Me and my family . . . the story of the Conachers PART IV Why the Kid Line became a legend
They began as boys in man-sized hockey, and for seven years they set the NHL on fire. Here Charlie Conacher, perhaps the greatest of them, tells
In January this year I was invited to Montreal to appear on a television program, and three nights later 1 drove over to Hamilton from my home in Toronto to be a guest on another TV show'. In each case 1 w'as introduced as "Charlie Conacher, a member of the famous Kid Line.”
The Kid Line played its last game as a unit back in April 1936 in the Stanley Cup final, and it never fails to astonish me that after twentyone years people should still remember us so well. Rarely a week goes by that somebody doesn’t bring up the Kid Line in conversation, although I must say that there are a lot of misconceptions about it. Most people think we played together as juniors, for example, or that none of us played for any club in the National Hockey League except the Toronto Maple Leafs, or that we’re the same age. One thing everybody does seem to know, though, is that I played right wing, that Joe Primeau w'as the centre, and that Harvey Jackson was our left-winger.
We arrived in the big league at different periods and each member of the Kid Line brought something different to the game. What I brought w'as a near-desperate determination to succeed and, at first, not too much ability. When I became a hockey player at Jesse Ketchum school, which was three doors down the street from the home in which my mother and father and the ten Conacher kids lived, I was so poor a skater that the other kids stuck me in goal to get me out of their way. But my brother Lionel drummed it into me that if we were ever going to live better we had to make good in sports because the Conachers just didn’t have the money to stay in school beyond grade eight; we got out and worked to help keep food on the table. One of the first jobs I got was at Langley’s cleaners in Toronto where I cleaned dirt out of the cuffs of men’s trousers for nine hours a night. I went in at eleven and quit at eight in the morning, and I got sixteen dollars a week. At that, I was lucky; I wouldn’t have had the job at all if I hadn’t been a fair ball player. I played second base for Langley's in the old Industrial League and they gave me the job as part of the inducement to play for them.
When I was seventeen in 1926 I tried out for the St. Mary’s junior hockey team, which later became the Marlboros. They played downtown in the Mutual Street Arena where the pros played. But I wasn’t good enough, and didn't make the club, so I tried out with the North Toronto juniors, who played away out in the west end in the Ravina rink. I made that team, and spent the winter going five or six miles by streetcar and then walking close to a mile from the car-line to the rink, carrying all my equip-
ment. We played every Saturday afternoon and practiced two or three times a week.
One night the North Toronto seniors were playing the famous Olympic hockey team, the Varsity Grads, at the Varsity Arena and l walked from our house to see the game. It turned out that North Toronto didn’t have enough men, so I ran all the way home—it was about a mile, I suppose, to our place on Davenport Road —and all the way back with my hockey stuff, and I got into the game. We were well beaten by the Grads, but I scored a goal on Dr. Joe Sullivan, the Grads’ goalkeeper, and he told me afterward that he hadn't often seen a shot as hard as mine. I swelled up like a pouter pigeon. And after the game Frank Selke, the manager of the St. Mary’s juniors, came up to me in the dressing room and said I'd improved a lot; he asked me to try out again with his team. I made the grade in the fall of 1927 when the team's name was changed to the Marlboros. and the next year, when I was nineteen, we beat the Winnipeg Elmwoods in the Memorial Cup final. That was the spring of 1929.
I turned pro in the fall, and actually it was my brother Lionel, who then was coaching the New York Americans, w'ho negotiated my first contract with the Leafs. The Americans were a pretty free-wheeling crew off the ice and Lionel figured it w’ould be better for a kid of nineteen to break in in his home town with the Leafs than to play in New York with the club Lionel was coaching. So the fact I ever played for the Leafs w'as his doing; if Lionel had told me to sign with him, I would have. He got me a twoyear contract for twenty thousand dollars with the Leafs. continued on page 62
The story of the Conachers continued from page 33
Lou Marsh wrote: “The kid line showed well.”
The tag stuck and
a hockey legend was born
Harvey Jackson — later on nobody called him anything but Busher—wasn’t with the team when l went to training camp that fall. But Primeau was. Joe almost didn’t make it. He’d been to two previous training camps and had
been farmed out each time. One night we were playing an exhibition game at Buffalo where the Pittsburgh Pirates, then in the NHL and managed by Frank Fredcrickson, were training. Before the game Fredcrickson made an offer for
Primeau to the Leaf boss, Connie Smythe.
“How much?” Smythe asked.
“Well,” the Pittsburgh manager stalled, “wait until the end of the first period and I’ll tell you.”
It was the first year of the forward pass in pro hockey and Primeau twice got through the defense to take dumped forward passes and score for the Leafs. Frederickson rushed to the Leaf dressing room when the period ended, and grabbed Smythe. Smythe told him coldly, “Primeau’s not for sale.” I don’t think there’s any doubt that Joe would have soon been in a Pittsburgh uniform if he hadn’t scored those two goals. Jackson meanwhile was playing junior with the Marlboros. But he was a kid who was just too good to remain an amateur. Harvey used to clean off the ice at the old Ravina Gardens and as soon as he finished scraping the ice he’d grab a stick and a puck and fire at the empty net. One night Frank Selke, who is now the managing director of the Montreal Canadiens, took his junior team to Ravina for a game, and he was watching Jackson, who’d be about sixteen, glide up and down the ice between periods. Jackson fired a shot that nailed another scraper over the eye, and Selke and Jackson carried the poor guy off the ice. “A kid who can skate like you can ought to be playing with my club,” Selke said to Jackson, and the next year Busher was. That was the 1928-29 season when, with Eddie Convey at centre between Jackson and me, the Marlboros won the Canadian junior championship. Jackson stayed on with the Marlboros that fall after I turned pro. He was injured early in the season, but he limped back into action for a game in Niagara Falls and managed to score six goals in his weakened condition. He was just eighteen but the Leafs figured he'd been an amateur long enough. That was just before Christmas 1929, and soon afterward the line of Primeau, Jackson and Conacher was formed — quite by accident. The Leafs had been going poorly— we’d won only five of our first sixteen games — and Smythe, who was thirtyfour then, was experimenting with forward lines. I’d started off with Eric Pettinger at centre and Hal Cotton on left wing, and then Primeau was tried at centre in Pettinger’s place. On the night of Dec. 29, 1929, we were in the Chicago Stadium and Smythe came into the dressing room just before the game. He said he was going to try the kid Jackson with me and Primeau. An injury had kept Cotton behind in Toronto. Well, we beat the Hawks that night, 4 to 3, and Jackson and I each got a goal on passes from Primeau. My goal, in fact, was the winner. The Toronto papers took no particular notice of the change in lines—it was just our sixth victory in seventeen games—but three nights later when we beat the Montreal Maroons Lou Marsh in the Toronto Star said that “the kid forward line showed well.” A couple of mornings later Mike Rodden referred to us in the Globe as “the youthful triumvirate,” and I didn’t know if that was good or bad. Smythe kept the line intact, and any reference to us as the “kid line” was normal sports procedure because that’s precisely what we were by NHL standards. Primeau was twenty-two, I’d turned twenty in December, and Jackson was eighteen. Gradually we became the Kid Line, capitals and all, and I suppose this was a sort of badge of recognition. The line stayed together until Primeau retired
from hockey after the 1935-36 season, and those intervening years represented the most successful in Toronto hockey history. Some people say the Kid Line paid the mortgage on Maple Leaf Gardens. the ice palace that was opened in 1931 and succeeded in spite of the Depression.
The Leafs finished fourth that first year, but in the six succeeding seasons we were first in three of them and second the other three. We won Toronto its first Stanley Cup in 1932. Jackson was voted the league's all-star left-winger four times, and I was the all-star rightwinger three times. Curiously, Primeau, who made Jackson and me tick, never was the all-star centre, although he made the second team once and also won the Lady Byng trophy as the player who best combined sportsmanship and achievement. Joe missed top rating for two reasons: Howie Morenz and Frank Boucher. They were two of the best centres who ever played, and Primeau had to contend with them both. Our line piled up 863 points in those seven years, an even twenty more than the New York Rangers’ great line of Bill Cook, Boucher and Bun Cook over the same span.
The line’s left-winger, Busher Jackson, had more natural ability than any player 1 ever saw. Bush could take a pass in full flight on one of his skates and somehow flick the puck up onto his stick without breaking stride. He was one of the greatest rushers largely because of the most unusual of athletic gilts, a natural shift. Red Dutton, who played defense for the New York Americans and later became president of the National Hockey League, once told me about that shift from the point of view of a defenseman: "He comes at you taking a stroke on his left skate and then, instead of taking his next stride on his right foot, he seems to take another with his left."
“The freshest busher ever”
We called Jackson Busher because of an incident involving our trainer, Tim Daly. Right after Harvey turned pro he made a trip with the club to New York. He wasn’t playing, though, because he’d hurt his leg in his last junior game and it was mending. As we headed out ol our dressing room for the ice, Daly, chewing on a dead cigar, grunted to Jackson, "Awright, kid, pick up them sticks. You can be my stick-boy."
Jackson, a brash handsome, outspoken kid, just grinned at Daly. "Pick ’em up yourself, you old goat,” he said. 1 m a National Leaguer.”
Abashed, Daly sputtered.
"Well, sir,” he said, “if you ain’t the freshest busher 1 ever seen.”
Primeau was a completely different fellow than Jackson. Joe was solemn and retiring and modest, and he made the Kid Line click because he had as much guts as any player I ever saw. You still hear the centreman called a playmaker sometimes these days but usually he isn’t. Under the rules and the pattern of offense of the Thirties he had to be— he’d take the puck up the middle and then try to draw the defense together to stop him so that he could then make a play to one of his wingmen cutting in from the side. With defensemen like Ching Johnson and Taffy Abel of the Rangers, and Eddie Shore and Lionel Hitchman of the Bruins, this could be rough on a centre, but Primeau, a slender fellow of 160 pounds, took everything they could hand out to make his plays for us.
Joe used to have his troubles, even with Jackson and me. Both of us loved to get that puck and roar in on the goalkeeper and, of course, if Primeau slid
the puck to Busher when 1 figured he ought to see that 1 was flying down the right boards looking for it, well, then I used to growl at him for not passing to me. Same thing when he did slide it over to me; Jackson would get hot. around the collar because he didn’t get the pass.
"You two guys will drive me nuts,” the mild Primeau complained one night. "The only way Ell ever satisfy you is if 1 cut the puck in half.”
1 guess Primeau, in his quiet determined way, is the only centre who could
have handled a couple of big singleminded birds like us, and he did all right with us both. Jackson won the NHL scoring championship in the 1931-32 season, and then 1 won it twice in a row, in 1933-34 and again in 34-35. Without those passes from Primeau and the punishment he took in making our plays on the net possible we'd never have done it.
And besides the Kid Line through those seven years there were some great hockey players—Hap Day and Hal Cotton. Andy Blair and Ace Bailey, and a
lovable little leprechaun of a fellow named King Clancy.
That Clancy, he was always starting fights on the ice and he couldn't lick his lips. His spirit, shaped and sharpened by nine years with the famous old Ottawa Senators, was all the Leafs needed to win their first Stanley Cup in Clancy’s first year with us in the spring of 1932. The NHL was divided into two divisions in those days, the Canadian division and the American division. We topped our group to qualify to play Boston, the American division leader, in the first
round of the playoffs. It was a two-game series, with total goals to decide the winner, and it looked as if we were finished almost before we’d got started. We lost the first game in Boston 3 to 0 and were trailing 1 to 0—or 4 to 0 on the round— after the first period of the second game in Toronto.
We weren’t allowed to smoke in the dressing room so I sneaked into the lavatory off the main room to grab a few puffs after the first period. Clancy had beaten me to it, and was sitting on the only seat available, having a cigarette, when I clomped in on my skates.
“Get up,” I grunted at him.
“Get up? Whatta yuh mean, get up?” yipped Clancy. “Why should I get up for a bum who’s playin’ like you’re playin’ out there tonight? I’ll not be gettin’ up.”
He’d hit a sore spot with me. Here I was, one of the league’s top scorers, and I’d scarcely caused a draft around the Boston goalkeeper Tiny Thompson in four full periods of hockey. The main reason was that a Boston left-winger named Red Beattie was shadowing me like a gumshoe. I couldn’t make a move but I’d find him practically wearing my sweater. I reminded Clancy of this, although it could hardly have escaped his notice.
“Well now, sit down,” he said, handing me the cigarette for a few puffs, “and I’ll tell you what to do.”
I sat down, and the little man climbed into my lap, put his hand on my shoulder and started to talk.
“Why don’t you give it to him good? Why don’t you belt him once and for all and be rid of him? Why don’t you just wallop him?”
“Sure,” I said, “and get a penalty.”
“So what’s a penalty?” said Clancy. “Look, I’ll get the puck and I’ll wait until Beattie is right beside you. Then I’ll pass it to you and when he’s reachin’ for the puck, let him have it hip and thigh.” That’s what happened. I jammed my hard-fibre elbow pad into Beattie’s face and, amazingly, the referee missed it. A few minutes later Clancy deliberately tripped the Boston defenseman and mainspring, Eddie Shore, and the referee, who was Odie Cleghorn, missed that one, too.
Shore was livid, protesting vainly to Cleghorn. Clancy skated up and needled Eddie, to make matters worse.
“The man’s blind, Eddie,” Clancy commiserated. “You’re bein’ robbed, man, surer than hell. And he blew that one on Beattie, too.”
Enraged, Shore fired the puck at the referee in disgust. That got him a twominute penalty. Driven to distraction by the injustice of it all, .Shore now picked up the puck and threw it into the crowd. Cleghorn tacked a ten-minute misconduct penalty onto Shore’s sentence. That kept the great Bruin star off the ice for twelve minutes, and we ran in four goals to tie the series while he was off. They were so demoralized that we just kept right on flying. We beat the Bruins 8 to 3 — I got three goals and two assists —and eliminated them by eight goals to six on the round. We never stopped. In the Stanley Cup final against the Rangers we beat them in three straight games by tennis scores, 6 to 4 in the first, 6 to 2 in the second and 6 to 4 in the last one, and I guess you’d have to say that Clancy’s fire was responsible for it all.
He was a remarkable guy in a fight. He’d go flying into some guy twice his size, and he’d start hollering for me to bail him out. One night in Montreal he got involved with Harold Starr, a big tough defenseman for the Maroons, and in no time at all he was on the bottom. Busher Jackson skated over to me, grinning.
“C’mon, Chuck,” he said. “Let’s make this one fight Clancy wins.”
So we skated over to the sprawled players, pulled Starr off Clancy and then set King down on top of him and skated away. We’d only gone a few strides when Bush looked back over his shoulder, and shook his head.
“It’s no use, Charlie,” he said. “Clancy’s on the bottom again.”
This was typical of the easy-going spirit that contributed greatly to our success over those seven years. And, of course, Smythe was a fiery, imaginative leader, in the thick of every game, waving his arms wildly at the referees, stomping around the rinks shouting at the fans. He’s mellowed tremendously since a serious wound at Caen in World War II
slowed him down, and of course he now runs the hockey club by telephone from a resort hotel in Palm Beach through three months of the season. Connie and 1 have had a number of differences concerning the changing pattern of hockey but I have the greatest admiration for the manner in which he built the game in Toronto and, for that matter, in the other NHL cities.
I remember once he manufactured a feud between my brother Lionel and me when Lionel was nearing the end of his career as a great defenseman with the Chicago Black Hawks. Smythe dreamed up a big half-page newspaper advertisement showing a picture of a train with Lionel, who was known as Canada’s Big Train of sports, prominently displayed just under the smokestack. There was a picture of me, too. skating past the train, and the ad announced that I was out to derail the Big Train.
Actually, there was never any rivalry on the ice between Lionel and me. We put on a show for the customers at the Gardens the night of that advertisement. The two of us were sent off for highslicking. As we neared the penalty box Lionel stuck his face against my chin and started talking animatedly, waving his arms and scowling. I snarled back at him, bobbing my head to emphasize my annoyance.
"i didn’t get around to the house today,” is what Lionel actually said to me. “Are Mom and Dad okay?”
“Sure, they’re fine,” is what I was telling him. “but they wondered why you didn’t come home.”
As we were leaving the penalty box after serving our two minutes, Lionel grabbed my sweater to hold me back. I gestured threateningly at him, and the
two of us skated to our positions, still scowling.
We had a great time through those seven big years but along about the time that Joe Primean retired after the 193536 season I was starting to feel the weight of injuries that piled up on me through every season. 1 had a kidney taken out after my first season — I’d crashed into a goalpost in fall training —and this was followed in succeeding seasons by blood-poisoning in my hand, a broken wrist, two broken bones in my hand, a broken collarbone, a shoulder separation and, possibly the most painful of all. a violent attack of boils, of all things.
I decided to retire a year after Primean made the break and 1 did stay out of hockey during the 1937-38 season. But then I came back for two more years, the first with Detroit and the second with the carousing New York Americans where we logged more ice-cube time than ice time.
The Amerks mailed me a contract for another season but 1 decided that after eleven years I’d had enough. 1 left the ice cubes, too, when I left the ice and have been a teetotaler ever since. I’ve added a paunch, own a car a block long and only occasionally grow homesick for the old days. But. in moments like these, 1 always meet somebody who, when he hears my name, gets that tell-tale glaz.e in his eye. I know what he’s going to say before he opens his mouth.
“Tell me,” he says, drawing his chair closer, "tell me about the Kid Line." ★
In a concluding article Charlie Canadier looks at today’s hockey and tells why it fails to produce great stars.