 1956, leading the Leafs to a 21–34–15 record. He was promoted to GM in 1957, but was fired before the start of the 1957-58 season.

Meeker, who was badly injured serving in the Canadian Armed Forces, quickly answered when asked about his hockey highlight.

“The first game I played at Maple Leaf Gardens after three years overseas. I felt like a lucky SOB to get back home and the other thing was that first Stanley Cup in that first year. I was lucky I played with Toronto Maple Leafs when they had a hockey team. We had four in five years and some wonderful talent, some wonderful guys that made the game fun.”

Howie, who is in the Hockey Hall of Fame under the Broadcasters section, is a kind-hearted gentleman who is loving life with the younger Leah.

“We garden. She’s a master gardener. I’m the gopher. You know, go for the wheelbarrow, go for the fertilizer. Go for the bottle of wine and make sure it’s cool when you bring it out, it’s great fun. Life’s never been better, thanks to Leah.”

Wright at home with prospects

Columbus Blue Jackets’ development coach Tyler Wright likes to bring young prospects to his Coldstream home and do some training with Rhonda Catt.

He plans to welcome 2010 first-round pick Ryan Johansen, Matt Calvert (11 goals in 26 games) and Johnny Moore to the North Okanagan and break up their summer programs.

“Once these kids start gelling and become better players at the next level, then we become a better organization and franchise. They play goal, defence, wing, everybody’s in a different position, but I think they become this little bit of a family outside their family.

“I think it’s always important and a lot of them haven’t seen this side of the globe so it’s a good chance to come spend some time at my place and spend some quality time on my boat and kind of relax and make sure we have a last four- or five-week push before training camp.”

Gare should have listened to his wife

Vernon’s Ernie Gare, who has worked the scouting gig the last four years with New York, said the Rangers are growing their own talent these days, making the playoffs with 10 draft picks on their roster.

He says scouting is not an exact science as proved by Jerred Smithson going undrafted and Shea Weber being chosen in the second round.

“Jerred was never drafted, but he had the desire and determination and hockey sense which got him to the NHL.”

Gare also admitted his wife, Debbie, recommended Darcy Tucker when Ernie didn’t see an NHL future for the hard-nosed winger out of the Kamloops Blazers.

Hitchcock high on Nugent-Hopkins

Former NHL head coach Ken Hitchcock is high on this year’s No. 1 draft nugget Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

Hitch saw RNH play seven times this winter and says scouts are making way too much about the kid’s 164-pound chassis.

“I wouldn’t pay two seconds attention to that if I was a coach,” Hitchcock told the Edmonton Journal. He’s still employed by the Columbus Blue Jackets in an advisory capacity.

“Remember what they said about (Wayne) Gretzky? He was the toughest player in the league because he always had the puck. Weight in a player isn’t relevant to me. Look at Pat Kane in Chicago. He plays at 165 pounds and nobody gets a piece of him and he’s always got the puck.”