With the Stanley Cup playoffs underway, the spotlight is on the NHL and its many problems, both on and off the ice, even more than usual. So I thought it would be a good idea to step outside of the Retro Rangers box and interview someone who has always been a keen, outspoken observer of the league and the sport of hockey in general; Howie Meeker.
Meeker played for, coached and served as General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was also a color commentator for “Hockey Night in Canada”, ran hockey schools and was a member of the Canadian Parliament for four years.
Ranger fans of a certain age will remember Bill Chadwick interviewing Howie between periods when the Blueshirts were in Toronto. “Bill was a great guy” Howie told me. “I always said if you put a rocking chair at center ice he could referee the game. He was a good guy, Great sense of humor, total control of the players. No one ever said boo to him. We had a lot of fun together.” Fans may also remember Howie complaining about the declining skill level of Canadian players and the fact that the players couldn’t complete a three foot pass. “It’s true” Meeker quickly responded. “Our problem here in Canada is we’re not teaching skills, how to skate, how to handle the puck, how to carry the puck. how to give and take a pass, how to think. I go down to watch my grandson’s practice and I’m there for 15 – 20 minutes and I have to get the hell out of there because there’s steam coming out of my ears. My son’s the same way. He says ‘Dad I go down there and all the other parents are in the locker room dressing their kids.’ But he won’t do that. You learn to dress yourself, the only thing that he’ll do is tie his son’s skates. So he ties the kids skates watches the face-off then goes out side. He can’t stand the parents screaming and hollering at their kids.”
Retro Rangers: What is the biggest problem facing the NHL today?
Howie Meeker: Well I think the cities in the southern and middle part of the United States that aren’t drawing. and they’ve allowed the salaries to get so high. It’s a money problem. If you own a team and you’re not selling out. It’s a money problem. There are some very healthy teams but there are just five too many teams in the league.
RR: Which teams would you like to see go?
HM: Well Phoenix has a great hockey team but they’re not drawing flies. The team that went into Winnipeg is doing extremely well. They’re drawing 16,000 and they had a chance at making the playoffs. Columbus isn’t doing well enough. Carolina isn’t drawing well. The Islanders are in trouble. And even Dallas isn’t drawing well. When I look at the morning papers I check to see where the game was played and what the attendance was and a lot of teams are in deep, deep trouble. The Canadian teams are doing well fan wise. But can you imagine Montreal, where they are? And Toronto? They’re one of the most profitable teams in the league. They probably have more followers than anybody else by far but they haven’t made the playoffs in 4-5 years now, so I would imagine that their leadership is in trouble. Even Anaheim for Pete’s sake They’re not selling out and it wasn’t too long ago that they won a Stanley Cup.
And there are just too many good players getting hurt, even though they’ve made a tremendous effort to reduce the stick work. The other thing is fighting. The game has enough speed, skill, finesse and entertainment and is rough and tough enough without fighting in the game. It’s just absolutely ridiculous. And more and more Canadians are turning against it. Particularly the television audiences which are dropping off.
Another thing they have to remove from the game is that if you’re adding to your momentum when you’re taking someone into the boards, that’s Intent to injure. I’ve been saying that for 20 years. When you’re racing down the ice or you’ve got the puck going behind the net, the guy coming at you, if he adds to your momentum while putting you into the boards, without slowing down, that’s intent to injure. You can still take a guy out, but you don’t have to put him in the hospital.
RR: What about the punishment?
HM: I think that if they let Brendan Shanahan handle it, he’ll do a good job. But it was obvious that first six weeks of the season he punished guys and then the owners said “hey wait a minute.” You’ve got owners calling the shots there and they haven’t got a clue. And as long as they’re allowing the punishment along the boards the good players are going to get hurt. They’re on the ice the most, they have the puck the most and they’re the target.
I’ve got a grandson now 10 years old and he’s playing minor hockey and the kids are crosschecking constantly. The kids at that age have no skills, they can’t skate, they can’t handle the puck, they can’t turn, they can’t give and take a pass and they can’t think and here they are trying to teach these kids how to play hockey. And they’re crosschecking! Holy Jumpin! And they play the game mad. Mad! It’s a fun game but they’re scared to handle the puck. It’s crazy.
And the other main problem is that their sticks are too long. Right up to the pros. I can show you 20 times a period where the puck handler mishandled the puck because his stick was too long. The blade of the stick is 12 inches long, they can’t get all 12 inches on the ice at the same time. Either the heel or the toe is off the ice. They can’t go from forehand to backhand without losing the puck. And now half of the hits are from the guys skating with their heads down looking for the puck because they can’t keep it on the blade of the stick. I learned that lesson in my first Maple Leaf training camp, I dropped my head and Bucko MacDonald whacked me one heck of a shot. If you can’t control the puck without looking at it when you’re trying to beat someone with speed or with a movement you’re in trouble. I see so many goals being scored as a direct result of someone mishandling the puck and it going to the opposition and it leading to a goal. If we did that when we played, we’d be in the minors very quickly.
We’ll have more of the Howie Meeker interview in the next edition of Retro Rangers.