Lionel Pretoria Conacher, MP (May 24, 1900 – May 26, 1954), nicknamed "The Big Train", was Canada's top all-around athlete in the 1920s, excelling in Canadian football, ice hockey, lacrosse, baseball, boxing and wrestling. He later became a politician and was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario and the Canadian House of Commons.
Conacher was born in Toronto, Ontario in 1900. He grew up in poverty and was one of ten children. His father was a Toronto teamster. Lionel quit school after the 8th grade to help support his family. He soon realized that sports offered a way out of poverty. He then pursued athletic success.
Junior football and rugby
Lionel first played organized football from 1912-1916 with a Toronto junior team, the Capitals, where he played middle wing (offensive tackle). Canadian football was different then from what it is today. There were fourteen players a side and a touchdown was worth only five points (as it had been in the U. S. before 1912). The Capital won the city championship each year Conacher was a member of the team. In 1919 he played halfback on the Ontario Rugby Football Union's (ORFU) Capitals. In 1920 Conochar joined the Toronto Rugby Club in the senior division of the ORFU.
He went on to play for the Toronto Argonauts, and was part of the 1921 Grey Cup winning team. This was the first Grey Cup game ever played between the eastern and western champions. Lionel scored two touchdowns for the Argonauts. The very next season Lionel was named as team captain of the Argonauts. The team went undefeated again, with one tied game. Conacher rushed for 950 yards, in six regular-season games, including 215 yards on eight carries against Ottawa. Conacher only played two season with the Argonauts. While he played for them, the team was 15-1-1 in regular-season and play-off competition, winning one Grey Cup. He also set a season record by scoring 33 singles, including eight on 25 punts in another game versus Ottawa. This record still holds today, even though Canadian teams now play sixteen games instead of six.
Canadian Pro Football
By 1932, Conacher was a professional in four sports and ineligible to play Canadian football, which was still exclusively amateur. Therefore in 1933, he organized the first professional football league in Canada. He played halfback and captained the Toronto Crosse and Blackwell Chefs. The team was named for its sponsor, a food products company. The Chefs played teams from Rochester and Buffalo. In 1934 Conacher's team was called the Wrigley Aromints, because of a change of sponsors, this year marked his last year in football.
In 1963 Lionel Conacher was chosen as one of the charter members of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. However while football was Lionel's favorite sport, it did not pay well in the 1920s and 30's. However hockey did pay well and Conacher began to play more hockey games.
From 1925 to 1937, Conacher played in the National Hockey League with the Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Americans, Chicago Blackhawks, and Montreal Maroons. Winning the Stanley Cup in 1934 with the Chicago Blackhawks, and 1935 with the Montreal Maroons.
Hockey was Conacher's weakest sport. Conacher didn't start skating until he was 16 years old. However he quickly learned the skill while with the Toronto Century Rovers and the Aura Lee Athletic Club. He then joined the Toronto Canoe Club juniors in 1919-20. The club captured both the Ontario Hockey Associations junior crown and the Memorial Cup that season. Conacher then returned to the Aura Lees to play for their senior team for two years.
In 1922, Conacher played hockey for the North Toronto Seniors and he was in the line-up on February 8, 1923, in the first hockey match ever broadcast on radio. At this stage, Conacher was so highly regarded that the Toronto St. Pats and Montreal Canadiens both invited him to play in the NHL. That year while still active in amateur baseball, hockey and lacrosse, Lionel turned down an offer by Montreal Canadians manager, Leo Dandurand, to turn pro. Dandurand is reported to have offered Conacher $5,000 plus help in setting up his own business.
In 1924 and 1925, Conacher captained the Pittsburgh Yellow Jackets as they won consecutive United States Amateur Hockey Association titles. The following year the Yellow Jackets became the expansion Pittsburgh Pirates of the NHL. He was instrumental in keeping most of the Yellow Jackets together when the team went professional.
Conacher went professional when he joined the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1925. He was soon named the team's captain and scored the first goal in franchise history, against the Boston Bruins on November 26. On December 2, in front of 8,200 fans, Lionel also scored the Pirates first goal in Pittsburgh.
In 1927 Conacher was traded to the New York Americans, where he played four seasons and played alongside defencemen Leo Reise and Bill Brydge. In 1929 until 1930, Conacher served as the Americans player-coach.
Conacher joined the Montreal Maroons for the 1931 season. His time with the team included a career-best 28 points in 1932-33. He then joined the Chicago Blackhawks for the 1933 season, and was a key figure in the club's first-ever Stanley Cup victory that season. He finished second to the Canadiens' Aurel Joliat in the voting for the Hart Trophy and earned a spot on the NHL's First All-Star Team.
The next season, Conacher returned to the Maroons, where he'd spend his last three NHL seasons and won his second Stanley Cup in 1935. He ended his hockey career after the Maroons were eliminated from the playoffs by the New York Rangers on April 23, 1937. That final year he was runner-up to Babe Siebert in the 1937 Hart Trophy voting and was placed on the NHL Second All-Star Team.
In 1920, Lionel hit the game-winning home run to give his team the Toronto semipro baseball crown, then promptly took a taxi across the city and scored four goals for his lacrosse team, which was losing 3-0 when he arrived. In 1926, he played professional baseball as an outfielder for the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League. His team won the pennant and the Triple A championship.
In 1920 Lionel won the Canadian amateur light heavyweight boxing title. In 1921 Lionel boxed a four-round exhibition with Jack Dempsey.
Lionel also played lacrosse for the Toronto Maitlands, and helped guide that team to the Ontario Senior Lacrosse championship in 1922. In 1931, Conacher became professional in a third sport when he played for the Montreal Maroons in the International Indoor Professional Lacrosse League. In 1965, he was inducted into the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame.
In 1916 Conacher won the amateur lightweight wrestling championship of Ontario in the 125 pound weight class at age 16 year old. After training with Ali Hassan, he made his pro debut in May 1932 for Toronto promoter Ivan Mickailoff. Conacher went 27-0 as a pro wrestler in Canada and the United States in 1933 and never lost a match in his career.