Lionel Conacher played 12 seasons in the NHL, but if you want to know why in 1950 he was voted Canada’s greatest athlete for the first half of the 20th century, I’m going to have to ask that you consider the pre-NHL years of the man they called The Big Train. Born in Toronto on a Thursday of this date in 1900, Conacher was a superlative talent in whichever sport he tried … which was pretty all of them. He was a wrestler and a boxer, starred on the grass at baseball and football and lacrosse, as well as on the ice. He’s in Canada’s Football and Lacrosse halls of fame, and was elected to hockey’s pantheon in 1994.
In December of 1921, after scoring 15 points that helped the football Argonauts win the Grey Cup at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium, 21-year-old Conacher headed over to the rink at Arena Gardens to captain the Aura Lee senior hockey team in the title game for the Sportsmen’s Patriotic Association senior trophy. Aura Lee lost that one, though Conacher did score a great goal. Turns out this kind of thing was almost routine for the kid: three years later, in the summer of 1924, he hit a double to win a game for his baseball team, the Hillcrests, before catching a taxi across Toronto to score two goals in a winning effort for the lacrosse Maitlands.
He made his NHL debut in 1925, and was a dominant defensive force there, mostly for teams that don’t exist now: other than a year as a Chicago Black Hawk, he did his skating for the Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Americans, and Montreal Maroons. His NHL CV includes 82 goals in 527 games, along with two Stanley Cups; twice he finished runner-up in voting for the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP. He also compiled a gruesome catalogue of injuries, including eight breaks of the nose. Charlie and Roy, his younger brothers, are both in the Hall of Fame, too.
After hockey, he went into politics, first in the Ontario legislature and then, in 1949, as a federal MP in Ottawa with Louis St. Laurent’s Liberals. Conacher was just 53 when he died — of coronary thrombosis in the sixth inning of a Parliamentary softball game, after hitting a triple.
A writer for Ottawa’s Citizen was one of many to write a remembrance that May, in 1954. “It was a strange twist of fate that the game Conacher played least well kept him in public life longest,” Austin Cross wrote of his hockey career. And yet Conacher wasn’t a natural on the ice the way he was on the grass, Cross felt: starting out, he was “poor on skates.” He continued:
I first remember him, not as a football player, but in baseball uniform. He came to Ottawa to play for Hillcrests, and after he had murdered the ball out at Lansdowne Park, I went out with my camera and took a picture of him in his ‘monkey suit.’ I had the print until just recently. It revealed a fair-haired young boy, tall and handsome, and a face without guile. His nose was not broken in those days, and he was a most attractive type of man. Members of parliament who looked at him these last few years, and who studied that beat-up face, and looked at the atrociously pounded-in nose, have remarked more than once that it was hard to get into their heads that this bald-headed man with the comic nose was once Canada’s greatest athlete.
(Top image, c. 1937, from the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)
No quick thought-piece here on why Bobby Orr did what he did, or how terrible the disappointment tastes, or how patently absurd it would be to write a sentence like “President Trump has delivered for all the American people, regardless of race, gender, or station in life,” let alone submit it for publication. The ad that Orr paid to mar half of page A9 of today’s New Hampshire Union Leader is here, if you want to study it.
Me, I’m admiring “Winter on the Don,” above, another of Winnipeg photographer Diana Thorneycroft’s masterpieces, from her 2007 series “Group of Seven Awkward Moments.” Her interest here, she’s said, is in combining “iconic northern landscapes, which have come to symbolize Canada as a nation,” with “scenes of accidents, disasters, and bad weather.”
“By pairing the tranquility of traditional landscape painting with black humour,” Thorneycroft writes, “the work conjures up topical and universally familiar landscapes fraught with anxiety and contradictions.” For more of her bracing views of our north, visit dianathorneycroft.com.
The Toronto Maple Leafs won a second successive Stanley Cup in April of 1963 when they rolled over Detroit in five games. They finished it off at home, beating the Red Wings 3-1 in the final game on two goals by centre Dave Keon and another (the winner) from left wing Eddie Shack. Afterwards, the Leafs poured champagne on one another, except for Carl Brewer, who was in Wellesley Hospital getting a broken arm tended to. Next day, the Leafs paraded through a crowd of 40,000 on their way up Bay Street to City Hall, where Mayor Don Summerville presented them with golden tie clips.
Then, next — it was the off-season, then, and the Maple Leafs dispersed to do what hockey players do when they’re not playing hockey. Some went to school, some on vacation. Many had jobs; a lot of them, then as now, played a lot of golf. They did not, in 1963, get an opportunity to invite the Stanley Cup to visit their various hometowns — several more decades would pass before that turned into a tradition.
How did the Leafs spend the summer of ’63?
Centre Red Kelly, one of the team’s elders, was the Member of Parliament representing the ruling Liberals for the Toronto riding of York West. Originally elected in 1962, he’d been re-upped the night before the Stanley Cup finals opened in early April, healthily defeating his Progressive Conservative rival, 30-year-old Alan Eagleson.
Kelly was a busy man. On top of the pucking and the politicking, he owned both a tobacco farm and a bowling alley back home in Simcoe, Ontario.
At the end of May, he gave his maiden speech in the House of Commons. Secretary of State Jack Pickersgill said it was one of the best performances he’d everseen in Ottawa; a Toronto Star editorial that didn’t go that far deemed it “sensible,” “well-considered,” and likely to put paid to the Conservative canard that the election of a hockey player had somehow lowered the dignity of the House of Commons.”
“Mr. Speaker,” Kelly began, “I am not sure whether or not it is because I do not have on my skates, but it feels much more slippery here than it does on the ice.”
It was a wide-ranging debut, lasting ten minutes, and delivered without notes. Kelly made light of his having waited a year to speak, and he likened the Speaker to a referee. He talked about his riding and gave some views on flags and anthems. Hearing “O Canada,” he said, before a game in place of “God Save The Queen” made him very proud. “My chest stood out a little more.” People wondered why he’d decided to run for Parliament and he said he told them it was because of how excited he was about where Canada was headed. He wanted to be a part of that, and to help the country grow.
Also, the Liberal leader and prime minister Lester Pearson? Such a great guy. The more Kelly got to know him, the more he thought he might just be “the tonic Canada needs.”
“I felt he could do a whale of a job for the future of Canada,” Kelly said.
Other Leafs who were working on the country’s future included left winger Frank Mahovlich and his wife, non-winger Marie, who had their first child in the summer ’63, a son, Michael Francis. Sylvia Harris and her husband, centreman Billy, welcomed twins.
Left winger Dick Duff, the team’s last bachelor, golfed in Florida for a while before flying north to enroll at the University of Toronto for courses that would lead him towards an undergraduate degree. When he wasn’t hitting the books, he had a job selling cars at Gorrie’s on Gerrard Street at Yonge. It’s possible that while on campus he ran into teammates: both Brewer and centre Billy Harris were both pursuing B.A.s that summer too. Brewer, his arm in a cast, was taking French courses while also working part-time as a car salesman.
Leafs’ defenceman Bob Baun was in the car business, too, as was trainer Bobby Haggert. The latter took a vacation at the Calgary Stampede in July before returning home to work the lot at Ron Casey Motors in Newmarket. The Leafs’ rented a house in Florida that players used, and Baun spent time there before getting back to work; he also had a gig as host at George’s Spaghetti House on Sherbourne at Dundas.
Eddie Shack and his wife had their own Florida getaway before Shack returned to join with the NHL All-Star team that toured Ontario through July and August playing softball. Centre Bob Pulford spent part of his summer working in the ticket office at Maple Leafs Gardens. Right winger John MacMillan already had an engineering degree to his name; he spent the summer working on an education degree at the University of Denver in Colorado.
In March, when Richard, Dave Keon’s 18-month-old son died, died of pneumonia, the Toronto papers took a respectful step back. I think that’s what it was; it did mean that their muted mentions in the local papers explaining why the Leafs’ centreman missed the final two games of the regular-season was filed in as awkwardly as possible alongside tidings of Frank Mahovlich and his flu, and John MacMillan’s injured elbow.
Keon returned for the first game of the playoffs, wherein the Leafs beat Montreal 3-1, and he contributed two assists to that. Leaf fans were outraged, in April, when Keon wasn’t named to the NHL’s 1st or 2ndAll-Star teams — Stan Mikita and Henri Richard were elevated above him — but he did win the J.P. Bickell Cup, which used to be awarded to the Leafs’ team MVP. Keon and his wife flew to Hamilton, Bermuda soon after the Stanley Cup paraded, so he didn’t learn until later that he’d also won the Lady Byng as the league’s most gentlemanly player.
“The Hamilton paper,” he explained later, “only carries cricket and soccer results.”
The rest of Keon’s summer involved golf (he caddied for an American pro at the Canadian Open in Scarborough, Ontario) and chocolate bars (he worked for a candy company, promoting their product). He also travelled to his hometown with another native son, Leafs’ defenceman Kent Douglas, to be fêted by friends and old neighbours in Noranda-Rouyn, Quebec.
Goaltender Johnny Bower passed most of his summer on the ice in British Columbia, working with 119 eager youngsters at George Vogan’s Nelson hockey school alongside Detroit centre Norm Ullman and the former Red Wing Metro Prystai. The Leafs’ second goalkeep, Don Simmons, was back home near Boston running the real estate and insurance business he owned there. Defenceman Allan Stanley went prospecting in north Ontario, near Blind River.
In August, the list of 62 players that Leafs’ coach and GM Punch Imlach was inviting to training camp in Peterborough, Ontario, in early September included the names of defencemen Don Cherry and Terry Clancy, King’s son.
Most of the late-summer Leaftalk in the papers had to do with the team’s seniormost citizens, Kelly and Stanley and Bower, whether they’d be retiring, what that would mean for the team’s prospects. Stanley was 36 and Bower was — well, hesaid he was 39, though the newspapermen in Toronto thought it was more like 42.
Kelly, who was 35, was thinking that hockey might have to give way to politics, though he hadn’t quite made up his mind. The commute, he said, was killing him.
(All three, in the end, kept playing, helping the Leafs to defend their title in the spring of 1964. And they were all still on the job, of course, when the Leafs won the Cup again in 1967.)
Imlach’s letter in August of ’63 was like others he sent in those years. Winter is coming, was the gist of it, be ready. He asked players to report to camp weighing no more than seven pounds over the weight they usually played at. He said that they should be prepared to show him 25 sit-ups, 25 push-ups, and 30 knee bends, “on command.” Young and old, Stanley Cup champions or not, the Leafs should expect to be awoken at 6.15 in the morning; lights-out was 11.15.
There would be golf, but no golf carts. And as far as getting from their downtown digs at the Empress Hotel to the ice at the Memorial Centre, two kilometres — they’d be walking that, too.
While much of Canada slept Sunday morning, the team battling in our name at this year’s IIHF World Championships in Denmark swept past South Korea by a score of 10-0. Maybe you woke up to watch the TV broadcast, but if not, and you relied on tidings from the internet, then it’s possible that you saw the victory framed as a kind of gratis Royal Caribbean vacation on the IIHF’s news-feed, where the headline over Andrew Podnieks’ report read: Canada Cruises At Korea’s Expense. A Team Canada “made up of NHLers started gently but poured it on,” he wrote. On Twitter it was deemed both a convincing and a dominant win; the Koreans were duly thrashed (Sportsnet.ca) and demolished (Hockey Night in Canada).
Was that really necessary, though? It’s the question that comes up after lopsided wins against lesser opponents, if not for those players on the ice perpetrating the lopsiding, then for some certain observers at home with an interest in sportsmanship and mercy. Could the Canadians have let up a bit yesterday — after, say, Pierre-Luc Dubois scored in the second period to make it 5-0? Or what about closing it down for the third, at the start of which Canada, ranked first among hockey nations, was leading the Southern Koreans, 18th in the world, by a score of 8-0? Wouldn’t that be a kinder way of administering a whomping?
There’s no easy answer, of course. You can’t really expect a parcel of NHL players notto do what they’re trained to do, i.e. skate and score right to the end. And in a round-robin tournament, wherein goal-difference can be a deciding factor, there’s no such thing as an excess of goals.
If you want the original written ruling on the matter, well, in fact the book that’s considered to be hockey’s very first has something to say. Arthur Farrell, a Hall-of-Fame forward, published Hockey: Canada’s Royal Winter Game in 1899, the same year he helped the Montreal Shamrocks to the first of their two successive Stanley Cup championships. Over the course of 122 pages, Farrell waxes long and eloquent on everything from history and equipment to conditioning and tactics.
Hockey, he’ll tell you, is as salubrious an occupation as you’re going to find anywhere. “The very adhering to the rules,” he advises, “the spirit of fair play that characterizes a manly game, the overcoming of all fears and all difficulties, the modest victory, the frank acknowledgement of defeat, all tend to build up, to educate, the mental faculties, just as the long practice, the swift race, and the hard check help to develope [sic] the physical man.”
Keep fighting is advice that features, too, as in never give up. “It is a mistake,” he counsels, “to lose courage because your opponents score the first three or four goals.” Don’t start fighting, though, as in punch somebody: “Do not begin to play roughly because you are losing.”
And if you’re winning? Pour it on, Farrell counsels. “Do not purposely and ostentatiously avoid scoring against a team that has already lost, because even if a bad beating does discourage them they would rather suffer it than be humiliated by any such show of pity.”
Sound advice, I guess, though I’d maybe prefer to hear it direct from the badly beaten and downright discouraged themselves.
Were the Swedes glad to go unpitied to the tune of 12-1 when the met the Canadians at the Antwerp Olympics in 1920? What about the team they sent at Chamonix in 1924, losers to that year’s Canada by 22-0?
W.A. Hewitt was the manager of those Canadian teams, Foster’s father, and he was at the helm again in 1928 in St. Moritz when the University of Toronto Grads wore the maple leaf. Canada opened the tournament against Sweden, surging to a 4-0 first-period lead that … displeased Hewitt. The newspapers back home reported it next day: the boss “became impatient at the slow rolling up of the score.” The players calmed him down, apparently: they thought it best “to let nature take its course.”
Final score: 11-0.
Some of the Grads were still talking about the propriety of running up scores when Canada went to the 1956 Olympics in Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy and rolled over Austria by a score of 23-0. “It’s no credit to Canada,” opined Dr. Joe Sullivan, Grad goalie in ’28. “They shouldn’t beat these weak teams by more than ten goals.”
A teammate, centreman Hugh Plaxton, agreed. “I don’t think it does hockey any good.”
One last case study might be worth considering. Austria hosted the IIHF’s 1977 World Championships in Vienna, though they didn’t have a team in the tournament, and so didn’t have to worry about humiliations on the ice. Not so Canada. Here was a rare of instance of one of our teams finding itself at the suffering end of a rout and, with it, a chance to see how we’d react.
Canada was back at the Worlds for the first time in seven years, and this time they’d be icing a team of professionals. Not quite the front-line accumulation that had won the 1976 Canada Cup, of course: this one would be staffed by NHLers from teams that hadn’t made the playoffs, or hadn’t lasted far into them. GM Derek Holmes had marshalled Jim Rutherford and Tony Esposito for the Canadian goal, Dallas Smith and Carol Vadnais on defence. Pierre Larouche, Ron Ellis, and Rod Gilbert were up at forward along with captain Phil Esposito, who was also named as a playing assistant to coach Jimmy Wilson of the Colorado Rockies.
Phil E. stressed the need for team unity. He’d seen in 1972 what effect dissension could have on a venture like this. “We must have complete harmony if we expect to do well,” he said. The team was young and the players didn’t know one another. “The results in the first exhibition games might give some people in Canada cause for alarm, but overall, we will be all right.”
Things did not, shall we say, get off to an auspicious start in Europe. After a pre-tournament stop in Sweden, the Canadian played West Germany in Dusseldorf, where they won, 8-1, in a penalty-filled game, and were jeered by 10,000 fans, many of whom threw their seat-cushions on the ice when it was all over.
A report in The Globe and Mail insisted that the barrage was ironic, “mock rage that actually was a favorable reaction to the hard hitting and sometimes cheap penalties the Canadians received.” As for the German press, they reported that Phil Esposito might have been drunk.
“There they go, mistaking me for my brother Tony again,” Phil said, laughing, when he heard that. “Actually, if I had been drinking, it doesn’t say much for their hockey club.”
Of his refusal to shake hands after the game with one of the Germans, Esposito said, “I guess I do not like him. He speared me in the private parts on the first shift and it got worse from then on.”
The Canadians did peaceably dine with the Germans, post-game, I should report. Then they left for more exhibitions in Prague. “That is when it is down to serious business,” Esposito confided.
The Canadians lost both of the exhibitions they played against Czechoslovakia, 7-2 and 4-1. The Czechs paid a price, losing one of their players in the first game to a bad knee injury and another to a broken arm. “If ice hockey follows the path shown by Canadians on Saturday,” one local newspaper warned, “one can only wonder if it will survive beyond this century.”
In Austria, there was a kerfuffle regarding the IIHF’s insistence that all players wear helmets. Several Canadians complained, saying headgear gave them headaches, and the team doctor gave them medical certificates to that effect. But the IIHF wouldn’t relent. Unhappy, the Canadians still fared well enough in their opening game, beating the US 4-1. The next game didn’t go so well: the Swedes we took such care to whup through the 1920s now prevailed 4-2.
Next up, the powerful Soviet Union, winners of the two most recent Olympics as well as eight of the previous ten world championships. They had Vladislav Tretiak in the crease, and ahead of him, the likes of Alexander Yakushev, Boris Mikhailov, Valeri Kharlamov, and Helmut Balderis.
Final score: USSR 11, Canada 1.
And how did Canada respond to finding itself thrashed and demolished and paying for Soviet cruising?
Larouche called the winners the best team he’d ever seen. Phil Esposito was quoted calling them “a helluva hockey club.”
That’s as gracious as we got. On to self-doubt and recrimination.
“It was humiliating,” coach Wilson said.
GM Derek Holmes announced his disappointment, which was bitter.
Montreal’s Gazette topped its front page the next morning with the bad news, leading with a story that included the words worst drubbing, romped, embarrassingly easy, poor sportsmanship and shoddy play in the opening two paragraphs.
“The prestige and credibility of Canadian hockey was destroyed on the banks of the not-so-blue Danube,” George Gross wrote in The Toronto Sun. In the hours that followed, politicians in Ottawa took up the cry, with Ontario NDP MP Arnold Peters calling for Canadian hockey officials to be called to face a House of Commons committee to explain why we’d sent “second-rate players” to represent us.
The Minister of State for Fitness and Amateur Sport was in Vienna, Iona Campagnolo, and she said this wasn’t something the government would get involved in. She was concerned about the conduct of our players. “I really don’t care whether we lose 20-1 or 2-1,” she said, “as long as we do it in a fashion that portrays us as true sportsmen.”
She did think that the Austrian press was making too much fuss, and the wrong kind. “It almost looked exultant,” she said. “One of the headlines I read was Canada Executed.”
Günter Sabetzki, president of the IIHF was concerned. He suggested that plans for a 1980 Canada Cup might now have to be reviewed. “We are not at all happy with the team representing the country we all considered to be the father of hockey.”
Had they learned nothing from history? “In 1954,” he said, “when the Canadians went to Stockholm, they thought they couldn’t be beaten and they ended up losing to the Russians. They were drinking too much whisky. This Canadian representative is also lacking in conditioning. I do not know whether they are drinking too much whisky, but I have heard the reports.”
Canada did go on to post a 3-3 with the Czechs, the eventual champions. We finished fourth in the end, just behind the Soviets.
Back at the rout, Al Strachan of The Gazette was on hand to document Canada’s failure to heed Arthur Farrell’s 1899 guidance on going goon in a losing effort. Rod Gilbert “swung himself off his feet” taking a “a vicious two-handed swipe” of his stick at a passing Soviet, while Wilf Paiement “acted like a malicious buffoon” swinging his stick at, and connecting with, the head of another Soviet player. “I figured I might as well hit somebody,” he said, later, “maybe hurt somebody. I don’t know. I wanted to do anything to win.” Canada was down at the time by 8-0.
You’d think those Soviets would have shown show respect, but no, they kept on with the scoring. Having argued to avoid putting helmets on, some of the Canadian players now refused to remove them once the game was all over and the teams lined up to hear the victor’s national anthem.
Centre Walt McKechnie of the Detroit Red Wings was one such, and he later shared his reasoning. “I didn’t want to look at them,” he said. “I hate them. I don’t like their way of life. I don’t like anything about them. They stink. They’re great hockey players, you’ve got to give them that, but I hate everything about them. Am I supposed to stand there at attention when their flag is flying? Never in a million years. I’m no hypocrite.”