There are men who excel at one sport, and there are men who excel at two sports. Then there are men like Lionel Conacher who not only excel at every sport, but also go on to serve in Parliament. It is no surprise that today, many consider Lionel Conacher, called The Big Train, to be one of the greatest athletes the country has ever seen.
I could do an entire episode just on the sports accomplishments of Conacher, but lets start at the beginning.
Conacher was born on May 24, 1901 in Toronto as Lionel Pretoria Conacher, with his middle name coming to him because the British were fighting in that city during the Boer War at the time of his birth. The third of ten children, the family often struggled to have enough money to support everyone.
In order to help his family, Conacher would begin ploughing snow off outdoor skating rinks to earn additional money, before leaving school after grade eight to work and support his siblings. He would work ten hours a day, hauling sod, to earn an extra dollar a week, or $25 today. As a young man of 11, he would meet his father every day at the school so that he could drive his dad’s team of horses to the stable.
The principal of Jesse Ketchum School encouraged all the children to take part in sports in order to stay out of trouble and it was in sports that Conacher discovered he was often the best player at every sport he tried. With that realization, he knew it was his ticket out of poverty. In 1916, he sold the most newspapers in his job and was awarded a membership card for a YMCA gymnasium, where he would begin to hone his abilities as an athlete.
As a teenager, Conacher played on 14 different teams, winning 11 championships. When he was 16, he won the Ontario Lightweight Wrestling Championship, and at 20 won the Canadian amateur light-heavyweight boxing championship.
He would take on heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey in a boxing match, where he would be knocked out.
Conacher would say that he respected boxers more than anyone else, saying quote:
“When you’re in that ring you’re all alone. There’s not a man in the world who can help you. You have to hit the other guy and, at the same time, keep from getting hit. No other sport demands so much of a man.”
One story of this time and his commitment to sports was seen when the Toronto Hillcrests were playing the Monarchs for the Ontario Baseball Championship in 1922. On a Saturday afternoon, the game was cut to seven innings by agreement. At the bottom of the seventh, the Hillcrests were down two runs with bases loaded. Conacher came up to bat, hit a triple to win the game, and as he reached third base he kept running to a waiting car. In the car he changed into his lacrosse uniform and was driven across the city to where the Toronto Maitlands were playing Brampton for the Ontario Lacrosse championship. When he arrived, Toronto was losing 3-0. By the time the game was over, he had scored four goals and assisted on the fifth to lead the team to victory 5-3.
This episode isn’t about his exploits in other sports, although I will talk about those, it is about his hockey career.
At first, hockey was too expensive for Conacher to play, and he would not even learn to skate until he was 16. As a result of this, hockey was considered one of his weaker sports, yet that career still propelled him to the highest levels of the sport.
At first, he played with the Toronto Century Rovers, then a local athletic club. Conacher wanted to improve his skill on the ice so he began to watch the top players and worked to emulate them. This method paid off and by 1919-20, he led the Toronto Canoe Club Paddlers to the Memorial Cup.
Before long, the Toronto St. Pat’s took notice and offered him $3,000, three times the average salary and around $37,000 today, to play for them. Conacher turned down the offer, and was then offered $5,000 and help in setting up a business by the Montreal Canadiens. He turned down that offer as well, not wanting to lose his status as an amateur athlete.
In 1923, Conacher played for the North Toronto Seniors, including on Feb. 8, 1923 in the first hockey game broadcast on the radio. After the season was offered the chance to play for the Pittsburgh Yellow Jackets of the United States Amateur Hockey Association. This allowed Conacher to retain his amateur status. He would lead the team to two league titles in 1924 and 1925. In 1925, the team went professional as the Pittsburgh Pirates and joined the NHL. At this point, he chose to go professional as a hockey player.
On Nov. 26, 1925, Conacher scored the first goal in Pirates history in a game against the Boston Bruins. Through that season, he had nine goals in 33 games. Many were surprised that he chose to go professional in hockey, as his first love was always football. Both of his brothers, Charlie and Roy, would also go on to play in the NHL and, along with Lionel, all three would find their way into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
After his first NHL season, Conacher then left to go back to Toronto where he led the Toronto Maple Leafs, the baseball team not the hockey team, to the International League championship, and then on to victory at the Little World Series.
In 1926-27, Conacher came back to the Pirates, but found himself dealt to the New York Americans early in the season. This was not a good trade for Conacher. His production stayed steady, recording eight goals in 1926-27 and 11 goals in 1927-28, but he was playing for Bill Dwyer, the owner of the team. Dwyer was a known bootlegger and the ready access to alcohol resulted in Conacher becoming a heavy drinker, which would see his production dip. In 1928-29, he had only seven points in 44 games, and in 1929-30, he was only improved slightly with 10 points in 39 games. After that season, two things would happen that would change the life of Conacher for the better. The first was the birth of his first child, upon which he swore he would never touch alcohol again. The second was having his rights sold to the Montreal Maroons.
At first, his production suffered playing for the Maroons and at one point was nearly traded but no team wanted his large contract. Thankfully for the team and Conacher, he steadily saw improvement. In his first season with the Maroons, he had only seven points in 35 games. In the next season, 1931-32, he doubled his production with 16 points in 46 games. He improved yet again in 1932-33 when he had 28 points in 47 games, the highest total of his career. In that season, he was named to the Second All-Star team but then found he was traded to the Chicago Black Hawks following the season. In his one and only season with Chicago, he would capture his first Stanley Cup, and the first for the franchise, and finished second in Hart Trophy voting. He was also named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team.
His brother Charlie would say, quote:
“He approached hockey intelligently and figured out angles at which it was impossible for even a fast-skating forward to break clear on the net. Playing those angles, he would force the forwards wide, keeping them between him and the sideboards. He developed a sliding, puck-stopping method of method of smothering shots, dropping with uncanny timing to one knee.”
One sportswriter would call him the Traveling Netminder as a result of his ability to stop pucks before they reached the net.
Conacher rarely backed down on the ice and especially enjoyed going up against Eddie Shore. He also pushed his own teammates to take things to the next level, a teammate would say, quote:
“When I’d skate past that Shore toward the Bruins’ net, he’d snarl at me that he’d cut my legs off if I came across the blue line again. Then I’d go back to our end and big Connie would growl that if I didn’t get the hell up to the other end of the rink and score us a goal or two, he’d cut off my ears.”
Of course, off the ice he was known for being one of the nicest men around. An excellent cook, he would often have players over to his apartment to enjoy a steak that he broiled like a professional chef.
On Oct. 3, 1934, he was traded to the Montreal Canadiens, but that was only part of the story. In what was the largest transaction in league history at the time, and is still one of the biggest trades in NHL history, through a series of trades involving four teams. By the end of the day, he found he had been traded from Chicago to the Montreal Canadiens and from the Montreal Canadiens to the Montreal Maroons.
Conacher would remain with the Maroons for the remainder of his career, capturing his second Stanley Cup in 1935. His production would peak in 1936-37 in his second stretch with the Maroons when he had 25 points in 45 games. That proved to be his last season as he retired following the team’s loss to the New York Americans in the playoffs. In his last season, he was runner-up for the Hart Trophy again and was placed on the NHL Second All-Star Team.
During his hockey career, he played hard and would have 600 stitches and eight broken noses.
That is only part of the story when it comes to Conacher though. His favourite sport was football, and he had played it heavily prior to becoming a professional hockey player. He would begin playing at the age of 12 for the Toronto Capitals in the Toronto Rugby Football League in 1912, staying with the team until 1915. Each year he played for the team, they won the city championship. In 1920, he would go to the senior level of football where he played for the Toronto Rugby Club that played against the Toronto Argonauts in the playoff semifinal. He was so good the Argonauts signed him for their 1921 season and in his first game he scored 23 of the team’s 27 points. During the season, he had 14 touchdowns and 90 of his teams 167 points. That year, he led the team to the first east-west Grey Cup in Canadian history, rushing for 211 yards and scoring 23 points to help the team claim the Grey Cup. In 1922, he led the team to an undefeated season, rushing for 950 yards in only six games. In one game against Ottawa, he gained 120 yards in three downs, an average of 40 yards per down. In another game against Montreal, he had 227 yards in the game. One time, he kicked the ball 70-yards, causing it to land close to the clubhouse, far from the field.
Carl Snavely at Cornell, who had coached Conacher for a time, would say that Conacher was, quote:
“I don’t believe I have ever had a fullback who was a better runner in an open field, or who was a better punter, or who so fully possessed all of the qualities of speed, skill, dexterity, aggressiveness, self-control and the various attributes that are required for superiority in the game of football.”
One time in 1937, Conacher was watching the Argos practice when he saw Bob Isbister having difficulty with kicking. He went up to Isbister and said, quote:
“Maybe I can show you how to get more distance Bob. Here, put your foot into it this way.”
Then, while wearing a suit and Oxford shoes, he kicked the ball well into the air, with some saying it went 85 yards in the air. Likely it went much less but that is still impressive.
In 1931, box lacrosse was invented by the owners of the Montreal Canadiens as a way to fill arenas in the summer. A professional circuit was developed with teams made up of mostly NHL players, including Conacher. He would play for the Montreal Maroons and while the team did not win the league championship that year, Conacher had 107 points to lead the league, double the next closest player. In 1932, Conacher chose to wrestle professionally during the off-season instead of play box lacrosse.
Following his retirement from professional sports, Conacher decided to try his hand at a new game arena, the arena of politics. His interest in politics came from sports as well. He wanted to get government aid for community parks in poor areas of Toronto. This prompted him to run for the Legislature to do it himself. He ran as a Liberal in the 1937 Ontario general election and was elected to the Legislature that year, defeating the incumbent who had served there for 11 years. Conacher would represent the riding until 1943. During that time, he had an office over a service station and worked directly with people in his riding. One time he found out that a woman had lost her husband and he told the undertaker that he would handle the funeral expenses. He would also pick up the fuel bills each month for the poor families in his riding.
During the Second World War, he served as the recreational director for the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Two years later, he took things to the next level when he ran to represent the Liberal Party of Canada for a seat in the House of Commons in the Trinity electoral district. He would lose that year, but in 1949 he was elected and would be re-elected in 1953. Even while serving in politics, Conacher would still spend time playing the games he loved. In 1950, he took part in a barnstorming tour with one team, and played games throughout Saskatchewan.
On May 26, 1954, Conacher was playing in the annual softball game between MPs and the press gallery. In the sixth inning, he hit a drive to left field, stretching a single to a triple. When he arrived at third base, he collapsed head first into the dirt, as blood came out of his mouth. A few innings previous, he had been hit in the head with a pitch. An MP who was also a doctor came to assist him but within 20 minutes Conacher was pronounced dead. It was the day before his daughter’s graduation from the University of Toronto.
A huge funeral was held and he was buried St. John’s York Mills Anglican Church Cemetery in Toronto.
There have been several honours bestowed on Conacher both during his life and after his death. In 1950, he was chosen as Canada’s Greatest Male Athlete of the Half-Century. In 1981, he was called Canada’s Answer to Jim Thorpe by the Pro Football Researchers Association. In addition to being a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, he is a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame and is one of only three players to have his name on the Grey Cup and Stanley Cup. Of the three, he is the only one in both hall of fames.
Every year, the Canadian Press awards the Lionel Conacher Award to the best Canadian male athlete of the year. Rocket Richard was the first person to win the award three times, and Wayne Gretzky has won the award more than any other person, six times. The award has been presented to a hockey player 26 times, more than any other sport.
The abilities of the Conacher family in athletics continued after Lionel’s death. His son Lionel Jr. would be a first round draft pick in 1960 and played a season with the Montreal Alouettes in the CFL. Brian Conacher, Lionel’s other son, competed at the 1964 Winter Olympics and played in the NHL for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1960s, winning the Stanley Cup with the team in 1967. His nephews Pete and Murray both played in the NHL.
I will close out this episode with a quote from New York Times columnist John Kieran, who was asked to name the best athlete he had ever seen in Madison Square Garden. He would say, quote:
“Naturally I saw Joe Louis perform in the Garden. Babe Ruth too in a softball game, but it was still Babe Ruth. Bill Tilden, who whacked a tennis ball under that roof, was a great man to watch. It would be hard to pick from such a glittering galaxy the one who put on the greatest show for me, but if it’s the best athlete who is up for selection, one vote for Large Lionel Conacher.”
Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, Britannica, Ontario Heritage Trust, Wikipedia, The Hockey Hall of Fame, BleacherReport.com, Maclean’s,