Lionel Conacher

The millennium beckons. Soon sports scribes will stagger under an irrepressible urge to crown Canada’s greatest athlete of the century.

Restless brains will cogitate, meditate and deliberate. Who was the greater, Howie Morenz or Bobby Orr? Gordie Howe or Jean Beliveau? Cyclone Taylor or Rocket Richard? Or will the nowadays hero Wayne What’shisname, head all the rest?

But maybe it’s not an iceman. What of Vancouver’s shy comet, Percy Williams, winner of Olympic gold in the 100 and 200 metre sprints in 1928? Or a baby face Jimmy McLarnin who won the world’s welterweight boxing championship in May of 1933, lost it in May of 1934, then captured it back four months later? Or Johnny Longden, pride of Taber, Alberta, first jockey on the continent to ride 5,000 winners?

The problem separating this galaxy is that each candidate was a one-sport star. So a burning question intrudes: Where for versatility plus skill is there anyone to match Lionel Conacher – the giant dubbed The Big Train?

Lionel did everything. He went into the ring and traded punches with Jack Dempsey when Dempsey was the world’s heavyweight champion. He played the outfield behind the great lefthander Carl bbel in 1926, the year the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Little World Series. He played some football too, including setting a 1921 Grey Cup scoring record. It’s been broken since.

As well, Lionel the Lion played U.S. football. One of the top college coaches, Carl Snavely of Cornell, said of him, “I don’t believe I have ever had a fullback who was a better runner in the open field or who was a better punter, or who so fully possessed the qualities of speed, skill, dexterity, aggressiveness, self-control and the attributes required for superiority in American football.”

John Kieran, who wrote the lead sport column in The New York Times, was asked once to name the best athlete he’d every seen in Madison Square Garden. He wrote: “Naturally I saw Joe Louis. Babe Ruth too – in a softball game, but it was still Babe Ruth. Bill Tilden, who whacked a tennis ball under that roof, was a great man to watch. But for me, if it’s the best athlete up for selection, one vote for Large Lionel Conacher.”

Being a Canadian, Large Lionel played hockey, though hockey was his weakest game. He didn’t start skating until he was 16 and he remained clumsy through a 12-year NHL career. So all Lionel did was make the first or second all-star teams three times, play for two Stanley Cup championships, and finish runner-up to Aurel Joliat for the Hart Trophy in 1934. He developed a sliding, puck-stopping technique so proficient that columnist Ted Reeve dubbed him the Travelling Netminder.

Lionel became an NHL coach as well, although what success he had with the floundering New York Americans belonged mostly to the tiny goaltender, Roy Worters, a marvellous competitor – at 5 ft. 3 and 135 pounds.

One night the Amerks were crossing the border for Montreal and a customs official told Lionel he couldn’t locate Roy. “He’s in his berth,” Lionel said. “I’ve looked there,” said Mr. impatient customs. “Well look again,” Lionel said. “He’s in there some place.”

Hockey was Lionel’s third-best game, behind football and lacrosse and his baseball wasn’t memorable, although he became the fourth outfielder on the old Triple-A Maple Leafs.

“When he’s in right field he ought to wear a mask,” the Leafs manager Dan Howley remarked, “but I’ll say this, he can hit some.”

Lionel was the force in a large Toronto family of 10 (five boys and five girls). Through example and strength of personality he urged two younger brothers, Charlie and Roy, to find success in hockey, the only game in their time where they could make money. They did, too – Chuck with the Maple Leafs and Roy with Boston.

Through sports, Lionel became interested in Ontario politics, believing government aid to community parks would be a boon to poor neighbourhoods. Then he made the move to the federal field and made the team there, too.

Indeed, it was in Ottawa in May of 1954, just past his 53rd birthday, that Lionel was playing in an annual softball game between MPs and Press Gallery slaves. He legged out a triple and was standing on the bag when suddenly he toppled, bleeding from the mouth. Twenty minutes later, the man likely to be voted Canada’s greatest athlete of the century was dead.