Paul Meger’s life story was one of Prairie perseverance, overcoming long odds to become a junior hockey star in Barrie and a Stanley Cup winner with the Montreal Canadiens.
Though his Canadiens career was cut short at just 25 years old, he ended his life as the oldest surviving Stanley Cup winner of that storied National Hockey League club.
Meger, who married a local girl and lived in Barrie for more than 70 years, raising their family here, died early Tuesday.
He was 90.
“My father was well known through hockey, but it’s something I have no memory of,” said his son Gary Meger, who was just three years old when his father suffered his career-ending injury. “I do know that he never had a bad word to say about anyone, nor did anyone ever say a bad word about him.”
Meger won the Stanley Cup in 1953 and played 212 games for the Canadiens across five seasons. He suffered a career-ending injury when he was struck on the head by the skate blade of Boston Bruins winger Leo Labine during a game at the Boston Garden on Nov. 7, 1954.
Before turning pro, Meger played three seasons with the Barrie Flyers, including a run to the Memorial Cup final in 1949.
In a quirky twist, Labine had also played for the Flyers – a year after Meger left. Both were living in Barrie, where they both worked for owner Hap Emms during the off-season before the on-ice accident.
In keeping with his positive approach after surviving his near-death experience, Meger never held any grudge toward Labine, who died in 2006.
“During his year-long recovery,” remembers his son, “he made a vow that if he ever made it out of (his grave condition), he was never going to have a bad day. And he didn’t.”
Meger was part of a large first-generation Canadian family, born in Saskatchewan, but he spent most of his childhood in Selkirk, Man. Someone took pity on the family and left them a large care package that included a pair of skates.
The 13-year-old Meger learned how to skate on patches of ice that dotted the Prairie farmland and on frozen rivers.
In a fitting twist, skating was the hallmark of his game. Whatever the pint-sized flyer – Meger was just five-foot-seven – lacked in size, he made up for in speed and tenacity.
In a six-team NHL, the odds were always long to land a job, but Meger got progressively better during his three seasons in Barrie, registering 26, 60 and 76 points.
Now married to his Barrie sweetheart, Betty Chantler, Meger travelled to Buffalo for his first pro season to play for the American Hockey League’s Bisons. A 66-point campaign as a 20-year-old earned Meger AHL rookie-of-the-year honours and a call-up to the Habs in the playoffs.
He split the next season with the Bisons and the Habs, but was playing a regular shift with the big club by the playoffs.
Meger scored in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final to give the Habs the lead before Tod Sloan tied the game with just seconds left. In overtime, Bill Barilko scored to win the Leafs the Stanley Cup, shortly after Meger had left the ice after killing a penalty.
“My dad always remembered that game and joked that they shouldn’t have taken him off,” said Gary Meger.
In a symbolic twist of fate, Meger died 68 years (plus a few hours) to the day that Barilko perished when the plane he was travelling in disappeared in northern Ontario.
Meger’s best season as a pro followed in 1951-52, when he scored 24 goals and had 18 assists playing on a team that had a gaggle of future Hall of Famers, including Maurice 'Rocket' Richard, Bernie 'Boom Boom' Geoffrion, Doug Harvey and Elmer Lach.
Geoffrion and Meger were often regular linemates that season, with Billy Reay as their centre. Meger was the Habs’ fourth-highest scorer, and all but two of his goals were scored at even strength.
The following season he won the Cup, contributing 26 points and another three in the playoffs, as the Canadiens dispatched the Bruins in five games, despite dropping the first contest at the Montreal Forum.
A few years later, the Habs were transitioning into the club that would later win five consecutive Stanley Cups, from 1955 and 1960, but Meger’s grievous injury deprived him of a chance to add to his own championship haul.
“There’s always a reason,” he said during an interview with BarrieToday earlier this year. "You and I could take a walk to the Five Points and a guy has a heart attack, or someone comes across with a car and nails us…it’s just the way it happened, a fluke accident.”
Despite that stark tragedy, he never wavered in his good-natured approach to life after his recovery. Meger was grateful to be able to walk and talk without hinderance after four major surgeries on his brain.
He never played hockey or recreational baseball again, but became a coach in both sports. He was a keen golfer and won the senior club championship at Barrie Country Club in the early 1980s.
Helped by the financial assistance from the Montreal Canadiens – family lore holds that the club sent a limousine to a Barrie bank to pay cash for their house – Meger settled into work as an electrician and later as a repairman for Sears.
In recognition of his Habs exploits and his wide-ranging involvement in the local sports scene, he was inducted into the Barrie Sports Hall of Fame in 1993.
After he passed away in the early hours of Tuesday morning, Meger’s family spent their final moments with him at the Simcoe Hospice.
As his body was being wheeled into the hearse, the Hockey Song by Stompin' Tom Connors was played.
“We just thought that was a fitting way to end with Dad,” said Gary.
Betty died in 2004. Meger’s three children, Gary (Debra), Debra Scott (Ralph Alexander) and Suzanne Weidmark (Vic), survive him, as do his brothers Ernie and Walter. Many grandchildren and great-grandchildren also mourn his passing.
The family will welcome visitors Wednesday, Sept. 4 and Thursday, Sept. 5 with a celebration of life to follow at 11 a.m. in the chapel of Steckley Gooderham Funeral Home on Worsley Street.
There will be a reception at Vespra Hills Golf Club following his celebration of life.