One of the oldest living Montreal Canadiens to have won the Stanley Cup, longtime Barrie resident Paul Meger had his promising National Hockey League career cut short by a freak on-ice accident in Boston just two seasons later when he was only 25 years old.
Meger, who recently turned 90, won hockey's holy grail in 1952-53 with the Canadiens, but his professional career ended in November 1954 when he was struck in the right temple area by an opponent's skate at the old Boston Garden.
The small and speedy left-winger, who was born Feb. 17, 1929, in Watrous, Sask., came to Barrie as a teenager to play junior hockey with the Barrie Flyers.
During a sit-down interview with BarrieToday at his Letitia Street home, Meger describes himself as a checking forward, but the statistics don't lie. In an era when teams played far less games, Meger was a 30-goal scorer in junior as well as with the American Hockey League's Buffalo Bisons, where he won rookie of the year.
Newspaper accounts of the era describe "Pauly" Meger as a fleet-footed winger.
"Oh, I could move," he said, flashing a toothy smile. "Back in junior, there was a guy chasing me and I was pretty damn scared, so I had to hurry to get the hell away from him!"
Meger was soon ready to make the jump to the NHL. He played in two playoff games during the 1949-50 season.
During his first full season in the big leagues, the 1951-52 campaign, Meger and Maurice 'Rocket' Richard, both scored hat tricks in the same game, the feat captured for posterity in a newspaper clipping of the two forwards wearing fedoras.
That NHL season was also his best offensively, scoring 24 goals and adding 18 assists in 69 games on a team whose roster reads like a murderer's row, with the all-time greats such as the Rocket, Elmer Lach and Doug Harvey.
Meger, who regularly played with linemates Bernie 'Boom Boom' Geoffrion on the right side and Billy Reay up the middle, finished fourth in team scoring that season, tied with the Rocket, so the potential was high.
Meger was a member of the Stanley Cup-winning Canadiens in 1952-53, when the Habs defeated the Bruins in five games.
"I remember it well, the Stanley Cup," said Meger. "Funny thing is, my injury was against Boston."
Everything changed for Meger on Nov. 7, 1954 at Boston Garden.
On the night of his accident, Meger said his linemates were Jean Beliveau and Geoffrion, both now enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
"I remember Jean Beliveau coming to the bench and saying, 'Get that guy to the bench, he's bleeding all over'," said Meger. "I just skated off, because I didn't know how badly I was hurt."
Meger suffered a serious head injury when the skate of Boston right-winger Leo Labine -- also a former Barrie Flyer and close friend of Meger's who had worked as his helper during the summer -- cracked his skull and damaged his brain.
Labine was picking up the puck in his own end when the collision occurred.
"He was my check, so we collided. I fell one way and he fell the opposite way and his skate hit (my head)," said Meger.
Meger said he still clearly remembers not only the accident, but also travelling back to Montreal by train. In retrospect, his situation was grave and he certainly should not have been travelling, given his condition, he said.
Shortly afterward in the hospital, where he underwent brain surgery, Canadiens general manager Frank Selke and league president Clarence Campbell brought in three different helmets, which were sparsely used in those days, to determine whether one would've helped. Meger said they decided the rudimentary helmets of the day wouldn't have offered much protection.
"There was a hard piece at the front and a hard piece at the back, so the skate might have hit the strap," he said. "Not one of them would have helped."
While Meger, a young father by this time who had married local native Betty Chantler, was recovering in hospital, the youngest children (Debra and Gary) stayed in Barrie with their grandparents while Betty lived with Canadiens head coach Dick Irvin's family.
Betty grew up on Clapperton Street. They met while Meger was playing for the Flyers and were married before he departed for Buffalo to play for the AHL Bisons. Betty died in 2004.
Debra Scott said the NHL club was extremely helpful to the Megers during that difficult time after her dad's accident. She said Selke told her my mother to go home to Barrie, buy a house and get situated.
"She went into the local bank, I don't know which one, and they wouldn't give her a loan because my dad wasn't working," she said. "From what I gather, she called Montreal and I don't know who it was, but someone called the bank. But they said 'we don't know who you are'. You have to remember, this is almost before television became popular.
"Within a few days, a limousine pulled up in Barrie and the Canadiens came in and paid cash for the house for him," said Scott.
Meger said that's how things were done with the Canadiens.
"Mr. Selke was just that way," he said. "I think it was Elmer Lach who said, 'we're all Selke's babies'."
Meger also remembers Labine coming to visit him in Montreal where he was recovering.
"A week after my accident, he came to visit me in the hospital. 'Isn't that a bugger?' he says. 'There's so and so guys out there in this league who I'd like to cut their heads off,' or whatever language he used, 'and here you're in front of the net and I'm picking the puck up'," Meger said.
Meger never played professional hockey again.
"I don't know whether it was I didn't have enough guts, but I'd just spent a year in the (Montreal General) hospital," he said, where he had four brain operations. "The doctor said, 'As bad as it is, Paul, you're pretty lucky.' How in the hell could I be lucky with a hole in my head! He said, 'Well, if it had been this (left) side, Paul, you'd never speak again'."
Although Meger says he often thinks about that game and what kind of NHL career he might have had, he also tries not to dwell on the what-ifs.
"There's always a reason," he said, while still looking back on playing days with great fondness. "People often say, 'It's too bad you got hurt so young.' But you and I could take a walk to the Five Points and a guy has a heart attack, or someone comes across in a car and nails us. It's the same thing.
"It's just the way it happened, a fluke accident."
Meger returned to Barrie, where he and Betty raised their three children, including Barrie resident Gary Meger, as well as daughters Debra Scott, who now lives in Newmarket, and Suzanne Weidmark, who resides in Oshawa.
He continued with his job as an electrician, a trade he had already learned and worked at in the off-season under Barrie Flyers owner and coach Hap Emms, wiring Barrie-area farms for electricity.
"Hydro didn't come through the area until about 1955 or '56," he said, adding there was plenty of work. "I kind of liked the work."
After 20 years, Meger was given early retirement. "I thought that was just great!"
The Meger family, who had put down stakes in the city's east end, also had a cottage at Minet's Point.
Meger also has 10 grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.
"I don't know and I don't want to know," Meger said with a chuckle. "I stopped counting them."
Meger still has fond memories of his hockey-playing days with the star-studded Canadiens, where the veterans were always good to the younger guys, such as himself.
"Elmer Lach, he was a peach of a guy," Meger said. "If you'd done something wrong, they could pick it out more than we could. He'd put his arm around you and say it was OK and make you feel good about what did happen. Most of the guys were different, but Elmer was the mild guy of the bunch."
Meger said 'Rocket' Richard, who was known for his fiery eyes and steely determination on the ice, was also a completely different away from the rink where he was more mild-mannered.
In a league with only six teams in those days, the talent level up and down the lineup was something to behold.
"Well, you can only have so many guys sitting on the bench or play," Meger said. "Everybody always got along, I thought. Looking back, I was thinking about that (camraderie) a while back."
Meger said he always liked the train trips, too, which was the mode of transportation in those days, because it brought the teams together and built lasting friendships.
"Nowadays, you get on a plane and, by golly, pretty soon you're home," he said.
During his playing days, Meger said he just wanted to be on the ice. A diminuitive left-winger in his day, standing five-foot-seven and weighing 160 pounds, he went head-to-head with many of the all-time greats.
"I remember the coach asked if I'd like to check Gordie Howe," Meger said. "I said I didn't care as long as I got to play!
"I killed a lot of penalties at the time, and I thought I was quite good at it, too," he added. "I couldn't play dirty, because I wasn't big enough to play dirty hockey. But I'd never step aside if you were coming at me, so we'd collide."
Meger, whose recall of this NHL days is still sharp, was also present for some incidents in hockey lore. He played in the game, and scored, when Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Bill Barilko scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal on April 21, 1951. Barilko went missing that summer on a fishing trip; the Leafs didn't win another Cup until his body was located several years later.
"He was a big guy, a big defenceman, and he could run over you. It was just one of those things that happen in life," Meger said of Barilko's tragic death.
Although hockey was a big part of Meger's life, it's not the whole story. He says he watches "very little" hockey these days, perhaps catching parts of a game on TV, but he'd just as likely watch something else, too.
"I'm not critical of it. If I'm watching and someone misses the puck, that's fine. It's part of the game," said Meger, adding he also doesn't really see much change in the game since his heyday. "It's still about getting that little black thing.
"But my life isn't tied to it," he added. "Once I got through with my accident, it really knocked the sugar out of me, because after I still had that hole in my head. There's no bone there."
ROAD TO THE PROS
Meger was born in Saskatchewan grew up in Selkirk, Man., one of eight boys on the family farm, which is where he learned to skate. One of his earliest jobs, as a 14-year-old, was helping a commercial fisherman pulls net from the lake during the frigid winter.
When he was 16 years old, he was invited to a tryout in St. Catharines, where he turned some heads.
"(Former AHL Buffalo Bisons general manager) Art Chapman said, 'Who's that kid on the ice!? Get him off of there, he'll get killed! He can't even skate!' I didn't know what the hell they were talking about," said Meger, who credits his own hockey career to hard work and being coachable.
At age 17, he came to Barrie. There were no amateur drafts in those days; teams signed players and they became their property.
Meger soon found himself in Barrie playing for the Flyers, spending three years in the city.
"I always asked Mr. Emms -- it was always Mr. Emms to me -- 'Why the hell did you keep me?' when there were all these others guys out there who could skate and could shoot and could handle the puck," Meger said. "I thought I was sort of stumbling around out there. He said, 'Paul, I guess we all have different ideas of hockey players'."
It was Meger's effort level that impressed Emms.
"He said, 'You tried so god darn hard. Any kid, at that age and with three years of junior (eligibility), to work that hard out there in practice must want to play hockey'," Meger said.
As a teenager, Meger starred with the Ontario Hockey Association's Barrie Flyers for three seasons, from 1946 until 1949, playing at the old Barrie Arena on Dunlop Street, site of the new fire station.
In his rookie season with the Flyers, and on a team that also included future NHLer and Barrie Sports Hall of Fame inductee "Rockabye" Ray Gariepy, Meger had 13 goals and 13 assists in 30 games before exploding offensively in his second year in Barrie. During the 1947-48 year, Meger had 30 goals and 30 assists in 36 games.
In 1948, the Flyers advanced to the Memorial Cup final against Port Arthur, but were swept in four games.
In his final year with the Flyers, in 1948-49, Meger led the team with 33 goals and 43 assists for 76 points, not to mention 79 penalty minutes, which more than doubled his previous two seasons combined for time spent in the sin bin.
Although Meger's junior stats show he was quite a prolific goal scorer, "I never thought I was. It was just hard work, there was no other way. I think it all started on the farm, because you had to work. And it all worked out for me."
Meger credits his coach for helping him eventually get to the NHL.
"We had Hap Emms as a coach and he really helped all the guys, not just me," Meger said. "Anybody that wanted to play hockey he'd come and talk to you, bring you into his office and sit you down. If I could recommend someone to coach the kids, the juniors, and you wanted to listen, boy, he had some good thoughts about hockey.
"I don't think I'd ever have made the National Hockey League if it weren't for Hap Emms, because he was so strict," Meger added. "There was no loafing, oh boy! You want to loaf, you go home."
Meger said Emms was astute at setting up his lines.
"He might say we need a checker on this line, somebody that will work his ass off. That was me," Meger said softly. "Never complained. I was quite pleased to just leave the farm."
Meger was soon off to Buffalo to star with the AHL's Bisons. He made the jump to the AHL in 1949-50, where he finished second in team scoring behind veteran Ab DeMarco. As a 20-year-old, Meger had 26 goals and 40 assists in 63 games to surpass a point-a-game pace. He also suited up in two playoff games with the Canadiens that spring, although they fell to the New York Rangers in the semifinals.
But Meger was back to the AHL for another year of seasoning in Buffalo for the 1950-51 campaign. He broke out with 69 points, including 34 goals in 46 games, on a high-octane team that included former NHLers Demarco and Grant Warwick.
Meger was ready for the NHL. For the final 17 games of the NHL's regular season, he was up with the big club in Montreal where he scored his first NHL goal. He also added a goal and three assists in 11 playoff games, but the Canadiens lost in the Stanley Cup final to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The next season, 1951-52, Meger stuck with the NHL club, whose roster included future Hockey Hall of Famers Maurice Richard, Elmer Lach, Doug Harvey and Bernie 'Boom Boom' Geoffrion. A 22-year-old Meger scored 24 goals and added 18 assists in 69 games, as the Canadiens were eliminated this time by the Gordie Howe-led Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup final.
While Meger's offensive numbers were down in the 1952-53 season, with nine goals and 17 assists in 69 games, the Canadiens won the first Cup in seven years by defeating their heated rivals, the Boston Bruins.
But with so few teams in that era, it didn't really matter who the opponent was on any given night. The talent level was through the roof.
"If you played Boston, well then you wanted to beat the dickens out of them," Meger said. "All I know is that when I was on the ice, I had a job to do. But it also built a bit of a rivalry, too. But some of the guys could do that (be out to get a certain player), because they were big enough, but I was not that big."
Meger split the 1953-54 season with the Quebec League's Montreal Royals and the Canadiens, before playing his final season in the NHL during the 1954-55 year, where he had no goals and four assists in 13 games prior to his accident.
That marked the end of his professional hockey career.
All told, Meger's NHL career, which lasted a half-decade, saw him score 39 goals and 52 assists in 212 NHL regular-season games, as well as 11 points in 35 playoff games.
Meger, who has a Stanley Cup ring to his credit and his name chiselled into the most iconic trophy in all of sports, was inducted into the Barrie Sports Hall of Fame in 1992.
He lives in a retirement community in Barrie's west end, where there's still plenty of memorabilia adorning the walls and a small stack of black-and-white headshots from his playing days. He'll gladly sign one for anyone who wants to chat about the great frozen game.