Howie Meeker (centre

Howie Meeker Golf Classic still going strong

Both the Special Olympics fundraiser and its namesake are still rolling along

Howie Meeker is quick to point out he was the first person called when organizers for Campbell River Special Olympics were looking for a celebrity to lend his name to their fundraising golf tournament.

But they weren’t expecting the name to be Howie Meeker.

The 27th annual Howie Meeker Special Olympics Golf Classic tees off this Saturday at Storey Creek Golf Course, with the former NHL All-Star and Hall of Fame broadcaster scheduled to meet and greet players and donors.

Though Meeker has surpassed a quarter century of involvement with the tournament, the job was initially supposed to go to someone else.

“The fellas that started the golf classic had a special meeting,” said Meeker, 91. “I was invited to it, maybe because I had some contacts to maybe get some players from the Canucks to put their name to it.”

But Meeker, who was then announcing Canucks games for BCTV, was unable to recruit any of the Canucks, who claimed “they were all busy in August.”

Even a desperation attempt to recruit a player or two from the Toronto Maple Leafs, the franchise Meeker helped win four Stanley Cups and later coached, left him empty-handed.

“About then, somebody came up with the idea we call it the Howie Meeker Classic. They got to the bottom of the barrel and were left with Howie Meeker,” he said with a cackle familiar to viewers of his broadcasts on BCTV and, before that, on Hockey Night in Canada.

It is a decision neither Meeker nor classic organizers have regretted. For the classic’s first 10 years, he and his wife Grace traveled each year to Campbell River, where he greeted each player and took a tee shot for each foursome at Storey Creek’s signature 17th hole.

After he lost Grace to cancer he remarried, and now brings his second wife, Leah.

“It’s something we’ve always looked forward to,” Meeker said. “And it’s been an honour coming back every year. The event itself if really fun, and it’s for one of the best reasons in the world.

“If you’ve got a dollar you want to put on something, Special Olympics is as good as it gets.”

Eventually, he gave up his tee shot in favour of a putt for each team on the 17th, and for the first time, even that may not be possible this weekend.

“I’ve got two wonky knees, and I’m looking to get braces for ‘em,” he said. “We’ll work something out. I thought if I was able to walk from a tent or a position on the 17th (hole), I could meet people that way. If not, maybe I’ll go around in a cart and greet folks.”

Despite his age and failing vigour — Meeker is the last surviving member of the Maple Leafs’ 1947 Stanley Cup-winning team — he will remain a part of the classic as long as he can make the trip up from Parksville.

And it’s not the only benefit tournament he has lent his support to. A tourney at Fairwinds Golf Club in Nanoose Bay has raised more than $300,000 for BC Guide Dogs over the past four years.

But he will always have a special place in his heart for the “original” Howie Meeker Classic and the athletes it was created to benefit.

“The good Lord may have shortchanged them in some ways, but He more than made up for it in a lot of others,” Meeker said. “I’ve been there 27 years and it’s all first-name basis. I’ve watched some of them grow up and some of them turn gray.

“But there comes a time when it’s payback time, and if there’s something I can do to help out, I’m glad to do it. I can’t do enough for ‘em.”