Maple Leafs History: Howie Meeker and Why We Need Player Agents

On a personal note, I have come to appreciate many things about hockey: its players, NHL teams, and all the people involved in this great sport that I have come across over past 10 months that I’ve worked with The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Vancouver Canucks.

Recently, one of the great collectors of Maple Leafs memorabilia, Allan Stitt, contacted me to discuss a post I had written about the Mitch Marner negotiations. We have since exchanged emails and, during the course of our conversations, he gifted me with two books that were written about his collection of Maple Leafs history.

Zach Hyman, Morgan Rielly, Mitch Marner, John Tavares
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Zach Hyman, Morgan Rielly, Mitch Marner, and John Tavares (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh)

Both books are excellent and I encourage hockey fans to read them. They are well-written with great photos and are filled with stories of our beloved Blue and White. Here, I want to share one of these stories, which I do with the permission of the author.

I’m a Fan, but There Are Things I Don’t Always Appreciate

There were many parts of the recent Maple Leafs vs. Marner contract negotiations that I did not find appealing. However, none of those things changes the fact that agents have been beneficial to NHL players.

We need the NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA) and agents to balance the power between management and owners who, in the past, have treated players with a lack of respect and consideration.

NHLPA union logo
The Logo of the National Hockey League’s Players’ Association (THW Archives)

Howie Meeker’s First NHL Contract

To explain myself, here is the story of Howie Meeker’s first NHL contract. Meeker came to mind when the Maple Leafs, who recently completed their training camp in St. John’s, Newfoundland, invited him to speak to the team.

Now 95 years old, he has been an iconic member of the NHL community for many years. First, he was a Maple Leaf for eight seasons. Second, he became famous as a commentator on Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC) where he entertained millions of fans.

Meeker had a style all his own. His famous phrase “Golly Gee Willikers” is something most aging fans will remember. Here’s Meeker’s story:

Before he went in to negotiate his first contract with Maple Leafs owner and general manager Conn Smythe (the principal owner from 1927 to 1961 and the builder of Maple Leaf Gardens), Meeker’s former coach Dave Pinkney (currently, the Dave Pinkney Trophy is awarded annually to the Ontario Hockey League team whose goalies allow the fewest goals against during the regular season) gave the right winger some advice.

He said: “Howard for what you’re doing $20,000 is cheap, with the cash flow you’re creating and the other players are creating.”

Instead of receiving $20,000, Meeker recalled that he left the meeting with a signed contract worth $5,000 for two seasons. However, he did receive a promise from Smythe that he would get a $1,000 bonus if he won any major awards, but it wasn’t written into the contract. He was named rookie of the year for the 1946-47 season (with 27 goals, 18 assists, for 45 points in 55 games).

As Meeker recalled it, Smythe repeated his promise twice verbally and they shook hands on the deal, but, after he won rookie of the year honours, Smythe refused to pay him the bonus. When Meeker asked why, Smythe said that he had already received $1,000 from the NHL. The incident upset Meeker for a long time.

Meeker played eight seasons with the Maple Leafs, including a stint serving double-duty as a Member of Parliament during his playing days. Eventually, except for suiting up with the Newfoundland senior league, he gave up playing and moved into coaching and running hockey camps, which he did for more than 30 years.

In addition to his 1947 Rookie of the Year award, Meeker is known for his hockey analysis on HNIC and later TSN. What made him unique was his ability to explain the game to a nation of passionate viewers in a way that few hockey commentators could match.

Sportsnet, Glenn Healy, Hockey Night in Canada
Hockey Night in Canada logo

For hockey fans of a certain age, certain phrases belong to Meeker including his three favorites: “Jiminy Cricket,” “Golly Gee Willikers,” and “Stop it right there!”

The Need for the NHLPA and Players Agents

What’s the connection between Meeker, the NHLPA, and player agents? How does Meeker being lied to by Smythe and being underpaid relate to the need for player agents?

The answer is that Meeker was not alone as a young player who was taken advantage of by team ownership. NHL history is redundant with stories of such abuse. Some old-time hockey stars retired to near poverty. That’s a black mark against our game.

Player agents have become a part of the process of helping NHL players both receive their fair share of hockey revenue and prepare for life after hockey. Hockey fans who know the history of the NHLPA know that, over the years, it has protected the young men who play in the NHL.

When Meeker played with the Maple Leafs, times were simpler but not always better. I have to remind myself that, although there are things about today’s NHL I don’t like, things are much better for the players than they were 70 seasons ago.

Michel Goulet, Yvon Pedneault, Howie Meeker, Peter Stastny
Michel Goulet, Yvon Pedneault, Howie Meeker, and Peter Stastny get inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, Nov. 24, 1998. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)

This is a shout out to those agents who take care of the young men they represent. The game of hockey is better for their presence. The NHL can no longer can take advantage of the young stars who play this magnificent sport.

Note: This story is used with permission of the author. 

Reference: Oliver, G. (2014). Written in Blue and White: The Toronto Maple Leafs Contracts and Historical Documents from the Collection of Allan Stitt, Toronto: ECW Press.