'Lionel could do anything
Me and my family . . . the story of the Co.lachers PART III
Charlie Conacher with Trent Frayne
Back in 1912 when my father was a teamster in Toronto keeping a family of six kids on nine dollars a week, my brother Lionel used to meet him every day after school so that he could drive his team to the stable. Lionel was twelve then, a sturdy eager boy wearing stovepipe pants above his bare knees. One time as they were unhitching the team, the boss came in and told dad to hire another man to help him haul sod from the Don Valley the next day.
“1 can do it. 1 can do it!" exclaimed Lionel. "Let me do it. Dad.”
The next day Lionel stayed out of school and drove a team five miles to the valley and then hauled sod all day, from eight in the morning until six at night, and as I recall it he earned a dollar.
Those words of Lionel’s, “I can do it,” pretty well set the pattern of his life. He would tackle anything—from facing Jack Dempsey in a boxing ring to taking on Tim Buck in a political riding, to battling half of the world-champion New York Rangers hockey team in Madison Square Garden—and he’d give it everything he had. 1 think it’s reasonable and accurate to say simply that Lionel could do anything.
1 here was scarcely a dissenting voice back in 1950 when Lionel was voted C anada’s outstanding athlete ol the half-century, and by then he'd been retired for fifteen years. There was certainly no surprise around our house when the Canadian Press announced the result of its national poll; as far back as 1922, three years before Lionel turned professional, the newspapers frequently called him Canada's greatest athlete, and we just sort of took it for granted that he
was. The New York Times columnist, John Kieran. was asked once to name the best athlete he'd ever seen in Madison Square Garden, and in part here's w'hat he wrote:
“Naturally I saw Joe Louis perform in the Garden. Babe Ruth too—in a softball game, but it was still Babe Ruth. Bill Tilden, w'ho 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.”
In 1940 a Toronto columnist reprinted a letter from one of America's foremost football coaches, Carl Snavely of Cornell, who said that Lionel “was probably the greatest athlete that I have ever coached in football or in any other form of athletics, and it has been my good fortune to have on my teams some of the greatest football players who ever played American football. AllAmericans who will be remembered for generations because of their outstanding performances.”
Lamenting that Lionel had decided to play professional hockey instead of continuing his football under Snavely at Bellafonte Academy, a prep school in Pittsburgh, the coach added: “1 don’t believe I have ever had a fullback w'ho 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 American game of football. He was far superior to many boys on the same team who later won All-American honors in several universities.”
Lionel chose hockey because it offered the most money. He was determined to rise above the blunted curbstones of Davenport Road where he w'as born on May 24. 1900. I was nine years younger than Lionel and he used to tell me over and over, "If you want to live better, Charlie, you’ve got to make good at something, and I don't know where we're going to do it if it isn't in sports.” Through hockey, Lionel led our family of ten kids (four more were born after 1912) out of the semi-slums of Toronto's old North End. He was much better at football and lacrosse than he was at hockey, but in the Twenties and early Thirties hockey was the only game that paid off in Canada.
For all his aggressiveness anti determination, he was fair and played cleanly. The great little left-winger of the Canadiens, Aurel Joliat. once remarked of Lionel, "He never tried to hurt a small player like myself.” When roused, though, look out, for down would go the stick and he punched like a trip hammer. As I've said, hockey was the sport at which he had not too much ability because he didn’t skate until he was sixteen, and he always was an awkward man on the ice. But he approached hockey intelligently and figured out angles at which it wais 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 smothering shots, dropping with uncanny timing to one knee, a style that prompted the Toronto sportswriter Ted Reeve to call him the Traveling Netminder. And because he had put more thought, of necessity,
He licked whole hockey earns, fought Dempsey, kicked a football farther than anyone, battled through politics and died stretching out a triple. Here’s the "Big Train” only his family knew
into actually manufacturing his hockey ability, he became an astute field general.
He was absolutely fearless despite some fierce punishment over the years. His great natural timing and aptitude and a perfect frame lor contact sports helped him in his early years in the National Hockey League, of course, but as a kid who’d had nothing he sampled the social side of big-league living, too. Sampled? For a time it seemed he was bent on a literal interpretation of the soft-drink slogan, Drink Canada Dry. When Lionel was with the old unbridled New York Americans and, later, the unrestrained Montreal Maroons, nobody traveled faster than he did. But two things changed all that when he was thirty. The Maroons, recognizing that he’d slowed to a walk, asked waivers on him, meaning that any other club in the NHL could claim his services for $10,000. Significant of his decline, there were no takers.
The second factor was that his first of five children was born. He and his wife, the former Dorothy Kennedy, the daughter of a well-to-do Toronto landowner, had eloped when Lionel was twenty-three and Dot was seventeen. The elopement so disturbed Dot's father that he didn't speak to Lionel for two years—and then, in Dorothy’s words, “he wound up loving him.” Seven years after their marriage, with their first child on the way, they agreed that if it was a girl Dot would name the baby, and if it was a boy he’d be called Lionel. When a little girl was born in Wellesley Hospital in Toronto on Nov. 25, 1930, Lionel phoned from Montreal, jubilant.
“How is Constance?”
continued on page 30
The story of the Conachers continued from page 25
Lionel’s record: 600 stitches, eight broken noses
he asked slyly, “how is little Connie?”
And then he said quietly, “Dot, from now on, things will be different.”
It was at that moment, Dot says, that Lionel, whom she always called Con, stopped drinking.
It has been written that Lionel was a two-bottle-a-day man, which I doubt, but nevertheless it must have been a greatwrench when he quit cold. Just after his daughter Connie was born he developed pneumonia, and then he had an operation, and on top of all this the Maroons were ready to drop him. But, typical of the kid who said, “I can do it. Dad.” he came back better than ever. After two good seasons with the Maroons, he was purchased by Chicago. As a comparatively old athlete nearing his mid-thirties, he led the Black Hawks to the Stanley Cup in 1934 and then was the defensive mainstay of the Maroons when they bought him back from Chicago and won it in 1935.
Lionel, as befits a champion, drew on his battered head a considerable amount of envy and abuse in climbing from the near-poverty of his youth to prominence in sports and politics and business. Even today, three years after his death during a parliamentary softball game in Ottawa at the age of fifty-four, there are people who disparage his achievements, but no one who knew him is among them.
He took a terrible physical battering in becoming a big-league hockey star— when he was nearing thirty-four he was named over Eddie Shore and Ching Johnson to the first team on the NHL’s 193.3-34 all-stars — and carried something like six hundred stitches. He had a hundred and fifty in his face and head alone, and had had his nose broken eight times. It carried a permanent curve that resembled a road dçtour.
Lionel’s role was always that of a policeman, shepherding the little guys on his club when rival defensemen began roughing them up. With the Americans
he’d look after Normie Himes and Rabbit McVeigh particularly because they were two of the smallest—and smartest —forwards in the league. Once in a game in New York he took seventeen minutes in penalties for fights and exchanges with five different Rangers, Butch Keeling, Vic Ripley. Ott Heller, Doug Brennan and Ching Johnson, and as he was wearily taking off his harness in the dressing room afterward, he suddenly turned to the Amerks’ little goalkeeper, Roy Worters, and exclaimed, “Hell, I forgot about that Asmundsen. I saw him butt-end Rabbit.”
He tangled with Eddie Shore almost every time his team played the Bruins. Bob Gracie, who used to play with my team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, once told me about his dilemma as a player with the Maroons when Lionel was his team mate. "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,” Gracie said. “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.”
Roy Worters, who is all of five-feettwo and weighs about 120, often talks about the time that Lionel picked up the worst-looking cut he ever saw. The Amerks were playing the Black Hawks and with five minutes to go Lionel fell on a Chicago player’s skate. He climbed to his feet and finished out the game without a word. Afterward, he could barely get his equipment off. The skate had torn a crescent-shaped gash eight inches long in his thigh. The Americans’ club doctor. Dr. Henry Clauss, pulled together the badly torn leg tissues with fourteen stitches, and admitted while he was doing it that he’d never seen a worse wound.
For all his toughness, Lionel was a quiet friendly fellow off the ice, with a
droll humor. One time the Americans were crossing the border for a game in Toronto, and a customs official told Lionel, who was the coach, that he'd checked the players’ Pullman car but couldn’t find little Roy Worters.
“He’s in his berth." said Lionel.
“But I’ve looked there." said the official.
“Well, look again," smiled I ionel. “He's in there some place."
I ionel was a wonderful cook, and often had the players visit his apartment in Montreal for a steak that he could broil like a professional chef. Once he invited a few of the Maroon players, Baldy Northcott. Jimmy Ward and C'y Wentworth, for (.linnet. He visited a shoemaker during the afternoon. Wentworth complimented him on the tenderness of his steak. Northcott, who had a plate with the steak smothered in fried onions, complained that he was having trouble cutting his steak. Baldy had the one that had come from the shoemaker.
I ionel began playing games at Jesse Ketchum school, three doors down the street from our first home on Davenport Road. He won the Ontario 125-pound wrestling championship in 1916. when he was sixteen, and the first time he ever boxed competitively he won the ('anadian light-heavyweight championship at Ottawa in 1920.
It wasn’t unusual for Lionel to compete in two championship games in a single day. Once, in 1922, he was playing baseball for the Toronto Hillcrests and lacrosse for the Toronto Maitlands. Hillcrests were playing the Monarchs for the Ontario baseball championship one Saturday afternoon in a game cut to seven innings by agreement. In the last of the seventh with Hillcrests trailing by two runs the bases were full when I ionel came to bat. He crashed a triple to win the game, and he kept right on running when he crossed third base.
He ran to a waiting car, and changed into his lacrosse togs as the car sped across town to a park where Maitlands were playing Brampton for the Ontario lacrosse championship. When Lionel arrived Maitlands were trailing 3 to 0. He scored four goals and assisted in another as Maitlands won the game 5 to 3.
That same year l.ionel fought a threeround exhibition bout with the world’s heavyweight champion. Jack Dempsey, for the soldiers at Christie Street Hospital in Toronto. He was no match for the great Dempsey, of course, but he showed enough promise and willingness that both Dempsey and his manager, Jack Kearns, urged him to take the game seriously. But Lionel had no stomach for the prize ring, although he once told me that it there was an athlete he admired more than any other, it was a boxing champion.
“When you're in that ring you're all alone,” he remarked. "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."
As I have indicated, Lionel’s favorite sport was football. People who saw the Grey Cup final of 1921 dwell lovingly on the memory of a raw-boned steer of a man who, in the days before the deception of the forward pass, grabbed a ball from scrimmage, churned his knees to the chins of opposing tack Iers and barreled over the turf all afternoon, scoring fifteen points as his Toronto Argonauts whipped the Edmonton Eskimos 23 to 0. Not until Jackie Parker came along in the Grey Cup game of 1956, thirty-five years later, did an individual player score more than fifteen points in a Grey Cup game. Parker's three touchdowns, aided by a new rule that made the value of a
touchdown six points instead of five, plus a single, produced the new record of nineteen points.
Annis Stukus, the old Argonaut football player who breathed life into the game in Edmonton and Vancouver in recent years, has told me about a feat he saw Lionel perform in 1937. Watching the Argos practice one fall day when he was thirty-seven years old, Lionel noticed the kicking of Bob Isbister, who later became the best kicker in the country.
“Maybe I can show you how to get
more distance, Bob.” Lionel suggested. “Here, put your foot into it this way.”
Then, wearing his business clothes and Oxfords, Lionel kicked the ball high and far. Stukus swears the ball traveled eighty-five yards in the air, and then bounced high into the end zone.
Lionel performed a switch in 1927 that would be heralded coast to coast today. He went to the United States to coach foot ba 11 ! He was called upon by Rutgers University to teach the principles of the lateral pass, which was just starting to make its appearance in American
football. He coached at Rutgers for two seasons.
If there was one professional game at which he didn’t excell it was baseball, and then only because he hadn't played the game for two years when the Toronto Maple Leafs signed him to an International League contract in 1926, the year the Leafs, with Carl Hubbell as one of their pitchers, won the Little World Series. Lionel was used mostly as a pinch-hitter. Nat Turofsky, the sports photographer, told me once that he’d asked the Leaf manager, Dan Howley,
how good a ball player Lionel was.
Howley looked out toward the outfield where Lionel was shagging flies, and replied dryly, “When he's in right field he ought to wear a mask.”
Lionel never lost his interest in sports, and was even playing hockey for the Toronto Old Timers when he’d passed fifty. I played with the Old Timers, too, and so did my old Kid Line team mates on the Maple Leafs, Joe Primean and Busher Jackson, along with former NHL stars like Cy Wentworth. Lorn Duguid. Roy Worters, Neis Stewart, Turk Broda and
others. We played eight or ten games a winter, traveling around southern and eastern Ontario and playing benefit games for the Crippled Children's Fund or a service-club charity. In four years from January 1951, we raised more than $100,000 and none of the players, of course, got any money. Lionel was in Ottawa then, representing the Toronto Trinity riding for which he'd been elected to parliament in June 1949 and again in August 1953. but even when the House was in session he'd drive over winter roads to Kingston or Oshawa or Toronto
or wherever we were playing to pull on his pads and his skates and play with us.
In fact, it was sports that got Lionel interested in politics. The idea of government aid to community parks in the poorer districts of Toronto prompted him to run for the Ontario legislature in 1937 when he was elected for Toronto Bracondale riding, the very section in which he'd grown up. He defeated Russell Nesbitt, who’d been the Conservative member for fourteen years. Through all his political life, including federal politics when he defeated Tim Buck in the Trin-
ity riding of Toronto in 1949, Lionel was a backbencher who concentrated on his own riding.
He set up an office over a service station he operated at the corner of Scollard Avenue and Davenport Road, and put my sister Nora in there to look after the complaints of people in the riding. Bracondale is a provincial riding which, combined with the provincial riding of Bellwoods, forms the federal constituency of Trinity, so that in all of his years in politics Lionel was dealing with people of the same district, and they got to know that they could take their problems to the office over the service station.
Once, Nora learned that a woman who'd visited her a few times had lost her husband. Lionel found out the name of the undertaker and quietly told him that he'd look after the funeral expenses. A federal member of parliament. James Rooney, who operated a fuel-oil business in Toronto, has told me that 1 ionel picked up the fuel bills each month for numerous poor families in his riding.
One time a Chinese came to the service station to tell Nora that he had two sons and a sister in Hong Kong who were unable to come to Canada because immigration authorities claimed that one of the boys was tubercular. The man claimed that his sister had written him that it was a case of mistaken identity, that the boy had been checked and cleared by his own doctor, but that the immigration people had refused to re-open the case.
A few months later, the man returned to the service station, accompanied by a woman and two younger men. These, he told Nora, were his sister and his two sons. He was eternally grateful, he said, to Mr. Conacher who had instituted an investigation in Ottawa.
These things were not uncommon. Nora still keeps a huge stack of letters from people in the Trinity riding, thanking Lionel for various things he was able to do for them.
I’m not trying to make any particular case for Lionel as an MP; those things were part of his job. But I have been trying to show the kind of man it was who helped the Conachers find a place for themselves in the world.
Right to the day he died, Lionel was still the kid who told his father he could do it. At the age of fifty-four he drove from Toronto to Ottawa to participate in the annual softball game between the members of parliament and the parliamentary press gallery. It was two days after his birthday, the evening of May 26, 1954.
He played second base for the MPs. Bucko McDonald, a former Leaf defenseman, was the first baseman. Donald Fleming, a recent candidate for leadership of the Conservative Party, was the shortstop, and Lester (Mike) Pearson, the minister of external affairs, was the third baseman. In the second inning Lionel hit a single, which he stretched into a triple, knowing from his long years as an athlete that the inexperienced press gallery outfielder would throw to the wrong base. As he lied from second to third, a belated throw struck him on the head, but he slid safely into third base.
In the sixth inning he lofted a fly into left field, scoring Bucko McDonald with the MPs’ thirteenth run. Breathing heavily while an outfielder retrieved the ball he raced into third base. Then, suddenly, standing on third, he toppled to the ground, bleeding from the mouth. Twenty minutes later he was dead. ★
In the next issue Charlie Conacher tells what made the Kid Une, on which he played for Toronto Maple Leafs, one of the greatest scoring units in hockey history.