"Big moments I remember"
Me and my family. . . the story of the Conachers PART II
"Big moments I remember"
Charlie Conacher with Trent Frayne
Me and my family. . . the story of the Conachers PART II
It wouldn’t be completely accurate to say that the Conachers played hockey twelve months of the year because there were times when we used to sleep and eat. But trifling things like June breezes or Indian summer never deterred us. Every day, right after school, we'd go out on the street to play hockey, using a sponge ball for a puck and old coal sacks for goals. We played with a kid named Bill Hunter, who could play a mouth organ, and we'd line up on the street while he played God Save the King, just like they did at the pro games in the old Mutual Street Arena and later in Maple Leaf Gardens, and then we’d start, racing up and down the street in our boots.
Even after I turned pro with the Leafs in the fall of 1929 I continued to play shinny with my brothers, although Frank Selke, who was the assistant manager of the Leafs under Conn Smythe, used to tell me I was crazy because I might get hurt. Once, he was almost right. I was coming down the front steps to join my brothers Roy and Bert. I was smoking a big cigar, and suddenly Roy fired the sponge ball at me. I didn't see it coming and it whacked me in the groin. I felt like I’d been body-checked by that great old Ranger defenseman, Ching Johnson, but I wasn’t going to let Roy know it.
“This cigar,” I said, “it must be made of rope. I don't feel so good. Maybe I’ll just sit here and rest for awhile.”
I think those big cigars made a greater impression on my brothers than the fact I d made the NHL. I bought my first cigar the day after my first game in the big leagues, the opening game of the 1929-30 season. Maple Leaf Gardens hadn't been built then, and we opened the season against Chicago in the Mutual Arena. A lot of people have the notion that the famed Kid Line of Joe Primeau, Busher Jackson and me started right off together but that isn’t so. Actually, I went out on right wing beside Eric Pettinger and Harold (Baldy) Cotton, and the first time I got the puck I learned a lasting lesson. Cotton slipped me a pass and I thought I had a clear path toward the Chicago net. I looked down at the puck, cradling it on my stick and
We all played shinny and tried to act like stars. Then suddenly I was a star, with a $20,000 contract and a yellow convertible with our whole family crammed into it. That was one of the
tearing in on Charlie Gardiner, the Chicago goaltender, when suddenly 1 was jarred by a terrific impact. Taffy Abel, the big 220-pound Chicago defenseman, nailed me with a hip check that sent me bouncing on the seat of my pants trom the blue line clear out to centre ice.
That taught me never to go near a deienseman with my head down. Later in that same game I got a pass from Pettinger near the boards. I faked to my left as though I was going to try to split the defense, and when Abel moved to his right to block me I cut to my right, skated wide around him and broke clear in on Gardiner and scored my first NHL goal. Two nights later against Boston in our second game, I scored two more.
I always figured that my hockey ability was helped by those shinny sessions on the street, and I think it helped my brother Roy's, too. It developed our shots and our stick-handling, as well, but it also contained a lasting note of tragedy. I was playing with Roy and his twin brother Bert one afternoon after I’d turned pro. Bert and 1 were jostling for the ball and my stick cracked him at the side of his left eye for a little two-stitch cut. We didn't think anything of it at the time, but about eight months later Bert went blind in that eye. He was about sixteen then, and played junior after that, but of course he was unable to play pro hockey.
He kept right on playing shinny with us, though, a game that actually served a double purpose for the Conachers. We lived next door to a coal yard and we always concluded the game by firing the sponge ball far into the yard. Then we went in, presumably to search for it, carrying the sacks we used for goal posts. Actually we were stocking up on coal. If a watchman showed up we dropped the sacks and hunted for the ball. Until things got rolling in hockey, we didn’t spend much money on coal around our place.
That hockey money meant a great deal to our family of ten kids because until Lionel, my older brother, and I started to pick up a few cheques for hockey it looked like we never would escape the brink of poverty. And just as I remember my first cigar, I also continued on page 48
The story of the Conachers continued from page 21
"I slid into the goalpost . . One of my kidneys was so badly damaged it had to be removed"
remember the day I signed my first contract with the Leafs. It was for twenty thousand dollars for two years, and I got an advance cheque for five thousand dollars. In the fall of 1929 five thousand dollars looked to me like those numbers
you see on the windows of a bank, and to a family like ours it seemed like all the money in the world. I was a couple of months shy of twenty, and just about the first thing I did after I’d made my first deposit was buy a yellow Buick
coupe with a rumble seat. Then I headed for our house on Davenport Road in what used to be known as Toronto’s north end but what is practically downtown in the sprawling Toronto of today. I picked up some sandwiches at a restau-
rant along the way and drove up to our door in splendid majesty. It was a moment I’ll never forget.
Five of the kids were at home, the twin girls Kay and Nora, the twin boys Roy and Bert, and our older sister Mary. The four oldest in the family, Dolly and Lionel and Derm and Queenie, were all married and away. The other five came charging off the porch, followed by my mother and dad, and we all piled into the car to go for a drive. We circled the block a couple of times and then stopped in the big ravine near Yonge Street and had a picnic on the sandwiches I’d bought. Then we had races. I put up a quarter for Roy and Bert, then another quarter for Kay and Nora. Really it didn’t matter who won because the twins always shared anything they had anyway. Whenever Lionel conducted these family races he’d dig down for a dollar, and in races between Roy and Bert the winner would get seventy-five cents. The boys would run their hearts out to beat one another, but I never remember a time that, no matter who won, each didn't wind up with fifty cents.
There’s still a tremendous bond between Roy and Bert. When Roy was sold to Chicago by Detroit in 1947 he refused to join the Black Hawks unless Bert went to Chicago with him. Bert said, what the heck, he didn’t mind spending a winter in Chicago, so he went and the two of them roomed together. Roy’s wife Fran accepts the bond philosophically. “When 1 married Roy,” she smiles, “I married them both.” Bert has just been married for three years, and his wife Grace feels the same way.
For that matter, the whole family’s close. I remember I slid into a goal post in my first season, and while I didn’t think I’d done any serious damage at the time, I began to get terrific pains in my back as the season wore on. It got so that I could hardly bend over to do up my skates and finally I had to go to hospital. It turned out that one of my kidneys was so badly damaged that it had to be removed. I’ll never forget the loneliness of that hospital room. It was far worse than the pains. I told Bert and Roy and my older brother Derm to hang around the hospital with me. They’d leave when the visitors had to go, but then they’d sneak across a vacant lot behind Wellesley Hospital, go in the back way, and tiptoe down the corridor to my room. The nurse used to wonder about the mumbling occasionally, but I’d hear her coming down the hall, and in a hoarse whisper I’d tell the boys to hide in the bathroom. One night I was sure she’d caught us.
“Who’s in here?” she demanded. “I heard people talking.”
“No, no, it’s just my back,” I lied. “I was moaning, nurse.”
So she went out. Through a crack in the half-closed bathroom door I could see my three brothers lined up against the wall, their backs pressed against it and their hands over their mouths to keep them from laughing.
Even in moments of high triumph there was that bond. Back in the spring of 1939 when Roy was popping in the goals for Boston, the Bruins gained the Stanley Cup final against Toronto. The teams split the first two games in Boston and then moved back to Toronto for the next two. The Bruins surprised by winning the third playoff game 3 to 1 in
Maple Leaf Gardens, and put a hammerlock on the championship by winning the fourth game 2 to 0, with Roy scoring both goals. The Bruin management was so jubilant that, although the team still needed another victory to sew up the seriis, the players were given a big party out at the old Silver Slipper club near the Humber River on Toronto's western outskirts. Of course, Roy was the toast of the ball. Except that Roy didn't show up.
Right after the game, Roy and Bert and Nora and a friend of Nora’s named May Brown went back to our house and sat around the big kitchen table playing penny ante. I don’t think a dollar changed hands all night. They'd argue over whether a flush beat a straight and whether a straight beat a pair when there were all of a dozen pennies in the pot. Roy always would rather be with Bert and Nora than any two outsiders you can name. To this day, neither Roy nor Bert has ever taken a drink.
Incidentally, the Bruins caught a train to Boston the next afternoon, and finished off their Stanley Cup triumph the following night. Roy got the winning goal in a game that ended 3 to 1.
Around our house we used to have what we called “the hunt.” When Lionel or I brought a little money home for mother we’d get her out of the room, and then hide a few bills. Then the hunt was on, and it w'as up to mom to find the money. We’d tell her if she was hot or cold, and if she was getting closer to one of the bills, well then, of course she was getting warmer.
Once, dad found the money before she did. "Finders keepers," he laughed, holding it high over mother’s head. Of course he was only teasing her. Dad, like the rest of us, turned money over to mother to run the house.
A clan meeting at Christmas
The rest of the family brought money home as soon as they were old enough to work. None of the Conachers got beyond grade eight at Jesse Ketchum school because high-school books cost money that we couldn’t afford. Bert and Roy had paper routes and sold hockey programs at Maple Leaf Gardens in the early Thirties for a dollar a night, and they turned that over. Nora and Kay went to work at the Gooderham and Worts distillery when they were sixteen, bottling whisky for $12.50 a week. They worked from eight to five o’clock six days a week. Mary got a job at the Bell Telephone. Her responsibility was the thirty-dollars-a-month rent we paid for our house. Later Mary married a wrestler named Ernie Zellers, who now is superintendent of schools at Butler, Indiana. Queenie was hardly around long enough to work, but for a time she was a clerk at Andrew’s Bakery. When she was seventeen she married Martin Mayhue and they’re now living at Detroit where he works at one of the Ford plants. Derm was married young, too, and moved out to make his own way.
But, no matter where everybody was, the whole clan congregated at home every Christmas until two Christmases ago when mother died at the age of eighty-two. Home was always the house in which mother lived to us Conachers even after we were married and had families of our own. From the early days on Davenport Road, that involved two other houses in the same general semi-poor neighborhood near the foot of the Avenue Road hill in what is now the centre of Toronto. From Davenport we moved to Dupont Street, where we lived for seven years, and then to MacPherson Avenue where we spent thirteen years.
Then, just before the war. the family “made the hill,” moving up to the crest of the Avenue Road hill to Duggan Avenue, a neighborhood so prosperous that you’d never see a kid wearing a patch in the seat of his pants.
Four years ago mom and dad wanted to get back to the old district. They wanted to be near the church they’d attended for more than fifty years, the Church of the Redeemer, at Bloor Street and Avenue Road. So they moved into a three-story frame house on Scollard Avenue, about two blocks from the
church. Now Nora stays there with dad, who will be ninety next October, and various members of the family still drop in on odd evenings to sit around and be together.
My sister Queenie. who was christened Queen Victoria May Conacher, is the only member of the family who grows self-conscious when the subject of age comes up at these occasional get-togethcrs. Unhappily for Queenie. the Conachers are the kind of family who make a point of bringing up that very subject when Queenie comes for a visit. Five
or six of us will be sitting around the big kitchen at home now, with the big wood stove giving off a glowing warmth, and maybe Roy will say that he remembers when he and Bert had only one bobsled between them. Then I’ll wink at Roy.
“Gosh, Roy," I’ll say, dead-pan, “we’d be living on Davenport then, wouldn’t we, and you and Bert would be about thirteen. That’d be twenty-seven years ago.”
“That’s right,” Roy says. “And if Bert and I were thirteen, you’d be twenty.
How old would that make Mary?”
Well, of course, all this time we’re watching Queenie, and Queenie, who is two years older than Mary, always starts to fidget. She fusses with her hair, shifts position in her chair, and breaks in with something about how the weather’s been in Detroit lately.
We’ve had the occasional family squabble — one time Roy punched Bert and knocked him down during a shinny scrimmage, and then for days afterward felt terrible pangs of remorse and actually suffered more than Bert did — but Heaven help an outsider who passed a snide remark about a Conacher. Once, down at the Sunnyside Stadium where girls’ softball used to attract sellout crowds night after night, my brother Lionel was watching a game in which the twin girls, Nora and Kay, were playing. Nora, who is a very attractive girl, was at second base for the Nationals, and some loud-mouth in the crowd made a sniggering aside concerning her appearance. Lionel heard him.
“That’s my sister, buster,” Lionel said, grabbing the guy by the lapels. Then he belted him with a right, knocking the guy as cold as a mackerel.
Kay and Nora were both good ball players, a game they played as kids at Jesse Ketchum school where the principal, William Kirk, insisted that every student participate in sports. His policy kept us Conachers so interested in games that in spite of the fact we rarely had any money we had no time to get into trouble. And, believe me, we were poor. Once, when Kay and Nora formed the battery for the Jesse Ketchum school team in a game against the Elizabeth Street school, Nora had a searing experience. The girls had to wear long stockings in those school games but Nora, who was Jesse’s pitcher, had her stockings rolled below her knees. Halfway through the game, with Jesse away ahead, the Elizabeth girls started calling from the bench at Nora, insisting she roll her stockings up. Nora’s teacher walked out to the mound.
“Maybe you’d better roll your stockings up, Nora,” she said.
“No, I don’t want to,” Nora said, a little flustered.
“Perhaps you’d better,” the teacher persisted.
“It’s just an excuse,” Nora said, close to tears that made no sense to her teacher. “They know we’re going to beat them and it’s just an excuse.”
“Well, I think you’d better.”
Nora looked at her teacher for a long moment.
“I can’t,” she said. “There are no tops.”
Nora recalls that she had a nervous habit in school of tugging at her stocking-tops. This had pulled a hole in one of them and stretched the other all out of shape. So she’d cut the tops off, and rolled the stockings over an elastic below her knees. That particular week, Nora had only one pair of stockings.
I don’t know how her teacher explained all this to the Elizabeth Street school teacher, but anyway the game went on and the Jesse Ketchum girls won it.
I’ll never forget the first time Nora and Kay ever went on a trip. I was with the Leafs in Boston and I phoned the twins to tell them 1 wanted them to meet me in New York where the Leafs were playing a couple of nights later. 1 got them a hotel room and met them at Grand Central Station. The first thing they did when we got to their room was have a bath.
“Gee, what a beautiful tiled bathroom,” Kay said, “and what a thick bath towel.”
“Honestly,” Nora agreed, “it’s the
thickest bath towel I’ve ever seen.”
The bath towels hadn’t seemed particularly thick in any hotel I’d ever been in, so I took a look at the objects of wild approval.
“For God’s sake,” I said, coming out of the bathroom and rejoining the girls in the room, “you’ve both been drying on the bath mat!”
I used to bring presents home from road trips for mother, and her face would light up in delight, and then she’d frown.
"Oh, Charlie, you shouldn’t be wasting your money on me,” she’d say.
Mother was the kingpin around which the family revolved. She was about fivefeet-five or -six but we used to call her Shrimp occasionally because the whole family outgrew her. We had patches on our pants but she always made sure we were clean, and she taught us never to be envious of anyone, and she preached honesty to us. If Lionel came home and left her some money, and then I came in with some, she’d refuse to take the money from me.
.“I don’t need it, I don’t need it,” she’d insist. “Lionel was just here.”
That’s when I’d organize “the hunt.”
I remember the first time 1 bought a washing machine. I had it sent up and the men installed it in the basement. It
Do it myself
I don’t need a kit,
I don’t need a tool;
I have what’s required To make me a fool.
LEONARD K. SCHIFF
sat there for weeks, untouched, while mother went right on washing by hand over a scrub-board. One night she confessed to Nora that she was afraid of the washing machine. So Nora showed her how to run it, and once mother discovered that it wouldn’t snap at her she used to sail into the basement four or five times a week to do her washing.
Another time I had a refrigerator sent to the house to replace the old icebox. Nora got mother out into the backyard while the thing was installed and then we all stood around the kitchen to watch her reaction when she saw it. She came in and started to prepare supper. She wanted to know what everybody was doing in the kitchen. She peeled potatoes, humming over the kitchen sink, and then she set the table. It must have been twenty minutes before she finally noticed it, and then she just stopped in mid-stride and stared.
Now that mother’s gone nobody misses her as much as dad does. They were married nearly sixty years. Dad is still a remarkable man for one who has been living eighty-nine years. He cooks his own breakfast and he always makes Nora’s lunch for her. But his conversation still revolves around mother. She was in the hospital for about three weeks. The nurses at St. Mike’s were captivated by her because she felt she was such a bother to girls who already had enough to do. Three nurses, who’d really not had much time to get to know her. turned up at her funeral. One of them summed up the whole family’s feeling about mother when she drew Nora aside and said softly:
“There’ll never be another like her.” ★
In the next issue Charlie Conacher tells the story of his brother Lionel, the fabulons Big Train who was voted Canada’s outstanding athlete of the half century.