Howie Meeker, former NHL star and Hockey Night in Canada icon, dies at 97

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TORONTO, CANADA - MARCH 19: Howie Meeker shakes Tomas Kaberle #12 of the Boston Bruins' hand with Dion Phaneuf #3 of the Toronto Maple Leafs before game action at the Air Canada Centre March 19, 2011 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)
TORONTO, CANADA - MARCH 19: Howie Meeker shakes Tomas Kaberle #12 of the Boston Bruins' hand with Dion Phaneuf #3 of the Toronto Maple Leafs before game action at the Air Canada Centre March 19, 2011 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)

Howie Meeker, a former NHL player, Hockey Night in Canada icon and legendary personality, died Sunday at age 97 at Nanaimo General Hospital in B.C.

Meeker, who won four Stanley Cups with Toronto and was the oldest living Maple Leaf, was an NHL star who won rookie of the year honours in 1947 after scoring 27 goals and 45 points in 55 games.

A spokesperson for the Maple Leafs, the team that signed Meeker to a free-agent contract on April 13, 1946, confirmed his death earlier Sunday. There was no immediate word on the cause.

Meeker went on to become a broadcaster and was known for phrases such as "Jiminy Cricket," "Golly gee willikers" and "Stop it right there!" His work with HNIC earned Meeker the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award in 1998 after a 30-year career on CBC and TSN.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman released a statement Sunday evening, commending Meeker for his accomplishments as a player, broadcaster, and educator for the game of hockey.

"Howie Meeker spent his long and remarkable life playing, teaching and broadcasting the game of hockey and serving his country with incredible enthusiasm," Bettman said.

Born on Nov. 4, 1923 in Kitchener, Ont., Meeker played eight years with the Maple Leafs — winning NHL championships in 1947, 1948, 1949 and 1951 — and appeared in three all-star games.

He finished his NHL career at 30 in the 1953-54 season with 83 goals and 185 points in 388 regular-season games while adding 15 points in 42 playoff contests.

Most famously, he passed the puck to Bill Barilko for the 1951 Cup overtime winner against Montreal.

Skated into his 80s

Among Meeker's other career highlights was scoring five goals in a 10-4 win over Chicago on Jan. 8, 1947, one of only 44 players to tally five or more times in a game.

He continued to play pro hockey on and off for another 15 years at a variety of levels, including the American Hockey League and Newfoundland Senior League, among others.

Meeker retired from playing after the 1968-69 season and kept skating into his 80s.

Dick Irvin, a fixture on HNIC for 33 years, told the Montreal Gazette in 2014 that Meeker was the first television analyst to break down the game and criticize players.

"'You can't do that!'" Irvin recalled Meeker saying. "'See what he did? That was wrong! That guy J.C. Tremblay should never have done that. Tim Horton made a mistake! Look at what he's doing there!'

Meeker spent two years as a Progressive Conservative member of Parliament while playing for the Leafs. He won the federal byelection in the Ontario riding of Waterloo South in 1951 but didn't seek re-election two years later.

Ran hockey schools, wrote books

In 2010, Meeker was inducted into the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame. Also that year, he was appointed to the Order of Canada and was invested in a ceremony in 2011.

Meeker, who also called St. John's home through the years, ran hockey schools for more than 30 years and literally wrote the book on hockey — 1973's Howie Meeker's Hockey Basics.

During the '70s, he offered up drills and tips during his Howie Meeker Hockey School sessions on CBC.

He later wrote another book called Golly Gee — It's Me: The Howie Meeker Story. And he never ran short of opinions on how to improve the game he loved.

Meeker had six children with his first wife Grace — they were married for 55 years before she died of cancer. He remarried, living with wife Leah in Parksville on Vancouver Island where they were active in fundraising for the B.C. Guide Dog Services.

A memorial will be held in New Hamburg, Ont., at a later date, the Leafs said in a statement.