Lionel Joseph Pretoria Conacher aka "The Train"
Lionel "The Train" Conacher was an all star Canadian athlete as is related to me through my paternal 4th Great Aunt, Grace McLagan, who was Lionel's Great Grandmother. This makes Lionel my 3rd cousin, 2x removed.
I discovered Lionel's celebrity quite by accident as I was reading an obituary of another Conacher cousin, Hector (2nd cousin 2x removed). In Hector's obituary was a note "A member of a family widely known in Canada for their professional athletes". This triggered a familiarity with the Conacher name so I started checking well known Conacher's in Canada.
This is when I discovered Lionel and had his (and other Conacher family members) celebrity status confirmed by yet another distant relative who knew all about them.
Lionel was known as "Mr. Everything" due to his ability to excel at every sport he tried. Born on May 24, 1900 in Toronto, his middle name was given to him as the British troops were fighting in Pretoria during the Boer War at the time of his birth (side note: I was in Pretoria on business at the commissioning of a new BMW plant roughly 100 years later).
Lionel was the eldest son and the third of ten children born to my cousin Benjamin Conacher and his wife, Elizabeth Black. The Conacher's lived in the Davenport area of Toronto (just north of Christie Pits), a rough area of the city at the time. Lionel's brother Charlie described their childhood neighbourhood as "one of Toronto's higher class slums". Like a lot of familie's of the time, Benjamin Conacher struggled to look after his family. Lionel left school after the eight grade and hauled sod for 10 hours a day to help his family. Another interesting family resemblance here as my father, Albert Taylor (Lionel's 2nd cousin) did the same thing 50 years later.
While at Jesse Ketchum School, where the principal encourage all the boys to engage in sports and stay out of trouble, Lionel discovered he was one of the best athletes in any sport he tried. He quickly became a star of football, lacrosse and hockey. Lionel discovered that his natural athletic abilities could be a possible escape from his childhood poverty.
When people say Lionel was "Mr. Everything", they are not exaggerating. During his teenage years Lionel played on 14 different sports teams and won 11 championships. At the age of 16, he won the Ontario Lightweight Wrestling championship. At age 20 Lionel won the Canadian amateur light-heavyweight boxing championship. In 1921, Lionel fought (and was knocked out) by famed heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey during an exhibition match.
Lionel was also well known for having hit a triple to win the Toronto city baseball championship and then, after the game, rushed to the other side of the city where his lacrosse team was playing. Seeing that his team was losing 3-0, Lionel rushed in and scored 4 goals and an assist giving his team the win.
Lionel's favourite sport was football and he started playing when he was 12. While playing senior level football in 1920, Lionel was seen by a scout from the Toronto Argonauts and impressed him so much he was offered a contract with the Argonauts. In the first game with the Argonauts, Lionel scored 23 of the team's 27 points. During the playing of the 9th Grey Cup match in 1921 (the first East vs. West Grey Cup in Canadian history), the Argonauts shut down the Edmonton Eskimos 23-0. Lionel scored 15 of the team's 23 points.
Yet another sport at which Lionel excelled was ice hockey. The expense of playing hockey originally kept Lionel out of the game, and he did not learn how to skate until age 16, making hockey his weakest sport. This didn't stop Lionel from excelling at the game though, and after being spotted playing hockey by the National Hockey League (NHL), Conacher was approached by the Toronto St. Pat's who offered him a salary of $3,000.00 (3x the average salary) to play for them in the 1920-1921 season. He was then offered a salary of $5,000.00 by the Montreal Canadiens to play for them in the 1921 season, but Lionel turned down both offers as he did not want to give up his amateur status.
Lionel continued to play senior hockey and in 1923 was part of history while playing for the North Toronto Seniors team as the hockey game was the first ever broadcast on radio. In the summer of 1923, Lionel received an offer from Ray Schooley, owner of the Pittsburgh Yellow Jackets (an amateur hockey team in the US) to play for his team. Lionel accepted and Schooley set him up with an insurance job and paid his university tuition so that Lionel could improve his education.
In 1925 Lionel began his professional hockey career in the NHL when the Yellow Jackets turned professional and became the Pittsburgh Pirates. Lionel scored the first goal in Pirate's history on American Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1925 against the Boston Bruins. During the 1925-1926 season, Lionel scored 9 goals in 33 games.
Lionel's career in the NHL ran from 1925 until 1937. He played 2 seasons with the Pirates and was then traded to the New York Americans where he played from 1926-1930. In 1930 he was traded to the Montreal Maroons and played with Montreal from 1930-1933 and was then traded to the Chicago Blackhawks where he won his first Stanley Cup in 1933 (also the Blackhawk's first ever Stanley Cup win). In 1934 he was traded back to Montreal where he stayed until he ended his NHL playing career in 1937.
When Lionel retired from professional hockey, he ran as a Liberal candidate in the 1937 Ontario election, and won a seat as MPP in the Ontario Legislature. Lionel remained an MPP until June 30, 1943 when the Legislature was dissolved for the 1943 general election.
Lionel ran for a seat in the Canadian House of Commons in the 1945 Canadian general election as a Liberal party candidate. He lost in 1945 but ran again in 1949 and this time won a seat as a Member of Parliament under the Liberal government of Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent. Lionel was re-elected in 1953.
In the Spring of 1954, while in Ottawa for conducting his Parliamentary duties, Lionel was asked to participate in the annual softball game between MPs and members of the press gallery. Lionel accepted and on May 26th, during the 6th inning, Lionel hit a long drive into left field stretching a single into a triple when he sprinted to third base.
Lionel stood at third base breathing heavily before collapsing from a heart attack. Another MP who was a doctor rushed to Lionel's aid, but little could be done; Lionel Conacher, the man named Canada's Greatest Male Athlete of the Half Century (1950) just 4 years earlier, was dead.
Lionel Conacher was truly a gifted athlete, excelling at many different sports, and someone whom I am proud to say was a member of my family.