Canadian sports legend Lionel ‘Big Train’ Conacher could do it all

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Former Montreal Maroons defenseman Lionel Conacher in an undated file photo.The Canadian Press

Lionel Conacher did it all.

Known as The Big Train, Conacher won the title of Outstanding Half-Century CP Athlete in 1950. He was also named Canada’s Best Football Player of the Half-Century and received votes in the ballot for the best boxer and lacrosse player.

This remarkable pedigree is why Conacher’s name honors the Canadian Press Male Athlete of the Year award.

The multisport star has won the Memorial Cup, Gray Cup, Stanley Cup (twice) and the Canadian Light Heavyweight Boxing Championship. He played professional lacrosse (winning the Ontario Lacrosse Association senior title with the Toronto Maitlands in 1922), baseball (winning the International League and the World Junior Series with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1926) and even struggled professionally.

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Born May 24, 1900 in a working-class neighborhood in Toronto, Conacher was the third of 10 children.

Conacher mastered all the sports he tried. As a teenager, he played in 14 different teams and won 11 championships, according to Richard Brignall’s Big Train: The Legendary Ironman of Sport, Lionel Conacher.

“Lionel was only at the start of a sporting career unparalleled in the history of Canadian sport,” wrote Brignall.

Conacher, who only started skating at the age of 16, won the Memorial Cup in 1920 with the Toronto Canoe Club Paddlers of the Ontario Hockey Association.

The six-foot, 195-pound gun also played for the Toronto Argonauts, tying Husky Craig’s 1913 record by scoring 15 points in a 23-0 Gray Cup victory over Edmonton in 1921. Conacher scored his second touchdown – the touchdown was worth five points at the time. – from the match to the third quarter, adding to his basket and two reds. He left Varsity Stadium before the start of the fourth quarter to play hockey with his club Aura Lee in Toronto.

“Lionel Conacher was without a doubt the best player in Canadian football before the forward pass was legalized. James Fraser wrote in an article on the Argonauts website about the 1921 undefeated Toronto team known as the Invincibles. “He dominated the game at the highest level for three or four years, despite being at the center of every defense he has played against, in every try he has played.”

That same year, he had an exhibition bout with boxing icon Jack Dempsey.

Conacher played in the NHL from 1925 to 1937 with Pittsburgh, New York, Montreal and Chicago. A tough defender, he won the Stanley Cup in 1934 with the Chicago Blackhawks – as a first-team all-star – and in 1935 with the Montreal Maroons.

He was “best known for his massive physical presence, leadership skills, and rock solid play in his own zone,” according to his Hockey Hall of Fame biography. Conacher has been nicknamed “The Roving Guardian” for his ability to block shots.

He started off on a high note, finalist to Babe Siebert in the Hart Trophy voting in 1937 and was a second all-team all-star.

Conacher was inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in 1955, the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1963, the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 1966, the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1994 and the Hall of Fame Ontario Sports Hall of Fame in 1996.

Younger brothers Charlie and Roy are also part of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Lionel Conacher was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario in 1937 (for Toronto-Bracondale) and to Parliament 12 years later (Toronto-Trinity). He was a member of Parliament until his death on May 26, 1954, at the age of 54 – of a heart attack after hitting a triple in a charity softball game.

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