Retro Rangers: What do you think about the Players Union?
Howie Meeker: Well as far as I’m concerned they’re doing a hell of a job. I played eight years in the NHL. For five of those years I put 1/3 of my salary into a pension plan and 35 years later I was getting less than $100 a month. The former union management and president of the league made bad investments and took off with some of the money. But once they got through that mess in the last three of four years or so I get $5,600 a year from the players union. The money’s been replaced by advertising and payments from the current players. And I’ll tell you it helps. So I think they’re doing a pretty good job.
RR: What’s you opinion of the shootout?
HM: I have some pretty close contacts with some high level people in the NHL and it seems the owners don’t want the shootout any more and the players don’t want it either. So if they can get out of it gracefully I think they will. But as a viewer, I enjoy it. What the hell. Overtime is good hockey and a lot of games are decided there and even the shoot out. It gives them more statistics to advertise their products. I said years ago when I was in television and producing shows, the goalie will stop 2 1/2 shots our of five, and the goalies today are twice the size as they used to be. They’re taller and the equipment is wider. When I look at the goalies that I played with the protection that they wore, was meant to do just that, protect them, not to make them look bigger. So you’re lucky to score against them.
I’m starting to get worried though. I have to pay $100 a seat and I was looking in the paper this morning and if there were 8 games last night I’ll bet you that six of the teams had less than 20 shots. I saw a game last week where they had five shots in the first period and five in the second period. Now how exciting is that? There has to be a flow, there has to be action around the net, there has to be saves by the goalie. But the defenses are so good nowadays, they dump it in and dump it out Half of the game is played in the corners or along the boards. Where’s the flow. But you get two good teams together and it’s a beautiful game to watch.
RR: Were a lot of concussions unreported when you played?
HM: You’d come off the ice dizzy and vomiting and stuff like that. You’d get on the train and go to the next city. And if you could walk from the train station to the hotel which was pretty close in those days, you played that night. A lot of us had head injuries and you’d take a couple of aspirins and you were alright.
But the problem today is as I said earlier, the sticks are so long, the puck is only on half of the blade of the stick and the fella is looking down. Or when you make a pass inside of the defense to a winger, you don’t watch where the pass is going. You’ve got two guys on you and their job is to hit you and take you out of the play. And if you go into that zone and you’re not paying attention you’re looking for trouble. But the long stick is the problem. Watch it sometimes. Half the time they’re looking down. And if you’re looking down they’re gonna take your head off. And the players are bigger today. Nobody goes after a guy to hit him in the head and half the time it’s the fella that gets hit, it’s his fault for watching the pass or looking down at the puck. He’s paying more attention to the puck on this stick than he is at who’s coming at him. I played hockey a long, long time and you go to hit somebody, but you don’t go for his head. But these guys are bent over and they’re gonna get their heads taken off. But they’re bigger and stronger now too. The players today would chew me up and spit me out. I started at 165 lbs and got up to about 174 lbs. and the only thing that saved my ass was that I could skate. And after one or two good checks at the Leaf training camp that taught me quick. If you don’t keep your head up and look for danger, you’re not gonna be around long.
RR: Do you think they’ll ever make the rinks bigger?
HM: I told the people 25 years ago when they started building new arenas, for gosh sakes when you build the new arena, make sure that the ice plant in the floor goes back under the seating area, so that you can enlarge your ice surface. But they wouldn’t do it. It may have cost them 20% more and now that can’t extend the ice surface. These guys are so big and strong and they’ve got these longer sticks, and they’ve got them for checking, not for handling the puck and now they’re stuck with that ice surface.
And when a European comes over here for the first time it takes them a long time to adjust to our checking and the smaller ice surface. When they play over there, they have a tremendous advantage because on the bigger ice surface, they know that they have an extra second or second and a half to protect themselves. But over here they don’t have that second and a half. And the attacker gets to them quicker and kicks the daylight out of them. Then they get puck shy for awhile. But 90% of them learn how to handle it. But the smaller ice surface adds to the problem we talked about earlier where the checker adds to the momentum and they want to put you right thru the fence when they hit you. And that’s attempt to injure. But they’ve got a hell of a problem with that small ice surface. and that leads to fights as well, which is stupid.
RR: How would they take fighting out of the game?
HM: Well half of the players couldn’t make the teams. You go down into your farm system and get the best guys that can skate and handle the puck. We never matched lines in Toronto for as long as I was there. The Kennedy line would start one game the Apps line would start another game and the Bentley line would start another game. And we just rolled them over. Didn’t matter who they put out against us. We just rolled them over. There was no checking line. Most of the fourth lines in the league have no skills at all. But if they take some of the violence out you’ll see great hockey because there would be more skilled players
The skilled players from my era could play in this league today and be stars. The rest of us wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. And our goalies, if they got padded up like they are today, you couldn’t shoot a bullet by them. We had great goalies,
RR: What kind of job is Gary Bettman doing?
HM: I’ll tell you what, he’s done a hell of a job. Here’s a guy who’s been around for more than 10 years, and he’s got 30 bosses and for the most part he’s kept them happy. He’s a great stick handler. I’m not always in agreement with him but he’s working for 30 different guys and they’re all pompous assholes. And they all think they know more about hockey and the business of the country than the president, but Bettman is a magician I’ll tell you that.