A Canadian sporting legend, Lionel (Big Train) Conacher could do it all

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Lionel Conacher did it all.

Known as The Big Train, Conacher was an overwhelming winner of CP's outstanding athlete of the half-century in 1950. He was also named Canada's top football player of the half-century and received votes in balloting for best boxer and lacrosse player.

That remarkable pedigree is why Conacher's name graces The Canadian Press male athlete of the year award.

The multi-sport star won the Memorial Cup, Grey Cup, Stanley Cup (twice) and Canadian light-heavyweight boxing championship. He played pro lacrosse (winning the Ontario Lacrosse Association senior title with the Toronto Maitlands in 1922), baseball (winning the International league and Junior World Series with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1926) and even wrestled professionally.

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

Conacher mastered every sport he tried. As a teenager, he played on 14 different teams and won 11 championships, according to "Big Train: The Legendary Ironman of Sport, Lionel Conacher," by Richard Brignall.

"Lionel was just at the start of an athletic career unequalled in the history of Canadian sport," Brignall wrote.

Conacher, who did not start skating until he was 16, won the Memorial Cup in 1920 with the Toronto Canoe Club Paddlers of the Ontario Hockey Association.

The six-foot 195-pounder also starred for the Toronto Argonauts, tying Husky Craig’s 1913 record by scoring 15 points in a 23-0 Grey Cup win over Edmonton in 1921. Conacher scored his second touchdown — the TD was worth five points back then — of the game in the third quarter, adding to his field goal and two rouges. He left Varsity Stadium before the start of the fourth quarter to play hockey with his Toronto Aura Lee club.

"Lionel Conacher was undoubtedly the finest player in Canadian football prior to the legalization of the forward pass." James Fraser wrote in an article on the Argonauts' website on the unbeaten 1921 Toronto team known as The Invincibles. "He dominated the game at the top level for three or four years despite being the focus of every defence he played against, on every down he played."

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

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

He was "best known for his imposing physical presence, leadership skills and rock-solid play in his own zone," according to his Hockey Hall of Fame biography. Conacher was dubbed "the travelling netminder" for his ability to block shots.

He left on a high note, runner-up to Babe Siebert in the 1937 Hart Trophy voting and was a second team all-star.

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

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

Lionel Conacher was elected to the Ontario Legislature in 1937 (for Toronto-Bracondale) and to Parliament 12 years later (Toronto-Trinity). He served as an MP 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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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 29, 2021.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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