Thursday, May 24, 2012
Pull up a chair and settle in, as today we have the story of a life less ordinary, for on this date in 1902, Lionel Conacher came into this world. Nicknamed "The Big Train", he quit school after the eighth grade to help support his nine younger siblings. While in school, he quickly discovered that he was among the better players in any of the many sports he tried. He eventually won 11 championships with the 14 different teams he played for as a teenager.
At the age of 16 he won an Ontario wrestling championship and at 20 won a Canadian amateur boxing championship. In one memorable day, he hit a triple to help his team win the Toronto city baseball championship before rushing across town to find his lacrosse team losing by a score of 3-0 in the Ontario provincial final. He donned his gear, joined the fray and proceeded to score four goals and an assist to lead his team to victory for his second championship in a matter of a few hours!
He was an accomplished football player, winning city and provincial championships as a teenager before moving up to the senior level, where he led the league in scoring in 1921 while leading his team to not only the league championship, but also the Grey Cup as Canadian champions.
The cost of hockey kept him from taking up the game until he was 16, but by 1920, he had added a Memorial Cup championship to his ever growing trophy case. NHL teams had begun to take notice of Conacher's prodigious abilities and the Toronto St. Patricks offered him $3,000 a season, while the Montreal Canadiens came in with an offer of $5,000, well above the current average of $1,000 a year. They were both rebuffed, as Conacher was not ready to give up his amateur status.
He accepted an offer to play for the Pittsburgh Yellow Jackets of the United States Amateur Hockey Association, an arrangement which included a job and paid university tuition, first at Bellefonte Academy and then Duquesne University. Ever the prolific athlete, Conacher played football for both schools in the fall before serving as captain for the Yellow Jackets over the winter, winning championships in 1924 and 1925. His summers were spent back home in Toronto, where he continued to purse baseball and lacrosse.
For the 1925-26 season, the Yellow Jackets turned professional, changed their name to the Pittsburgh Pirates and gained entry into the National Hockey League. Conacher surprised many in Toronto when he elected to remain with the club, which would mean an end to his football playing days, his acknowledged favorite sport.
The 1925-26 Pittsburgh Pirates
Conacher would score the first goal in Pirates history on his way to a total of 9 in 33 games. He returned to Toronto in the summer to play baseball professionally for a team named the Toronto Maple Leafs, who would win the International League championship followed by the Little World Series, the championship of minor league baseball in North America.
He returned to the Pirates for the 1926-27 season, only to be traded after ten games to the New York Americans. His second season with the Americans saw him set a career high of 11 goals. He would play two further seasons with the Americans, but having a bootlegger for a team owner led to his heavy drinking, which would take it's toll on Conacher's performance and health.
Finally in the offseason of 1930, he would quit drinking when his first child was born and his rights would be sold to the Montreal Maroons.
After his first season of play for the Maroons, the owners of the Canadian NHL franchises launched a plan to fill their arenas during the summer months by developing the indoor version of lacrosse. Playiing for the Maroons entry in the International Professional Lacrosse League, Conacher led the league in scoring, nearly doubling the point total of the next highest scorer, including scoring ten goals in a single game.
His first season with Montreal would start with Conacher, a defenseman, scoring 7 points, but he more than doubled that to 16 in 1931-32.
Following the season, he declined to return to the lacrosse league, choosing instead to wrestle professionally in the off season, eventually finishing his career undefeated at 27-0.
When the hockey season resumed, he showed no ill effects of his seemingly constant participation in sports by setting career high with 28 points for the Maroons in 1932-33.
That fall he was part of an effort to organize a new, professional football league. While the league did not get off the ground, he was able to filed a team of other former amateur players who had given up football by turning professional in other sports. The team played a series of exhibition games over the course of the next two falls, but the now 34 year old was beginning to feel his age and the team did not return for a third season.
The Maroons would then trade Conacher to the Chicago Black Hawks for the 1933-34 season, where he scored 23 points and double digit goals for one of only two times in his career with 10. He added two more goals in the playoffs as Chicago won the first Stanley Cup in franchise history and Conacher was named a First Team All-Star for the season.
Just prior to the following season, Conacher was traded to the Montreal Canadiens with two other players for package that included the legendary Howie Morenz, goaltender Lorne Chabot and on other player. That was not the end of the wheeling and dealing, however, as the Canadiens then sent Conacher back to the Maroons in another trade.
The Maroons would go on to defeat the defending champion Black Hawks and then outlast the New York Rangers to earn a place in the finals, where they swept the Toronto Maple Leafs three games to none, giving Conacher back to back Stanley Cups, only with two different clubs.
He would play to more seasons for the Maroons, during which his point total rose from 8 to 14 to 25, the second highest of his career, which came in his final season in the NHL.
Following his athletic career, Conacher went into politics, becoming a member of the Ontario provincial parliament from 1937 to 1943. From 1949 he won a seat in the Canadian House of Commons, serving until 1954 when he died of a heart attack after hitting a triple during the annual softball game between the Members of Parliament and the press.
Concacher's long and successful sporting career was recognized in many ways, as he was named Canada's Greatest Male Athlete of the Half-Century in 1950, having won the Little World Series, a Memorial Cup, a Grey Cup and two Stanley Cups!
Following his passing, he was inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame (1955), the Canadian Football Hall of Fame (1963), the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame (1966) and the Hockey Hall of Fame (1994). Additionally, the annual award by the Canadian Press for Male Athlete of the Year is named the Lionel Conacher Award.
In addition to Lionel's exploits, his brothers Charlie Conacher and Roy Conacher also played in the NHL and were inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, while his son Brian Conacher played in the 1964 Olympics for Canada and won a Stanley Cup in 1967 while with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Today's featured jersey is a 1925-26 Pittsburgh Pirates Lionel Conacher jersey from Conacher's first NHL season. The Pirates chose black and gold based on the colors of the City of Pittsburgh flag, and were the first team from the city to adopt those colors, as the Pirates baseball club was still wearing red, white and blue and would not change to black and gold until 1948 and the Pittsburgh entry of the National Football League would not arrive on the scene until 1933.